If you’re like most new plant parents, you’re wondering how and when to water your plants.
They’re common concerns.
The problem is, many variables can affect a plant’s watering needs. Anything from the type of plant, to the type of soil, to even the pot size.
Watering is a basic part of good plant care. So, worrying you’ll mess up is understandable.
And, you’re not alone. Most plant parents, at some point, have watering issues. Myself included. I’ve killed two of these adorable pickle plants with improper watering. Believe me, it wasn’t a pretty site.
Thankfully, there’s no need to let water fears get the better of you.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into watering indoor plants. You’ll learn the do’s and don’ts of watering, and what may or may not work for your plant buddies.
By the end, you’ll feel confident when it comes to watering your indoor plants.
- Signs of Improper Watering
- How to Water Indoor Plants
- Type of Plant
- Plant’s Location
- Top vs Bottom Watering
- Watering Small vs Large Plants
- Morning vs Evening Watering
- Watering Plants During Different Seasons
- Plant Pots & Soil
- Water Quality & Type
Guide to Watering Indoor Plants
Plants, like people, need water to live.
Basically, plants draw water from the soil into their roots. This water travels through the plant and helps with photosynthesis. Any excess water then evaporates through tiny holes in the plant’s leaves, through a process called transpiration.
This water is critical for a plant’s growth and development, and a whole host of other functions.
So, let’s learn about watering your houseplants.
1. Signs of Improper Watering
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of watering, let’s look at some signs of improper watering.
In general, watch for the following,
- Yellowing or browning leaves
- Droopy leaves
- Lack of growth
- Rotting roots
Tip: Yellow leaves on the bottom of a plant can be a sign of too little water. If the plant isn’t getting enough, it’ll save the water for the new growth up top and let the older, bottom leaves die. Yellow leaves all over, however, can be a sign of too much water.
A plant’s survival depends on water, but that doesn’t mean watering has to be complicated.
The fact is, plants will often tell you when you’re not watering properly.
Look at my peace lily here. See how droopy she is?
But a good drink of water and she’s perked back up. (Peace lilies can be quite the drama queens!)
2. How to Water Your Indoor Plants
Over time, you’ll get to know your plant’s watering needs. But with a new plant, you’ll first need to do a little sleuthing to find out when it’s thirsty.
Start by testing the soil.
Using your finger, a dull probe or a moisture tester (like this one) see how wet the soil is a couple of inches down.
Don’t judge by the dryness of the soil’s surface only.
Although the top of the soil may look and feel dry, down below, where the roots sit, it can still be quite wet. And most roots don’t like being wet all the time.
Whether using your finger or a probe, if it comes out with soil sticking to it, don’t water yet.
And when watering, if possible use a watering can with a longer spout.
A longer spout is better at helping you direct the water where it needs to go.
Tip – Looking to conserve water? Reuse leftover water from cooked pasta, potatoes, or veggies. It’s good for your plants, the environment, and your budget! Just make sure it’s unsalted water.
3. Type of Plant
The type of plant will make a big difference in how often you water. For example, tropical plants, like a philodendron or monstera, have different watering needs than a cactus.
Tip: In general, thicker leaves mean the plant needs watering less often. Because thick leaves retain more water.
Think about succulents and cacti. Their leaves are usually thick. In their native environment water is scarce, so they must hold onto that water longer.
Whereas tropical plants live in moister climates. Here, water is much more plentiful. So there’s no need to hoard water.
A good idea is to do a little research on your plant.
Is its native environment humid or arid? Knowing your plant’s natural living conditions will help determine how often to water.
4. Your Plant’s Location
But don’t just consider the native environment. Take a look at its home environment as well.
In other words, where is it located in your house?
A plant sitting beside a south-facing, sunny window will use water faster than a plant sitting near a north-facing, cooler window.
Remember, a plant uses water for photosynthesis. The closer a plant is to a light source, the more chance for photosynthesis. And that means more water.
