How often should I water my houseplants? It sounds like such a simple task, but over-watering indoor plants is their number one cause of death. Forgetting to water is a close second. So how do you find the sweet spot and get it just right? I may not have the answer you are hoping for but I can show you what works for me.
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How often should I water my houseplants?
Answer: As often as they need it.
It’s a cheeky answer but it’s also the right one.
I’m not an expert and neither to I wish to attempt to write a novella on houseplant care—there are many others who do a great job of it—but I will share some tips that have worked for me. It will seem like a windy road, but—I promise—it does answer how I learned to intuitively and successfully water and care for my houseplants, without any unexpected casualties.
Why There is Not One Answer
In an impatient world that wants quick answers and simple formulas, nature carries on working as it always has. Basically, everything depends on everything else. And because of this, there is no way to prescribe a one-size-fits-all plant care routine. It depends.
There are thousands of plants we can grow indoors, each with different needs and preferences.
- Age and condition of the plants, growth cycles, and seasonal changes
- Light intensity and duration
- Soil or growing medium
- Type of container – plastic, clay, wood, metal, stone: each retains moisture differently
- Relative humidity
- Moisture levels
I’ve also found that plant behaviour can vary between two seemingly identical plants. Not often, but it happens.
In other words, each plant is an individual and just like your children or your pet goats, each will have its own unique personality and benefit from individual care.
It sounds daunting at first, but once you dive in, much of it becomes intuitive. And, unlike a fixed routine that ignores plant needs, you will soon dial-in to a system that really works.
Tips for Success
1. Start with healthy plants. Examine every inch of them before buying, and, if there is any sign of insects, struggle, disease, fungus, or anything else suspicious, do not bring them home. Not only might they fail, but they could infect your other plants along the way.
2. When you bring a new plant home, keep it quarantined. Sometimes plants look and behave one way in the shop and then all hell breaks lose when you change their environment. As plants weaken, they are particularly susceptible to trouble and that’s when the ghouls come to play. Ideally, keep new plants in an isolated location for at least a few weeks. I know it’s not always possible either due to lack of space or good growing conditions, but it’s helpful if you can manage.
3. Know what you’re growing. Read the plant tags and hang onto them. Learn all about the care and keeping of that particular plant, and accommodate its needs as much as possible. Often there is wiggle room—plants can be quite accommodating—but overall, the recommended growing conditions are indeed the recipe for success.
4. Fall in love with your plants. Yes, there is an affair to be had. There’s a lot of noise online these days featuring super low-maintenance plants that tolerate extreme conditions and neglect, and to me, you might as well buy plastic ones if that’s all you want.
Indoor gardening, just like outdoor gardening, is an opportunity to dive into an entire world of incredible plants, their life cycles, and all the magic and mystery of things that grow.
While I do prefer outdoor gardening, those same endorphins seem to run through my core when I tend to plants indoors as well.
Never underestimate the joy of freshly-sprouted seedlings or a brilliant, flowering amaryllis on a dark, miserable February day.
I know this will sound like an exaggeration, particularly if you are envisioning a couple of flower pots on a windowsill, but trust me, the more you indulge in plant care, the more intriguing and enjoyable it becomes.
5. Pay Attention. I do not have any predictable watering routine but I do visit my plants nearly every day. It’s really the only way to become aware of how they are growing, how healthy they are, and what they like.
Over time, you will start to notice all sorts of things. Not just the obvious new shoots and leaves, or emerging buds, but how each plant responds to its ever-changing environment and how you can make adjustments to help them along. At some point your Spidey sense will recognize the distinct rebellion of a wilting succulent due to over-watering.
How I Water My Plants
As mentioned, there is not such thing as a fixed watering routine when you have a variety of different plants. But there are ways to organize them into groups that makes it simpler to manage.
Group Plants by Needs
I group my plants according to their basic moisture preferences. I do this mentally, but you could do this physically as well, placing like-plants together, especially when you’re starting out and just getting familiar with everything.
1. Plants that like the soil to dry out between watering. This includes my various succulents, cacti, and aloe.
2. Plants that tolerate some dryness between watering, but not for long. Examples include my indoor tomato plants, herbs, and flowering bulbs.
3. Plants that like even, consistent moisture, but not too much. African violets are a perfect example of this. When they have even moisture, they bloom as nice long time.
4. Drama queens that start to wither the moment their soil becomes even slightly dry. I have a few tropical plants in this category and, while I do love them, holy cow, they are such babies.
Testing for Moisture
When we water plants, we are watering the roots and that’s where you also check for moisture.
The fingertip method for detecting soil moisture is easy and reliable. Press the tip of your finger about an inch deep into the soil to feel how dry the soil is. Easy.
If there isn’t room or you can’t do it without damaging the plant, use a moisture meter instead.
Using a Moisture Meter
Moisture meters work nicely, don’t cost much, and do not require batteries. You insert the probes in the soil at root level and the dial indicates the moisture level on a scale from 1 to 10.
Whether I water the plant depends on the dryness of the soil, the plant group (1,2,3, 4), and when I most recently watered.
For example, if it’s one of the plant types (group 1) like succulents that prefer a dry spell between watering, and I know I watered recently, even though the soil is dry, I will wait.
If the soil is getting dry and it’s an African violet (group 3), I will water because these guys like even moisture.
Some plants take rest periods, either because they have just flowered or fruited, or because it’s winter and light has decreased. Growth will slow down and so does the need for water.
Morning is best for watering plants, to prevent fungal infections and other nasties. During my watering rounds, I’m also watching for any signs of trouble, including insects, wilt, spots, fungus, or signs of over- or under-watering. Often, we don’t actually know what we’re seeing, but we know trouble is brewing. That’s when the internet or a good houseplant reference book is your friend.
The part I like best, which also leads to more intuitive care, is the gradual awareness of the changes that plants undergo. This may be new growth, shoots, flowers, or fruits. I also make note of any plants that may need larger pots, pruning, washing, relocating, or dividing. As time goes on, I realize I’m becoming more tuned into the life of the plants.
Container rotation is also part of my routine. I give them a slight turn each time I check on them to prevent any heavy leaning or stretching toward the light.
I like a slender, long-necked water can with a small spout so I can aim the water exactly where I want it: on the soil, below the bottom foliage. The goal is to water the roots and not the leaves.
To prevent temperature shock, I fill my watering cans at the end of each watering session in preparation for next time. This allows any chlorine in the tap water to off-gas and the water can warm to room temperature before it is needed.
Advice varies, but I follow those who say to water deeply when you do water. Make sure the roots get a nice, deep drink. Water should come out the drainage holes onto the drip dish below. Remove the excess after 15-30 minutes.
- How often should you water your houseplants? It depends.
- There is no one-size-fits-all watering routine when you are growing a variety of plants.
- Join the houseplant nerds of the world: dive in, know what you’re growing, check on your plants regularly, and get to know their individual needs.
- A moisture meter is very helpful for checking how dry the soil actually is.
- Ultimately, it’s awareness of your plants that will not only make you a better houseplant mama, but it also opens up a whole world of houseplant nerdom. And it’s a very nice world indeed.