How to Water your Houseplant

Last month my mom was visiting to help me with my new little baby girl. While she was visiting, she asked me about one of her houseplants. It was a pretty interesting conversation… and I’ll admit, she’s struggled through the years as many people have with her plants dying. She wasn’t sure how to correctly water plants.

Want to watch different watering techniques? Check out my youtube video below!

So… what was the first question that she asked me? She asked if yellow leaves were a sign of overwatering or underwatering.

My honest reply was that it can be a sign of either over-watering or under-watering.

With an exasperated sigh, she threw up her hands and said “Then how do I know if I need to water it more or if I need to stop?!”

“Well…” I replied, “is the soil wet?”

This question always seems to get people thinking. Hmm… Is the soil wet? Most people wouldn’t know. My mom didn’t remember. She said her plant had died a while back and she couldn’t remember if the soil was wet or dry…

So the moral of this story is that watering can be hard, but ultimately we are trying to find out if our soil is wet or dry.
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Is it wet? Or is it dry?

This is very hard to tell by simply looking at the top of the soil. This is because with gravity, water will naturally sink to the bottom of the pot. And if your pot doesn’t have drainage holes, then it can create a rather large pool of water in the potting mix at the bottom, while appearing to be dry on top of the soil. So, instead of just looking at the soil, I’ve got 3 ways you can tell if your soil is dry, or if it is actually wet down below.

1 – Feel the Soil

Now, I don’t mean just feel the top of the soil. I mean stick your finger as deep as you can down into the soil. This will allow you to usually feel a few inches down into the soil (depending on the size of your pot), and you should be able to feel if there is still moisture. Then you will be able to tell if your plant’s soil is dry all the way through, or if there is still moisture down below the surface of the soil. This method works great for any medium or small plant you have, but it isn’t as effective when you are trying to guage the moisture level in large pots.

placing finger into houseplant soil.

2 – Weigh your Pot

The second way to tell how moist or dry your plant’s soil has become is to pick up your plant and weigh it in your hands. After lifting your plant a few times, you will begin to be able to feel if your plant is heavier than usual, or if it is lighter than usual. A light pot means that your soil is dry. A heavy pot, on the other hand, means that there is still some water in your soil that is weighing it down. This method also works best for medium to small pots, but it can be difficult to constantly be lifting one of your larger houseplants.

hand lifting scindapsus plant in macrame hanger

3 – Use a Soil Moisture Meter

The third way to check if the soil is wet (and my FAVORITE way!) is to use a soil moisture meter. These devices are pretty cheap and can be purchased at any major garden center, or find my favorite one here! With a soil moisture meter, you simply place the probe into the soil (making sure that you push it down enough that it gets an accurate reading of the bottom of the pot), and it will tell you how dry, moist, or wet your soil is! That’s all there is to it!

soil moisture meter reading "moist" in houseplant soil

This brings me to a few questions that people regularly ask about watering…

How often should I water my houseplants?

This question has a lot going on. First, as a plant parent, you should never have a set schedule of watering your plants. This is because there are a lot of factors that will change how often you will need to water. For example, some things that might affect how much water your plant uses is:

  • the soil mixture/type
  • the amount of light it is receiving
  • the size of the pot
  • the general room temperature
  • how much water you added when you last watered

Your houseplant’s watering schedule will even change between the seasons, as it will use more water during the spring, summer, and fall, but will use less water during the winter. So there really isn’t a set number of days you should be watering your houseplant. Instead, the easiest way to gauge if your plant needs soil or not is to follow the guidelines above to determine if you have moist soil or dry soil.

After realizing that you will never have a set plant watering routine, you might be wondering…

What is the Best Way to Water Houseplants?

A lot of plant parents ask if they should be top watering or bottom watering their plants. And I know that bottom watering does have its benefits, but top watering is also very convenient. And top watering is how we water all of our outdoor plants, right?! So let me just say, the best way to water your houseplants is to simply make sure that you water your plant evenly, you add enough water to thoroughly soak the root ball, and you drain off any excess water (so you don’t have root rot issues!). As long as you follow these general rules, than either top or bottom watering can work for you. If you are still unsure, though, check out my video on Should you Top or Bottom Water your Plants?

two snake plants in pots sitting in tupperware full of water. hand lifting one snake plant out to drain excess water.

Side note, however, is that if you are struggling with fungus gnats, then I suggest you only bottom water for several months. This is because these gnats lay their eggs in the top few inches of soil, where the larvae need soggy soil to survive. When you top water, you are giving these fungus gnats exactly what they need to survive. If you switch to bottom watering, however, this will keep the top of your soil relatively dry, which will in turn keep the gnats away!

Next I get asked a lot about watering types…

What is the best type of water?

To this, once again, it depends! A lot of plants will do okay with tap water (as long as you don’t have too much chlorine and chemicals within your water). But there are a few that specifically HATE the chlorine that is found in tap water. For people with these types of plants, (or with hard chlorinated water), the best option is to water your plants with either filtered water or distilled water. This will help keep the mineral levels low.