But light doesn’t just affect photosynthesis. Light also affects how much water the plant loses through its leaves. The closer your plant is to a sunny, warm window, the more water it will lose.
Tip: If you’ve overwatered your plant, move it to a brighter area. This will encourage it to use more water.
Lastly, if you have several plants, don’t automatically give everybody a drink on the same schedule.
I used to water all my plants once a week, like clockwork – whether they needed it or not!
I realize now this was a bad idea. And one of the main reasons why some of my plants thrived while others only did so-so.
Nowadays, I check my plants twice a week to see whether or not they actually need a drink.
5. Top vs Bottom Watering Your Plant
There are two ways you can water your houseplants – from the top or the bottom.
Each way has pros and cons, and you’ll find different plant parents often favor one over the other.
We’ll touch on both here, so you can get a feel for the difference.
Just remember, though, the important thing is you’re watering (and not overwatering) your plant, regardless of which method you pick.
Top Watering Your Plant
Top watering is the most common way people water their plants.
With this method, the water is poured onto the top of the soil so it can soak down into the soil. Personally, this is my preferred way of watering.
When watering from the top, there are a few dos and don’ts you should keep in mind.
1. Do water from the base of the plant, directly onto the soil. Many plants don’t like their leaves wet. And constantly watering on top of the leaves can encourage disease.
2. Don’t pour water onto the crown of the plant. This is the area where the plant’s stems gather above the soil. Water can sit and pool in the crown which can lead to your plant rotting.
3. Do water fully around the base of the plant vs watering only to one side. This helps the water soak in more evenly throughout the soil and the roots won’t have to reach out to the watered side. Roots that grow to one side are weaker support for the plant.
4. Don’t just dribble a few drops onto the soil. Small amounts of water, even if given often, will encourage the roots will stay near the top of the soil. Again this makes the roots a weaker support system. Plus they won’t be getting down into the soil for all those tasty nutrients.
5. Do give your plant a good soaking, letting any excess water escape through the drainage holes. Remember, you want those roots going deep and the water reaching those roots. Make sure you empty any water from the pot’s saucer.
What if There Are No Drainage Holes?
Pots with no drainage are trickier to manage.
Although it’s best to find a pot with drainage, especially if you’re a new plant parent, sometimes that’s not possible.
In this case, pour water slowly around the base of the plant. Use less water than you would if the pot had drainage.
Now, let the water soak in. If it soaks in and dries quickly, then you can dribble a little more onto the soil.
What you don’t want is water sitting and pooling in the soil. Because eventually, that water will soak down to the bottom of the pot where it has nowhere to go except to sit and pool around the roots. And soggy roots can lead to root rot.
Pros vs Cons of Top Watering Your Plants
|Usually the easier of the two methods.||Can drain the soil of nutrients.|
|Helps wash away salts that might be building in the soil.||Some plants won’t tolerate wet leaves.|
|Can help with pest control as top watering could wash away pest eggs. Constant overwatering, though, can encourage fungus gnats.||Not be ideal for compacted soil. With compacted soil, water drains straight through without actually wetting the soil or roots.|
|Easier to overwater your plant, especially if the pot has no drainage.|
Bottom Watering Your Plant
Bottom watering means the plant absorbs water from the bottom of the pot.
The pot sits in the water and the plant’s roots soak up that water through the drainage holes as needed. Obviously, this method can’t be used with a pot with no drainage holes.
There are several ways you can bottom water your plant.
You can fill up each plant’s individual saucer. Or, you can fill a large tray with water and place multiple plants on the tray to soak up the water.
Some people even fill up a bathtub and place the plants in there. However, I imagine this would be a messy method.
No matter what you use as your “tub”, let the plant sit in the water for about 10 minutes. Then check the soil for moisture under the surface.
If it’s still dry, let the plant soak for another 10 minutes or so. Keep checking regularly until the moisture reaches near the top of the soil.
