Every living being needs water, and that includes plants! Plants are made up of about 90% water, which is much more than other living beings. Without enough water, plants can’t photosynthesize or absorb nutrients from the soil. That’s why proper watering is one of the most crucial things you need to do to keep your plant healthy.
As an attentive plant parent, you may feel compelled to water your plant very frequently. But just as other forms of helicopter parenting, overwatering your houseplant can do more harm than good.
Roots need both water and air to carry nutrients up to the plant body. If roots get waterlogged, they shut down and stop transporting water and nutrients up to the plant.
Luckily, plants tend to cry for help when they’re suffering. Here are the most common telltale signs that your houseplant is getting too much water.
Brown-tipped leaves is one sign that you have been overwatering your plant. Here’s how it works: plants wick up water through the roots and into the plant body. As the water makes its way up the stem and to the leaves, the plant cells fill up one by one. The water is passed on until it reaches the end of the line, which is the tips of the leaves. Because the cells in the leaf tips have nowhere else to pass the water on, they continue to fill until they burst and form crusty brown tips.
You may be checking on your plant and notice a yellow leaf among green leaves. If the plant soil gets too wet due to overwatering or poor drainage, your plant’s roots can’t breathe. When roots suffocate, they aren’t able to deliver the water and nutrients your plants need, causing yellow plants that fall off.
If your plant looks droopy and sad, there’s a good chance it’s due to overwatering. Confusingly, wilted leaves can also be a sign of underwatering. The way to tell what’s causing wilting is by feeling the leaves. If they feel wet and squishy, they’re overwatered. If they feel crisp and dry, they’re underwatered.
It’s normal for your plant’s leaves to fall off as part of the natural aging process. If you see this happening to new leaves though, there’s a good chance it’s due to overwatering. Leaves don’t always turn color before falling off, and can drop when it’s still green.
As explained earlier, suffocated roots aren’t able to carry water and nutrients to the upper part of the plant. If your plant isn’t getting the proper nutrients, it will grow slowly or not at all. This is one of the less severe of overwatering symptoms, and should only raise alarm if it’s accompanied by yellow and dropping leaves.
If your plant’s soil is too wet for too long, it could become a breeding ground for mold. While most forms of mold can be scraped off, if left unaddressed it can lead to more serious problems like root rot.
Visible overwatering symptoms like brown tips and mold could indicate issues beneath the soil surface. When there is too much water in the soil and the roots can’t breathe, they’ll eventually start rotting. Root rot is a fungal infection that causes mushy, brown roots. If you see some of the aforementioned overwatering symptoms, you may want to gently take the plant out of its pot and examine the roots for rot.
Help, I Overwatered My Plant! Now What?
If you catch the overwatering symptoms early on, you can take steps to nurse your plant back to health. For mild cases of overwatering (e.g. a couple yellow leaves, brown tips, light mold), you can simply stop watering for a few weeks and wait for signs of recovery. Wait until the soil is completely dried out, down to the bottom of the roots. If your plant is bouncing back, then you can water again.
Trim off any dead or mushy leaves, which cause the plant additional stress. Make sure to also check that your soil is draining properly. The original cause of your plant’s distress may not be the frequency or volume of your watering, but rather that your soil isn’t draining properly. Make sure to choose a planter with at least one drainage hole, and choose a high quality potting soil.
Unfortunately, not all overwatered plants are salvageable. If root rot has overtaken the entire root system, it’s too late to save the plant. But if you see healthy roots, which are white and firm, then you can try removing the affected roots and repotting the plant in new soil.
Gently remove the plant from its pot and shake off clumps of soil. Trim away dark, slimy roots with garden shears, wiping the blades down with alcohol between trims to prevent the rot from spreading. If you choose to re-pot the plant in the same planter, wash it out thoroughly with mild soap to eliminate traces of fungal spores. Refill it with new potting soil and place the plant inside. Water it until you see water flow through the drainage holes below.
How to Avoid Overwatering Your Plants
In order to avoid overwatering, you need to know how to check your plant’s moisture level. My favorite way to do this is the finger method. Simply stick your finger into your plant’s soil two knuckles deep. If it comes out dry, it’s time to water. If you feel dampness and your finger comes out with bits of soil sticking to it, you can wait to water.
Another way to avoid overwatering indoor plants is to buy a self-watering planter. In a well-designed self-watering planter your plant only takes up the water it needs, so that it can’t get overwatered. Particularly with self-watering planters where the soil sits above the water reservoir, you don’t have to fear that the roots will sit in water and develop root rot.