Taking the mystery out of watering

 You wouldn’t think something plants require to live could also kill them, and does a lot of the time. What am I talking about? Water. Let’s talk about, in my estimation, the hardest part of keeping a houseplant happy and healthy. I’ve found that water is the number one killer of unsuspecting houseplants. It may be too much or too little that takes the life of the plant. 

watering cans

Watering cans

Is there a wrong way to water a plant?

Yes, there is. I used to give my plants just a small amount of water, especially when watering cacti and other succulents, thinking I was going to overwater and kill them. I’ve since learned that a plant should always be watered until the water runs from the hole in the bottom of the pot. This allows the soil to become moistened clear to the bottom and encourages the roots to reach deeper. When watering with small amounts of water, the roots stay near the top of the pot where the moisture is. Also, after you water the plant and the excess water has exited the drainage hole, do not leave the plant standing in this water longer than 30 minutes. Whatever is left after the plant has used as much water as it needs, dump out. If the container is too heavy, use a turkey baster to suck the water out of the saucer. Watering thoroughly like this means you may not have to water again for a long time, depending on the plant type. You may have to water the next week. 

What if my container doesn’t have a hole?
What do I do? I say get the masonry bit out or my favorite, a diamond-tipped drill bit, and drill a hole in the container.

diamond-tipped drill bit

Use a diamond-tipped drill bit to make a drainage hole

If that isn’t possible, then leave your plant in its grow pot (the pot it came in from the nursery) and set it inside the pot with no hole. When you water it, remove it from the cachepot (French for ‘hiding a pot’), and take it to the sink to water it. Well, you ask, what if I put drainage material such as gravel in the bottom of the pot? That will help, right? NO! Never use gravel or any other kind of “drainage” material in the pot or cover the drainage hole. I addressed that concept here. I use a piece of window screen over the hole of my pots which allows the water to leave but the soil to stay.

screen over drainage hole

I use a small piece of window screen over the drainage hole.

How often to water

And how do I know it is time to water? I don’t believe in ever watering a plant on a schedule. It depends on the temperature, the time of year, if the sun has been shining, what kind of plant it is, and its particular needs as far as water is concerned. Is it a cactus or a plant that lives in moist soil? There are many ways of deciding whether to water your plant or not. One is the use of a water meter. This consists of a probe that is inserted into the soil and it then sends a reading of dry or wet to the meter. Another way is to lift your container after watering. It will be heavy, as it has just been watered. Lift it the next week and if it is still quite heavy, don’t water. If it is light, water it. Pretty simple.  My preferred method, though is to stick my finger in the soil. If it is dry up to my second knuckle, I water it.

What kind of water to use
Another must, in my opinion, is the use of lukewarm or room temperature water. I don’t believe in using cold water and especially NOT ice! I know some people swear by it, but I don’t recommend it. I always ask people at my presentations if they would like ice dumped on their toes. They almost always say no. I rest my case. 

When to water
The next consideration is the time of day chosen to water. I try to water in the morning so that if any water gets on the leaves, it can dry before night time. I also think picking a sunny day is preferable, but here in Michigan, in the winter, that can be an impossible task. 

Give them a shower

showering plants

Put your plants in the shower. They’ll appreciate it!

A fantastic way to water and your plants will love it, is to put them in the shower. This gets rid of any dust that has collected on the plant and waters them at the same time.

Watering a plant in the sink

Put your plant in the sink and rinse it off or the shower if your plant is larger.

Wick watering

The next few pictures show a type of watering practice called wick watering. The first picture is a Dandy Pot. The wick, which is some type of acrylic string, goes from the pot into a reservoir of water and the water travels up the wick into the soil and keeps the plant moist. Mostly this type of watering is used for African violets but can be used for any plant. 

Dandy pots

Dandy pots

Homemade wick watering

The next three pictures are also a type of wick watering. This is a homemade wick watering set up. These are deli containers with 2 holes drilled in them. One is for the wick to go into and the other is to make it easy to pour the water in. When making your own wick watering system, the wick will be a piece of acrylic yarn. If you buy a skein of yarn that is 4 ply (that means 4 small pieces of yarn are combined to make one), you must peel two plies off. If used as 4 plies, it will keep your plant too wet.

Mat Watering

The next three pictures are of the mat watering technique. The tray obviously needs to be hole free. The mat is an acrylic blanket cut to the size of the water holding receptacle. Set the plants on the mat and add water. The plants suck the water up from the acrylic blanket. I check mine weekly and add water.

Self-watering pots

This final type of wick watering is a self-watering pot. It has an unglazed pot that the plant is planted in and it sits in a glazed pot that has water in it. The water seeps through the unglazed pot and keeps the plant moist.


The wick and mat watering techniques take the mystery out of watering.  The main concern with this type of watering is the soil used. It has to be a fast-draining soil. If the soil used is too heavy, the plants will rot. I mix my own soil mixes, but that is a subject for another post.

I hope I’ve covered watering techniques in a way that is understandable and easy. People who think they don’t have a green thumb only need to conquer their ineptitude when watering.  It really is the key to growing happy, healthy plants.

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