Understanding how to water your houseplants is essential when it comes to indoor gardening.
The initial thrill of buying an exciting new plant to decorate your home can give way to fear once the reality of care instructions sets in.
This needn’t be the case. Watering your plants could be the moment you spot a new shoot or long-awaited bud appearing. It even acts as a nice little bit of relaxation therapy at the end of a long day.
The first step in being able to water with confidence is to gain a general understanding of your plants’ needs.
Bromeliads and air plants have specific needs, either via watering the central urn or misting the foliage. Identifying your plant is essential
Watering habits vs lifestyle
There’s a seemingly never-ending array of houseplants on the market, some easy, some difficult. When buying a new plant for your home, do yourself a favour and pick something that suits your lifestyle and living space, it’ll make your experience much easier!
Consider the following:
How much time do you spend at home? Are you out/away travelling frequently?
How attentive are you likely to be regarding watering?
Is the proposed room warm or cool, light or dark; are there draughts or heating sources nearby? Plants in warm, centrally-heated rooms will require far more frequent watering.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions regarding the watering requirements of your new houseplant, whether it’s with the vendor or via the Candide gardening community.
Lastly, know your plant. Check the label or get the name from the vendor. The Plant ID feature on Candide can also help!
A person who spends a lot of time away from home and wants something to fit a gap on a windowsill would fare much better with succulents or cacti rather than a large-leaved foliage plant that requires part-shade and regular watering.
A little research ahead of purchasing will save heartache further down the line.
Bonsai require frequent watering and cool, airy conditions. As appealing as they are, a beginner may struggle to meet their needs.
Back to basics
Here are a few general pointers for watering. Bear in mind there will be variations, which is why knowing your plant is beneficial, if not essential.
Soaking vs little-and-often
It’s better to water a plant thoroughly and leave it to dry out a little before watering it again. Give your plant a good soak and then leave it until the top 10-20% of the compost has dried out.
Drying out may take a few days or even a week. Be sure not to allow the growing medium to dry out completely – it should be soft and dry to the touch, but you can feel a little dampness below. This way, you’ll also begin to understand the pattern of watering over time.
Cacti and succulents respond well to this method in summer, but in winter they barely need water at all. You can find out more about their specific watering needs, here:
Read more about succulents here:
Using the little-and-often method can be excellent for plants that dry out quickly, but may also lead to stagnant water and stale compost, which eventually causes unsightly fungus gnats and rotting/odours.
Mother-in-laws tongues are very resilient and will forgive a forgetful owner.
Do you like having cold, wet feet? Neither do houseplants! Most houseplants are in an outer cache pot. If, after 30 minutes, the plant has not reabsorbed any run-through (which often happens when a plant is dry), then pour away the excess.
If a pot doesn’t have drainage holes, this makes it much trickier when it comes to watering. Err on the side of caution, follow the rules above and remember less is best.
The roots cannot obtain oxygen and the plant will soon wither if the compost remains saturated, although there are some plants which have adapted to this and prefer soaked tootsies:
Hard vs soft water
The majority of houseplants will be fine with regular tap water, though it’s advisable to leave it to stand to reach room temperature and allow some of the chemicals to evaporate.
There are some types which require ‘soft’ water. This means that in the wild, they come from areas with acidic soil, and their leaves will become yellow if they are watered with tap water with a higher pH.
Using rainwater or deionised water is best and here are the most commonly-encountered species:
Carnivorous plants have specific watering needs and although a popular novelty are really for the enthusiast.
From below or above?
For many houseplants, watering directly onto the surface of the compost is fine. However, some species have dense crowns or hairy leaves, which can suffer from issues such as crown rot and watermarks.
For some plants, water by placing on a tray or directly into the cache pot and wait until it has been absorbed. Remember the golden rule: no wet feet after 30 minutes!
Only watering from the base can lead to a build-up of salts/minerals on the surface. These plants appreciate this method:
African violets are well-known for their preference for watering from below, but place on a gravel tray to prevent overwatering and increase humidity.
When compost becomes very dry, it tends to shrink away from the sides of the pot. This causes water to trickle straight through, giving the false impression the compost is saturated.
In these cases, filling a container with water and immersing the pot is a more effective way to drench the soil.
Only when bubbles cease to arise from the compost is the growing medium wet. It can take around 20-30 minutes to ensure watering is complete.
Once soaked, don’t forget to allow the plant to drain thoroughly before returning it to its spot. This method is most often used on cacti and succulents.
Pachira aquatica is an odd houseplant that looks like a succulent, but actually prefers very moist soil. It's very easy to grow.
Summer vs winter
Summer houseplant watering is pretty straightforward, plants are actively growing, and temperatures are higher, so more frequent watering is necessary.
You might also want to feed with a houseplant fertiliser, or a specialist food, depending on their species (e.g. cacti, citrus, orchids).
Winter is a different matter, as lower temperatures and reduced day length means less water is necessary. Some plants will become dormant, and most only need to drink every 10-14 days. It’s easy to overwater in winter, so remember to hold back (but don’t let them dry out completely).
Heated rooms can cause issues as plants may need more water. Without enough light, growth becomes weak, and the plant may rot.
Although watering is generally reduced during winter, plants such as cyclamen, Christmas cacti, azaleas and Poinsettias will need to be kept moist.
Practice makes perfect
It can take a while to get your watering routine down pat, but with patience and understanding, it will become simple.
If you're approaching the watering can with trepidation, then start with easier, more forgiving plants. These fellows won't keel over if you make a little mistake here and there:
If you do run into problems, then don’t despair – a dry plant is easy to water back to health and for overwatering, follow the advice here to get your plant back on its feet (or roots!):
First published in December 2019