How Often To Water Your Houseplants (According To Experts Who Have 275+ Of Them)

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Anonymous Hands Watering House Plants With Watering Can
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Most of the time when people notice their houseplants getting droopy or discolored, it's a watering issue. Too little water and your plant will lack the nutrients it needs to grow strong. But too much water and its roots will be deprived of oxygen. Striking a moisturized middle ground usually isn't too tough; it just takes some intuition and a dash of plant know-how.

Here, two experts with a combined 275-plus houseplants between them explain how to decide when to water all your plant pals.

Why you shouldn't stick to a schedule.

Plant pros Monai Nailah McCullough, the horticulturist behind Planthood, and Paul Thompson, M.A., NYC-based plant expert and chemistry teacher, agree that it's best to ditch a structured schedule in favor of a more intuitive watering style.

McCullough explains that even if a group of people received the exact same plant, they would probably all need to water it at different rates depending on their homes' microclimates.

So let's say you have a rubber tree and heard that they like to be watered every seven days. Think of that as a general rule of thumb for that variety, not a hard-and-fast rule. Once you bring your tree home, you might find that it actually needs to be watered every five days because it's getting a lot of light in a sunny window.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all for watering. It really depends on the need of the plant, how much light it's getting, the type of soil, all that," Thompson reiterates. He adds that your plants' watering needs will also change throughout the year as different seasons lend different light levels.

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What to do instead.

Instead of religiously sticking to a schedule, McCullough and Thompson say to always observe each individual plant's moisture level before watering. You can get into the habit of checking in on your plants right when you wake up (the morning tends to be the best time to water them) or making your rounds every few days.

If you don't want to do a daily check, loosely grouping your plants by their watering needs—i.e., putting all your desert succulents in one place and moisture-loving ferns in another—can help you stay organized. In that case, you'd want to observe your thirsty ferns every week or so but could get away with going longer between succulent checks.

When observing your plants, use any combination of these three strategies to decide for sure if they need to be watered:

1. Feel the soil with your finger or a chopstick.

This is the easiest way to gauge how much moisture is in your plant's soil, as all it requires is an index finger. "Use your finger like you would a cake test," McCullough says. Stick it about 2 inches into your plant's soil (a good way down your finger) and feel around. If the soil is totally dry to the touch, it needs water. If it's still wet, move on and wait to water another day.

If you don't want to go by feel alone, you can also observe what your finger looks like after this little probe. "If you stick your finger in and there's water, you'll have some dirt on your finger when it comes up. If you don't, the soil is pretty dry." Again, think cake-tester: Residue on your finger means that the plant needs to go "back into the oven" so to speak, and dry out a little more before it's ready for watering.

For those who don't want to get dirty, using a chopstick for this would work too. No matter the tool you're using for this method, it's important to really get in there. Don't just graze the surface level of the soil; get down to root level. And don't worry about disturbing your plant—chances are it will appreciate the extra aeration, which keeps its soil from getting compacted over time.

2. Use a moisture probe.

For an extra level of assurance, you can buy a moisture probe. These small, inexpensive gadgets you can find online or in a garden store for under $10 are basically thermometers for your plants: They give you a quick reading on how much moisture the soil has on a scale of 1 to 10. Any less than a 3 and the soil is dry and needs to be watered.

A few nice things about moisture probes: They're more exact than the finger test and give you more information about the moisture differences between soil levels. You can stick the probe in the topsoil and then compare that reading to the number you get lower down in your pot. Getting a similar reading throughout the plant shows that you're doing a good job watering evenly. If your soil moisture levels are patchy, you might need to readjust your watering technique (more on that below).

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3. Feel how much your plant weighs.

Another way to gauge if your plant needs water is to lift it up. Get to know how heavy it is right after a good watering, and how light it feels when it's totally dry. Then, lift between waterings to get a sense of how it's doing. Think method isn't as exact and should probably be combined with steps 1 or 2, especially for newer plants that you're still getting to know.

How much water to give your plants at a time.

Watering less frequently but more thoroughly is usually better for your plants, McCullough and Thompson agree. Plants tend to prefer a good soak over a quick drink. This might mean that you are watering your plants less often, and that's fine; better that than watering too frequently.

The key is making sure that the entire pot of soil is nice and soaked through after every watering. You'll know this has happened once the water starts to come out of your pot's drainage hole (every pot should have one of these!).

Gently cover your topsoil with a steady stream of room-temperature water, moving around to ensure an even coat of water throughout. Tap water should be fine here, but if you have especially hard water at home, you might want to use distilled to avoid nutrient imbalances.

Once you see that water is coming out of the bottom, it's your cue to stop. Give your plant a few minutes to drink up the water that's collected in its saucer. If there's any water left after 15 minutes, dump it in the sink. Your plant doesn't need it, and leaving it sitting there could drown out the roots.

Potential signs that you've overwatered include yellowing leaves; soft, squishy leaves; brown edges; and pests, depending on the plant. Thompson says that overwatering is the No. 1 cause of plant death, so his rule of thumb is "I always say that if you want to show your plant love, give it good light. Don't give it water."

But again, if you feel you keep tabs on soil moisture, water only when your plant really needs it, and stop watering once you see water coming out of your pot, you should have some happy plants on your hands.

Summary

Knowing when to water is an essential part of plant care. Instead of following a set schedule, experts recommend feeling your plant's soil (either with your fingers, a chopstick, or a moisture probe) to determine whether or not it needs to be watered. This more intuitive type of plant care will reduce the risk of overwatering and better acquaint you with your individual plants and their needs.

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