Don’t forget about your plant and let it sit all day in the water.
Once the soil is moist, remove the plant or drain the water from the saucer.
Pros vs Cons of Bottom Watering
|Less chance of overwatering your plant.||Is more time-consuming and more work.|
|Good for plants that don’t tolerate wet leaves.||Cannot use with all types of pots.|
|Ensures the water is getting to all the roots, which encourages the roots to spread.||Mineral and salt deposits can build up in the soil since the soil is not being flushed. One solution to this problem is to periodically top water your plant.|
|Can help with pests such as fungus gnats.||Can waste more water.|
If you habitually overwater your plants, bottom watering might be a good option for you.
Place a smaller saucer under your plant, one that leaves little wriggle room for the pot. Since the saucer only holds a limited amount of water, it’s much harder to overwater your plant.
As I said, some plants are very fussy about their leaves getting wet. If you have such a plant, then consider bottom watering.
I didn’t know much about watering plants when I had my African Violet. If I had, I would’ve bottom watered. He didn’t survive my top watering.
6. Watering Small vs Large Plants – Is There a Difference?
Plant size does make a difference with watering.
In general, smaller plants dry out faster. And this makes sense.
Smaller plants live in smaller pots (or at least they should). Therefore, there’s less soil to retain water.
In addition, smaller, younger plants still have some growing up to do. They need watering consistency for growth and strength.
Larger, older plants, on the other hand, are more established. They’re better able to withstand stressors of watering inconsistencies.
Plus, they live in larger pots with more soil that can hold more water.
All this is to say, the smaller plant in the smaller pot will likely need water more often than the larger plant in the larger pot. This is true, even if the two are the same species of plant.
7. Watering Morning vs Evening – Does Time of Day Matter?
In general, it’s better to water in the morning.
During the day, temperatures are warmer. So your plant stands a greater chance of drying out as the day goes on.
This is especially helpful in preventing moisture from hanging around on the leaves or on top of the soil where it can invite disease.
But, if nighttime is the only time available to you, don’t fret. It’s not the end of the world if you need to water at night.
8. Watering Your Indoor Plants During Different Seasons
The seasons, as well as where you live, will affect how frequently you water your indoor plants.
Plants need water more often during the spring and summer.
Not only is this the time when your plant grows, but spring and summer also bring warmer temperatures. This means the soil will dry out quicker.
Tip – collect rainwater and use this to water your plants. Not only is it coming from Mother Nature, but you’ll also help reduce water use and waste.
Too, where your plant lives can affect its watering cycle.
If you live in a dry region, or your house is on the drier side, then you may need to water more often.
Whereas, plants in a home or location with more humidity will retain water longer.
For most plants, their water needs slow down during fall and winter. Winter is a time of dormancy for a plant, so it’s not growing as fast.
Too, there’s less sun, which means less heat to dry out your plant.
However, as I said above, the drier your house the quicker water will evaporate.
If your house is dry from winter heating or your plant sits near a heating vent, it may dry out sooner than plants sitting away from a heating source.
As fall and winter approach, keep an eye on your plant and adjust your watering schedule as needed.
Lastly, northern climates will have shorter warm seasons vs southern climates. If you live in a northern climate, as I do, your watering schedule can change more quickly and frequently with seasonal changes.
9. Plant Pot & Soil
Just as large and small plants have different water needs, pot size can also affect watering.
In general, the larger the pot, the longer it takes the soil to dry out. Keep in mind, though, this also depends on the plant type and size.
And, speaking of plant size, it’s really important your pot is not too big for your plant.
Plants sitting in too large a pot can easily be overwatered.
Because a larger pot holds more moisture, if the plant is too small for the pot, it can’t absorb all that moisture. The roots then end up sitting in consistently wet soil.
Using too large a pot is a very common mistake.
I strongly recommend using a pot with drainage holes. It can save you a lot of headaches, especially if you’re a new plant owner.
