The word “overwatering” has become a controversial word in the houseplant world. It is a word used so for years, that we don’t even think about it, especially if you are a bit older, like myself.
It is fine to use “overwatering” to describe what may be going wrong with a plant. It’s not a bad word and describes what happens if a plant is watered too often. The plant is never allowed to dry out to some degree.
It actually describes the person applying the water. We should instead say that a plant is being killed by an “overwaterer”.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb overwater: to water (something) too much: to give too much water to (something).
As a verb, it implies something is being done to something by someone. Thus, it is a practice plant parents do to their plants.
Applying too much water too often is the beginning of a process that leads to other problems. Let’s find out how we can become better “water-ers”.
Check for Watering Needs
The first thing to do is to be cognizant of your plant’s water needs. Here is a post I wrote about one way you can tell if your plant is dry. The best way to determine if your plant needs water is to stick your finger in the soil. If it is dry up to about your first or second knuckle, it is time to give it a good drink.
That method works well for small plants, but if you have a large potted plant, a wooden dowel works better. It is hard to tell what is going on in the bottom of a large pot as it may be dry at the top and wet at the bottom.
Stick a wooden dowel in the pot to the bottom, leave it there for a minute or so, then pull it out. Water it thoroughly if the stick is dry and if it’s wet, don’t water and check again in a few days.
If there is leftover water in the saucer, make sure to empty it after 30 minutes. If the container is too large to move, use a turkey baster to suck the water out of the saucer.
Signs that your plant may be overwatered
There are some signs to look for that may indicate you are giving your plant too much water (overwatering). Yellow, limp, mushy leaves may result if your potting medium is staying too moist.
Your plant may drop new and old leaves because its root system isn’t able to support them. If the stem is mushy or dark-colored at the soil line, it may be experiencing crown rot.
Fungus gnats can indicate overwatering
Another indicator is the presence of those pesky little flying insects, fungus gnats. They love moist potting medium and will fly around your plants, dropping in your tea or coffee (believe me).
They are a nuisance. I tell my family they are fruit flies and that seems to go over better.
Watering is one aspect of plant care and it goes hand in hand with the choice of potting medium and the light levels. The health of your plant is all-important and can’t be ignored. If the plant doesn’t look “right” to you, there may be a problem.
Water is one of the things your plant needs to survive. It also needs light and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize and thrive.
Correct light is important
Placing your plant in the correct light makes all the difference. You will need to water more when a plant is in good light. It is photosynthesizing, and using water. If a plant is in low light, it will photosynthesize less and use less water
Potting medium to prevent overwatering
The potting medium chosen for houseplants needs to be a porous, well-drained material. Plant roots need oxygen and they get that from the pores between the soil particles.
If your potting medium is too heavy, it may not be allowing enough oxygen into the root space. Heavy potting medium has small air pores, defined as low porosity.
A potting medium that has low porosity stays wet too long. It is causing a low-oxygen environment (anaerobic).
There are microorganisms that love anaerobic environments. They are responsible for most cases of root and crown rot. If the pores are full of water, it pushes the oxygen out and the roots won’t receive any oxygen.
The carbon dioxide or by-product of the root system can build up and kill the roots. Macropores or larger pores between the soil particles are better. So how do you accomplish that? Read on.
The left picture below shows the potting medium from the bag. It is an example of the potting mix bought at your local garden center or big box.
This helps the porosity of the medium. Adding amendments creates larger areas between the soil particles called macropores. This helps with oxygen in the root system.
There are many other amendments that could be used, but that will be a post for another day. I’ve found I have good luck with using these two easy-to-find amendments.
Containers and Drainage
Another important concept that will help with overwatering is the container you choose. Many containers come without drainage holes. Not good! I recommend you use those as cachepots (French for “hide-a-pot”).
Keep your plant in its original utilitarian pot and place it in the pot without a drainage hole (cachepot). Take it out to water, let it drain, and return it to the cachepot. That way your plant is never standing in water.
Unless you are an experienced plant parent, I don’t recommend using a pot without a drainage hole.
Drainage Hole to prevent overwatering
I am a huge advocate of drilling a hole in a pot and I use a diamond-tipped drill bit and have never broken a pot (knock on wood). I drill it in the sink with the water running on the pot as the bit gets hot.
It works well, making a perfect-sized hole in a small pot. If your container is larger than 6-8″, I would drill more than one hole.
This allows the water to run through the pot drawing air down through the root ball. I don’t use drainage material such as pebbles as that hinders drainage. Instead, I place a piece of screen over the hole to keep the potting medium in and yet allow the excess water out.
The right sized pot helps with overwatering
When it is time to up-pot your plant, choose a pot that is only one size larger than its previous home.
If you choose a too-large pot, the excess potting medium will stay too wet. The roots won’t be able to use all the extra water, causing the roots to rot.
Can a waterlogged plant be saved?
If you have allowed your plant to become too wet, you may need to take drastic measures to save it. It depends on how long it has been too wet. Read about how I did that with a waterlogged fern here.
It may be too late in some instances, but I was able to tell by examining the plant that there was a good chance of saving it, which I did until scale insects took it out….
My opinion about overwatering
In my opinion, overwatering is a word that still has its place in the houseplant world. It simply means that you are not allowing your plant to dry out between waterings. Your plant may be standing in water for too long a time.
Make sure your plant is in the correct potting medium and the best light. It needs to photosynthesize and use the water given.
The right potting medium, light, and water will make for a happy plant and plant parent.
Have a great week, plant friends!
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