You can check out my post on 5 Signs your Plants need Filtered Water if you’re unsure.

Some people also swear by leaving their water out for a few hours to let the chlorine evaporate into the air, and this might work for you, but with those of us who have multiple plants, this watering method simply isn’t reasonable… unless you want me tripping over buckets of water all through my house! Haha!

You can also check out my video where I tested my own water filter to see if it really removed the chemicals or not…

The next question that I wanted to address is when people ask the following…

What does it mean to water thoroughly?

This is a phrase that plant people LOVE to throw around and it can make beginner plant parents confused… What does it mean to water a plant thoroughly?! But all we are saying is to water around all sides of the pot, with a large enough amount of water to soak into the entire rootball (from top to bottom). Then as long as you have good drainage, your house plants should drain off any extra water and you will be left with the perfectly watered plant!

watering can spout adding water to ivy plant sitting in sink

And the last tip that I wanted to leave you with, is to…

Know Your Plant!

I know this might take a little research, but it is extremely important!!! The type of plant you have will help decide how wet or dry you leave the soil in between watering. Some plants like it more moist (like african violets and spider plants), but the majority of indoor plants need it to get a bit dry before watering again (like snake plants and money trees). (Don’t let them get too dry though! We don’t want them to feel like they’re living in the Mojave Desert!)

If you want the shortcut, I have a special deal for my readers on the Indoor Plant Guide A-Z. This is a comprehensive care guide to over 130+ popular houseplants. So you can cut the endless google searches and have everything you need to know for your houseplants all in one spot.

And now, to state this once again as the ULTIMATE GAME-CHANGER for all plant parents…

Soil Moisture Meters

The last thing you need to do if you struggle with knowing how to water houseplants is to purchase a water moisture meter. You can stick your moisture meter (also called a soil moisture gauge) into the soil and the meter will tell you exactly how wet or dry your potted plant is. Then as soon as the meter gets into the dry portion of your gauge, you add water. And if it isn’t in the dry portion, then please don’t add water! 

This moisture meter is the #1 tool that I recommend to all plant parents. Why? Because it works! (And I also love that it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to purchase, either!)

hand holding dry soil above houseplant in pot

So to wrap everything up… if you know what type of plant you own and you know what kind of watering it likes, and then you follow these general guidelines to water the correct way, and if your plant is still dying… Well then you at least know that it isn’t because of water. Try something else. And check out my post on 10 quick tips to keep your indoor plants alive! Or join the Facebook group, Houseplants for Plant Killers and let me know what’s going on! I absolutely love helping people with their plant questions!

Happy digging!

P.S. – For more watering specifics, check out my posts below!

How to Water Air Plants the RIGHT way!

How Often should I water my Succulents?

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6 thoughts on “How to Water your Houseplant”

  1. My majesty palm is having trouble inside. One of the branches has turned a yellow color. I feel the soil and water it once every two weeks or so. I keep it indoors in a well lit room but not direct sunlight. Any tips for majesty palms indoors?

    • Kelley, is the branch an outer branch? As palms grow, they will shed their outer branches in favor of their taller, newer branches. So yellowing of outer branches is normal. However, if it is an inside branch, then there is a problem, but without a picture I’d have a hard time saying what it is. Feel free to message me directly, or join the new facebook group (The Girl with a Shovel: Plant Group!). You can easily post pictures there! I hope this helps!

  2. Taylor, you’re right in that light is playing a part with your black succulent. In the winter when light levels are low, some succulents go into dormancy, where they will grow less, and especially, they will use less water. The black color seems to be a sign of overwatering. It is probably too late for your succulent now, but I would try to propagate any stem or leaves that don’t seem affected yet. And consider purchasing a plant light for your succulents in the winter. I personally use this one, https://amzn.to/2GRFi2n , but you can also go with a larger overhead plant light depending on how dark your room is.

    As for the candles… this is a big controversy. But from what I know about the science of plants, I would suggest that it would be fine as long as a few conditions are met. First, make sure that the plants are far enough away that their leaves aren’t getting heated by the flame. Next, because the candles would lower the air humidity, I would suggest making sure to mist your plants afterwards (but not your succulents). Brown leaf tips are usually the sign of too little air humidity. Then I would say just watch your plants and clean off any leaves that may get extra dirty from the candle smoke.

    I hope this helped! Let me know if you have any further questions! I love hearing from everyone!!!

  3. My one succulent I had is turning almost like black and the leaves are shriveling up I feel as tho this may be light related because in the winter months my plants never do as well since they are in my room.i have a whole bunch of plants but this one is the only one really having issues and that’s why it’s alarming ! I water them about once a week (succulents) and use a 2-7-7 fertilizer (it is meant to be used a few drops into the water every time you water). If you know what is going on please let me know! Also, are burning candles near leafy house plants bad for them ?

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