How and When to Water Your Houseplants




Introduction: How and When to Water Your Houseplants

About: I work at instructables by day, and turn into a stitch witch by night. follow me on instagram @jessyratfink to see what i'm working on! ^_^

In the last couple years, I have turned into a bit of a plant lady. I bought a tiny haworthia attenuata from a grocery store in 2016 and somehow kept it alive - and it thrived! And then I bought an aloe and that went well. Once I realized I might not be a serial killer of plants anymore, I bought a string of bananas in early 2017. That string of bananas is now as long as I am tall!

And then all hell broke loose and now my house is filling with plants. I've got a few pothos, some snake plants, a huge bromeliad, a dumbcane, umbrella trees, spider plants, calatheas, peperomias, aloes, parlor palms and allllllll the tiny succulents.

The major thing I discovered this time around in my houseplant adventures is that watering can be both the best thing for your plants and also the worst. In the past, I had essentially watered my plants to death OR completely abandoned them until they dried up. There was really no in between because I didn't understand It's so important to watch your plants for signs they need water instead of watering on a set schedule.

How often you water your plants will depends on their preferences, but it will also depend on a huge number of other variables. Pot size and type, temperature, humidity, light levels, season of the year: all of these things will change how often your plant needs water.

Step 1: Tools to Water Your Plants

You can get as fancy as you want with this and buy yourself allllll the watering accessories, or you can do it my way and use what you have around the house. :)

Things you'll need for watering:

  • Measuring cup OR watering can
  • Sink, bathtub, or large receptacle to catch water runoff
  • Appropriate water for your plants - I have a well, so I use that water for everything! If you have city water, you may want to filter it.
  • Soil moisture meter
  • Wooden skewers or chopsticks

Step 2: Checking When to Water Plants by Weight

This is the most common way I decide how to water: by picking the pots up and seeing if they're light!

As you can see from the photos above, there's a considerable difference in weight when a plant is completely dry versus when it has just been watered! This weight difference may be a little tricky to discern at first, but it will become easier with time.

I typically check my plants every other day, walking around and picking up each pot and evaluating the weight. (I also take this time to rotate my plants so every side gets the same amount of light!) If a pot is light and ready for water, I take it to the kitchen sink where I water everyone assembly-line style. :D

Step 3: Checking When to Water Plants With a Moisture Meter

For beginning gardeners, I can't recommend this enough - get yourself a moisture meter! Pairing a moisture meter with other methods of checking to see if a plant is ready to water will make you an expert in no time. It'll also keep you from "loving" your plants to death by watering them too much.

A moisture meter is especially helpful for hanging plants, plants with a top dressing or plants that are too heavy too lift!

When using a moisture meter, insert the tip of the probe near the roots of the plant for the most accurate read results.

Step 4: Using a Chopstick to Check If a Plant Needs Water

This is a great low tech way to figure out if your soil is wet or dry: using a clean wooden skewer or chopstick to check!

Gently insert the skewer into the soil, pushing it down into the bottom of the pot. If the skewer is clean, your soil is dry. If the skewer comes out dirty, you'll know the soil is still moist or even wet.

(Of course, you can use your fingers too - this is just less invasive!)

Step 5: Other Ways to Tell a Plant Needs Water

Once you've had a plant for a long time, you'll be able to tell when it needs water just by looking at it.

Many plants get droopy leaves and stems when it's time for water. You can see that in action in the above photo - typically my golden pothos leaves stand up straight and tall on their stems, but when it's thirsty it starts to look wilted.

Some plants are more obvious about this than others!

Succulents and cacti tend to show another basic sign they need water: they'll go slightly soft and get wrinkled. Once they're given a drink they'll plump back up to their normal size.

Step 6: How to Water Your Plants the Right Way

Once you've checked to see if the plant needs watering, it's time to get down to business!

The most important part of watering is making sure you wet the soil all the way through so that the roots get fully saturated. The only sure way to do this is to use a pot with drainage holes and water until you see runoff from the bottom of the pot.

I typically like to water over my sink, but I'm using a large bowl here to catch the runoff. (I also use a bowl if I want to water a hanging plant without taking it down)

I pour water gently onto the soil until the water reaches the top edge of the pot, and then I let the water sink into the soil. I repeat this process until I see runoff. Don't worry if the runoff isn't clear - that's normal! Once runoff has started, hold the plant over your receptacle until it stops dripping.

Keep in mind that some plants react badly to water sitting on their leaves and/or stems, so be careful to water the soil more than the actual plant. ;)

Step 7: Watering From the Bottom of the Pot

Some folks swear by watering from the bottom of the pot, so I thought I'd cover this method of watering too!

This method of watering is used for delicate plants that get water damaged easily or for plants with soil that is SUPER dry. I see many folks saying they love watering their succulents and cacti this way, though I admit I'm normally too scattered to do it. :D

In order to water from the bottom, place your plant into a large bowl or plant saucer and pour water around the pot. Let it sit for up to an hour (depending on the size of the pot and how dry the soil is) and then let the plant drain as normal.

If it's your first time watering a plant this way, I recommend double checking with a moisture meter to make sure you've sufficiently wet the soil.

Step 8: Understanding Watering Succulents and Cactus

Like any other plant, how often you water a succulent or cactus will depend on the season, the size of the pot its in, the temperature, the humidity, and the light it gets. Succulents and cacti like to be watered like your typical houseplant: deeply and until runoff is achieved.

The main difference here is that succulents and cacti like to go much longer in between waterings. A good way to think about this is to consider how they live in their natural environments. Succulents and cacti thrive in rocky, sandy, and dry areas with very little rainfall, so they're used to getting one big drink every once in a while.