Image cache pot (mine either bear pot or cache pot) align
If you’re using a cache pot (a decorative pot that your plain drainage pot sits in) make sure to empty your cache pot after each watering. Otherwise, water can collect on the bottom of that cache pot. And this can lead to an overwatered plant.
And be extra vigilant if you’re using a cache pot outside during the summer. Check that pot regularly, or better yet, take the plant out of the cache pot if rain is expected.
I learned this the hard way. I discovered my croton plant floating and bobbing above its cache pot rim after a heavy rainfall! Luckily, crotons like moister soil and he survived. For the remainder of the season, though, the nursery pot came out of the cache pot.
If you want to learn more about pots and which pot is right for your plant, then check out my article on the subject.
If you or your plant likes bottom watering, then consider a self-watering pot, like this one from Amazon.
Self-watering pots have a reservoir and use a wicking action to wick water from the reservoir into the soil.
So, instead of watering your plant directly, you fill the reservoir. To learn more about self-watering pots check out this post from Smart Garden Guide.
But it’s not only size and drainage you need to consider. The material of the pot can also affect how often you water.
For example, clay pots dry out soil quicker than ceramic pots.
Take a look at my two tradescantias.
They’re the same type of plant (and actually come from the same mother plant). Both have the same soil moisture preferences. Yet, I water these two plants differently.
The one on the left is a smaller plant in a smaller pot. And, on top of that, it’s in a clay pot. It needs water weekly.
In contrast, the larger one is in a ceramic pot. He needs water about every two weeks.
Tip: To help gauge if your plant needs water, lift the pot to see how heavy it is. A heavy pot (at least heavier than you expect) can signal there’s still moisture beneath the soil’s surface.
Depending on their makeup, some soils drain more quicker than others.
Mixes, like cactus soil, contain materials such as sand. Water drains faster from these soils.
On the other hand, denser soils with a lot of organic matter tend to hold water longer.
The dryness of your soil can also affect how quickly the soil drains.
With very dry, compacted soil, water can run right out of the pot without actually moistening the soil properly. In other words, your soil can become hydrophobic.
A gap between the edge of the pot and the soil can indicate compacted soil.
If your soil is compacted, try gently breaking up the soil with a dull edged instrument such as the eraser end of a pencil. Don’t use anything sharp as you may accidentally cut the roots.
Another option is to bottom water your plant for a few hours.
This article from Essential Home And Garden explains further how to loosen compacted soils.
Lastly, if you’ve topped dressed your soil, meaning you’ve put a layer of decorative rocks along the top of the soil, it’ll dry out slower. This is because layering the soil with rocks and the like stalls evaporation.
10. Water Quality & Type
Sometimes, you do everything right.
You look into your plant’s natural environment. You closely monitor the soil. You water as recommended.
But yet, your plant’s tips are browning and he’s just not looking quite right.
What’s going on?
In this case, it could be the type of water you’re using.
Tap water often contains salts and minerals, such as fluorides, which over time can build up in the soil.
Some plants are more sensitive to these minerals and you’ll find their tips browning or yellowing even though you’re watering correctly.
To help get around this problem, here are two things you can do.
- Fill up your water jug and let it sit for at least 24 hours before using the water. Some minerals, like chlorine, will evaporate during this period.
- Use distilled or filtered water.
It’s important to keep your plant’s needs in mind when deciding on your water.
Some plants, like carnivorous plants, won’t tolerate tap water. They must have distilled water.
Others, like air plants, won’t tolerate distilled or filtered water. They need the minerals in tap water.
Lastly, if you use a water softening system in your home, don’t use your tap water. This water will have too much salt for your plants.
Although several things can affect how you water indoor plants, the main trick is getting to know your plant and learning how it interacts in your home environment.
And that takes a little time.
In the meanwhile, resist the urge to overwater. In most cases, it’s better for your plant to be a bit drier than to be too wet.
If you found this guide on watering indoor plants helpful, feel free to share it with your friends.