With the popularity of houseplants these days, it seems like a lot of people who want to grow indoor jungles aren’t sure how to tell if their plants need to be watered. Your plants can’t speak up and tell you they could really use a drink, but if you know what to look for, it’s pretty straightforward to figure out when they need water. So I thought I’d share some ways to help you learn how to tell if it’s time to water your plants.
First, you should schedule a day, at least once a week, to check the moisture level of your plants. Make a calendar reminder if you don’t trust yourself, or have a history of forgetting to water. The warmer the temperature, drier the air, or brighter the light, the more often you should check, so you may need to adjust your schedule seasonally. Soil in terracotta pots will also dry out faster than the soil in plastic or glazed pots.
Since overwatering is usually worse than underwatering, if you use one of the methods below to check whether your plant needs to be watered, and you’re still not quite sure the soil has dried out, wait another day and check again. This goes double for cacti and succulents. The exceptions to this rule are super water-sensitive diva plants like maidenhair ferns. I go the other way with those, watering them even if I’m not sure that they need water. Over time you’ll gradually get a feel for which plants are likely to need water more often.
Before I get into how to tell whether your plants need to be watered, the second important thing to know is how to water. For the vast majority of plants, the best way to water is to saturate the soil with room temperature water, letting the excess water drain out the holes in the bottom of the pot. If you don’t have drainage holes in the bottom of your pot, you should. Go drill some, or switch pots. Or if you have drainage holes in an inner pot inside a cachepot, either take the inner pot out and water the plant over a sink, or dump excess water out of the cachepot.
Pretty straightforward so far, right? Let’s get to the watering indicators!
1. Feel the soil
This is the easiest, most reliable, low-tech way to tell if your plant needs to be watered. Stick your finger in the soil 2-3 inches deep, and if it’s dry, your plant needs water. You could water your plants using only this method to check when they need water, but sometimes you don’t want to get your hands dirty, or you have plants that are hard to reach. So read on for other indicators that it’s time to water your plants.
2. Soil stick
If you don’t want to get your hands dirty checking soil moisture, get yourself a cheap, unfinished wood chopstick, and poke it down into the soil. Think of it like a cake tester: If the soil sticks and darkens the wood, it’s still wet, and if the stick emerges dry, without any wet soil stuck to it, it’s probably time to water. If you don’t have any chopsticks, you can also use a wood dowel, about the size of a chopstick or pencil, sharpened to a point on one end. One advantage of this method over using your fingers is that you can get the stick deeper into the pot.
3. Leaf droop
Some plants get all droopy when they’re dry. It’s best to water them just before this point, otherwise you risk brown, crispy leaf tips. Rex begonias and African violets get floppy leaves when they need to be watered, and spider plants tend to droop and sometimes lighten in color when their soil is dry. If you’re putting a plant in a spot where it’s not easy to check whether the soil is dry, like on a high shelf, you might want to stick with a plant type that gives you a visual indicator that it needs water (and is pretty resilient).
4. Soil weight and color
A plant with wet soil weighs more than a plant with dry soil. Pick the plant up and feel its weight. Wet soil is darker than dry soil, so observe the color, too. The pot on the left with the lighter soil in the photo above has dry soil, and the one on the right has just been watered. Look at the edges of the soil to see whether it’s pulling away from the pot–if it is, it’s probably past time to water!
5. Moisture meter
I’ve never actually used one of these, but a moisture meter is the most scientific way to find out whether your soil is dry. You just stick it in the soil, and read the meter. (This particular one looks cool because it also can check the pH and light levels–I need to add it to my plant wish-list or plant lady gift guide!)
I hope this is helpful to any new plant-parents out there, and please let me know if you have any plant questions! If you can’t already tell, I’m a big plant nerd who is always happy to talk about them. Want more plant tips? You might want be interested in How to NOT Kill Your Houseplants, Spring Cleaning for Your Plants, or my Guide to Easy Plant Propagation.
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