While I may water a pothos once a week, a succulent in a comparable size pot may only be watered every 2-3 weeks. However, I also have many tiny succulents in little pots on my windowsills. If the temperature is high and the sun is intense, I can sometimes even water them more than once a week.

In winter, you'll want to water even less often. Many cacti and succulents go dormant during the winter due to colder temperatures and shorter days. Even though they're inside, I water mine less.

In general good watering for succulents and cacti come down to one major rule: never, ever water until the soil is completely dry. They have very shallow roots and are extremely susceptible to root rot, so it is very important to let them have a dry period between waterings.



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    18 Discussions

    Be careful about Streptocarpus as they droop their leaves if they get too much water. "Oops I've not watered enough, let's give it some more !!". No, they come from dry South Africa.

    Thanks for this tutorial

    I would recommend ALWAYS change solid from store soil. It is almost always not appropriate for the plant...unless you purchased from a true nursery as opposed to a box store...sometimes even then. Most cactus and succulents need a very well draining soil. My mixture has particle size of no less than 3-4 mm. This allows for FAST draining. I'd rather water more often with quick burst of water than have it sit in a peat based soil that becomes hydrophobic when completely dry.

    Also, if you bottom water, every once in a while, you need to do a seriously long top water to flush any salts out of the soil...especially if you have a water softener filtration system. There are so many additives in city water, that even if you let chlorine evaporate, the salt build up will kill your plant. If you have cradsula ogata or other "leaf) type succulents, you will start to see white dots in the "pores" of the leaves as it tries to sweat out the excess salt. For sure, make sure you have a very sunny spot of you're keeping your succulents indoors as almost all like a LOT of light.

    How much water a plant needs is a complex matter. It depends on how much sun the plant gets, what the average temperature is, the kind of plant, what kind of pot it has, how large or how small the plant and the pot are, and of course, the kind of plant. It even matters how you water the plant.

    Some cacti for example will die if you regularly water them by putting water in the tray and letting the soil suck it up from the bottom - they absolutely need to be watered from the top. Tillandsia needs dry soil and you have to water it so that small pools form at the base of the leafs - but only once in a while, so as the pools not to completely dry out. If you only water the soil, they will wrap up all their leaves into a green stick, and not do much vegetation. Lithops need watering only six months of the year - spring and end of summer to early autumn. Water them once in winter and they will die.

    Tools don't tell you much unless you correlate that with all the other factors. Best thing to do is find some caring instructions, stick to them for a while, then experiment by slightly varying the watering process - just slightly, and slowly, to have enough time to observe the effect of the changes on the plant. Each plant has different preferences, even plants of the same kind may like different watering. There's no one size fits all.

    1 reply

    I think that was made pretty clear based on all the different methods discussed. It is stated with bottom watering not to leave them on water indefinitely. It says for only 1 hour and then let drain. I've watered almost ever indoor succulent this way and never had one die. My round cacti that i have extremely underpotted because they like that have no soil visible for me to top water so i bottom water similar to described here. Now if I left it soaking indefinitely, it would be bad news. I do always change my soul and have a particle size greater than 4 to 5 mm for my mixture. That could be why the method works.

    Great instructable Jessy! I've been looking for a moisture meter! Some one should invent an inexpensive scale for every potted plant I have so I can water a plant back to the perfect weight. This would prevent over and under watering.

    This is not the first article of yours that I have enjoyed. Keep it up.


    2 replies

    You just gave me an idea. I have a P-Touch label maker that makes small waterproof labels. If you weigh a plant that you have determined is ready to be watered, then make a label with that weight (in grams) and attach it to the pot. I have a postal scale. Place a saucer on the scale and zero it out. Then place the pot on the saucer and weigh it. If it weighs the same or less than the label, time to water the plant. You will have to change the label pretty often as the plant grows.

    For myself, if the plant has no topdressing, and is in a peat or coir based soil, I can tell at a glance how much moisture is in the pot from the color of the soil surface. A freshly watered pot is the color of wet coffee grounds. As it dries out, the color gets progressively lighter. Experience over time will tell you when the color gets light enough to indicate a need for water. Cacti need to get very light, while African violets need to be almost constantly moist. (never wet).

    Thank you! Hopefully I'll be publishing many more plant instructables. :)

    Great tips; I'm becoming a bit of a plant lady myself so this info is very useful. I always manage to kill off my string of pearls so I'll definitely try the water from the bottom technique!

    1 reply

    I keep hearing how fickle string of pearls can be! I'm working with my first one now and hoping I don't murder it hahaha

    I'm known for my "black plant-killer thumbs". I think I kill most of them from misguided affection that says more water is better! Thanks for setting me straight! I've put a moisture meter on my "git" list & hopefully my plants will start thriving like your lovely ones!

    Great tutorial,...much appreciated!

    1 reply

    You're welcome! I definitely feel you on overwatering. I kept thinking I wasn't paying enough attention to them if I didn't water all the time when I first started. :P

    When people ask my mom (a "Master Gardener") why their xyz plant died, she always answers,

    "Well, you either over watered it, or under watered it".

    "How do I know which?"

    "You really can't tell."

    1 reply

    hahaha! I come across this too. I always tell people they should have asked before it turned brown. :P


    2 months ago

    At last a clear explanation. After years of destruction and accompanying guilt! Heartfelt thanks.

    Love this information.

    My wife and I are terrible with plants and this should help greatly!

    Great article, Ms. Plant Lady :-) Butt... I was baffled by that "string of bananas" comment - had to Google it :-) Anyway, well done on the best ways to water your houseplants. Yes, good to have that moisture meter and also check your plants every few days. I have found soaking the pot in water works best for me, since watering from the top can just allow the water to run through the pot. I also found that put a few ice cubes in the top of the pot can help water the soil slowly, solving that run through problem. Thanks for your article.