The word “overwatering” has become a word that many plant parents feel is a controversial word in the houseplant world. I think it is just a word that has been used so commonly for years, that we don’t even think about it, especially if you are a bit older, like myself. In my opinion, it is perfectly fine to use overwatering to describe what may be going wrong with a plant. It’s not a bad word and perfectly describes what happens if a plant is watered too frequently, never allowing the plant to dry out to some degree.
Here’s how Merriam-Webster 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 done by some plant parents to their plants. Overwatering is just the beginning of a process that leads to other problems beginning with too much water. 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 and if it is dry up to about your first or second knuckle, it is probably 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 clear to the bottom and leave it there for a minute or so and 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 water too frequently. Yellow, limp, mushy leaves may result if your potting medium is staying too moist and 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. Another indicator is the presence of those pesky little flying insects, fungus gnats. They love overly moist potting medium and will be flying around your plants, dropping in your tea or coffee (believe me), and basically being a nuisance. I tell my family they are fruit flies and that seems to go over better.
Overall Plant Health
Yes, watering is just one aspect of plant care and it goes hand in hand with the choice of potting medium, and the light being offered to the plant whether from windows or electric lights. The overall health of your plant is all-important and can’t be ignored. Water is just one of the things your plant needs to survive. It also needs light and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize and thrive. Placing your plant in the correct light makes all the difference. You will need to water more frequently when a plant is in good light, photosynthesizing, and using water regularly but if a plant is in low light, it will photosynthesize less and use less water.
The potting medium used for your 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 meaning it has small pores or micropores, it may not be allowing enough oxygen into the root space. A potting medium that has low porosity and stays wet too long is causing an anaerobic or low oxygen environment. Unfortunately, there are microorganisms that love anaerobic environments and 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 picture below shows the potting medium from the bag (left), such as you would buy at your local garden center or big box. I then add a bit of vermiculite (tan) and a larger amount of coarse perlite (white) to that purchased medium. As you can see in the far right example, it has much more perlite. This helps the porosity of the medium by creating larger areas between the soil particles called macropores. There are numerous 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 easily available amendments.
Containers and Drainage
Another important concept that will help with overwatering is the container you choose. Many containers come without drainage holes and 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. I never endorse planting directly into the pot unless you are an experienced plant parent.
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 very well, making a perfect size hole in a small pot. If your container is large than 6-8″, I would probably drill multiple holes. 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, placing a piece of screen over the hole to keep the potting medium in and allow the excess water out.
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 and the roots won’t be able to use all the extra water, causing the roots to rot.
Can it Be Saved?
If you have allowed your plant to become too wet, yet you feel it is still okay, you may need to take drastic measures to save it. 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 took it out….
My opinion for what it’s worth
So, 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 and may be allowing your plant to stand in water for too long a time. Make sure your plant is in the correct potting medium and the best light for it to photosynthesize and use the water it is given in a timely manner. The right potting medium, right light, and the right amount of water will make for a happy plant and plant parent.
Have a great week, plant friends!
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