How Not to Kill Plants, Part 1 - Watering

How Not to Kill Plants, Part 1 - Watering

If you clicked on this, you may have killed a plant or two already. Let me clue you in on something. Every plant parent has, and will, at some point throughout their plant parenthood journey, kill at least one plant. So try not to beat yourself up too badly. 

Some losses are outside of our control, but some of them could have been prevented if we knew more at the time. The best way to honor those losses (RIP) is to learn from them and try to do better next time. 

This is part one of a series that goes into the top three ways people kill their houseplants, and how to learn from and avoid the most common errors. Part one covers the most common M.O. for beginner plant killers, including myself when I was new at this - improper watering.

You need to know two things to properly water a plant:

  1. WHEN your plant needs to be watered
  2. HOW MUCH water to give it when it’s time

Overwatering is the most common watering issue and is most often done through the frequency of watering, not the amount of water. This means that most overwaterers are guilty of watering too often, regardless of how much water they’re giving the plant at a time. 

Here’s how to know WHEN your plant needs a drink of water. 

  1. The soil is dry. 

For brand new plant parents, do not, I repeat, do not water soil that’s still wet. Roots need both water and oxygen to keep the plant healthy and growing, and when they’re constantly under water, they won’t get the oxygen they need, leading to root rot and the sweet release of death. Feel the soil, and make sure at least the top couple of inches feel dry (or more depending on the plant) before you water your plant again. 

If you’re not 100% sure, it’s safer to err on the dry side and skip watering this time. An under watered plant is still not good, but it's much easier to save than an over watered one.

You can also estimate how dry the soil is by the weight of the plant. If it feels really light for its size, it’s probably dry and ready for water. If it has some weight to the pot, the soil is probably still holding some moisture. 

For large plants, you’ll need to check farther down into the soil than you may be able to reach by hand, and you might not want to lift them to weight check every time you water. Chopsticks or wooden kabobs work great in this scenario. If you have one, stick in the soil as far as it can go, and if soil or moisture cling to the wood, the soil is still wet and you’ll want to skip watering. If nothing sticks at all, the soil is dry and you’re good to go. 

If you want to get technical, there are moisture meters available that you can leave in your plant that will tell you whether the soil is wet or dry. I also came across this moisture probe that grabs tiny soil samples from the pot to feel, and I use this thing every time I water now.

      2. The leaves are flimsy and sad looking.

Plants store water in their leaves and stems, giving them their fullness and shape. The water kept in those lil storage units is used to photosynthesize and produce new growth, and over time, they become empty. They’re restored when the roots get a drink and absorb water to send to the stores in the leaves.

When not replenished, those water stores eventually reach a point where they’re empty enough to see a visual difference in your plant. A happy leaf will usually hold a pretty rigid shape, but a leaf with empty water stores will feel flimsy and appear wilty. In plants with thick juicy leaves like succulents, they will begin to look wrinkly and shrivel up. 

In one way or another, the foliage will “collapse” if the plant does not have enough water in the stores to maintain its shape. This can act as a visual alarm to you that your plant needs a thiccccc drink of water ASAP.

While this visual cue is a super helpful guideline for beginners who are learning their plants, “fainting” or “collapsing” can be stressful to your plant over time. A plant that’s thirsty to the point of fainting is a plant that’s been thirsty for longer than it’s comfortable with, and it would be much happier with a drink before it gets to that point. 

Try to use this cue as a tool to learn the watering frequency that’s best for your plant. If it faints, adjust your care and try to water it a bit sooner next time, before the foliage collapses again. 

      3. After you pot it in new soil.

Giving plants a drink after potting them in new soil will help the root system settle into its new home. Repotting is also best done when the soil is dry, so your plant was likely ready for a drink anyways and will appreciate the water.

The only time to avoid watering right after a repot is if you’re repotting due to an overwatering situation. In that case, we recommend waiting at least a few days for the roots to chill before they get their next drink of water.

      4. Size matters.

The size of your plant is a huge factor in determining when it will need water. Soil retains moisture around the plant’s root system, so the amount of soil your plant has will guide how long it retains water. Smaller plants with less soil will dry out much more quickly and require water more often than larger plants that have a lot of soil and can retain moisture for longer.

The next most common watering issue is not giving your plant enough water when it’s due for a drink. Now that you can nail down WHEN your plant needs water, you’ll need to know HOW MUCH to give it at a time. 

Here are some key points to help know how much water is enough for your plant.

  • A solid, thorough watering means that the entire root system of the plant gets completely saturated. Just covering the top of the soil with water will saturate that first layer of soil and roots, but the roots below will only get what trickles down after the top part takes what it needs. Every layer of soil and roots needs to be saturated just as much as the top to fully refill your plant’s depleted water level.
  • Your first pour or two will take a while to reach the bottom of the pot and drain, saturating soil and roots on its way down. As levels of soil get their fill of water, they will stop absorbing it and pass it down to the next layer, and so forth until water is draining straight through the soil as you pour it. Keep pouring until water stops absorbing and drains almost immediately after you dump it in.
  • Size matters big time here, too. Smaller plants will reach that level of saturation more quickly than larger plants. For example, my 2” plants only need about a cup or two of water at a time to be fully saturated, but my 6ft tall fiddle fig in its 15” pot gets at least a full gallon of water every time I water him.
  • You can estimate how much water your plant’s soil has retained by how different the weight feels before and after you start watering. If it’s still feeling pretty light, keep pouring, but if it’s significantly heavier than when you started, the soil has likely absorbed plenty of moisture. 
  • Proper drainage is critical when you start giving your plant enough water. Remember earlier when we talked about that water/oxygen balance that plant roots need to properly photosynthesize? Leftover standing water prevents that balance and can lead quickly to root rot. This is why pots without drainage can be a death sentence for most plants and should be avoided, especially if you’re a beginner.
  • Now that we know we need drainage, unless you’re intentionally bottom-watering (which is a topic for another post), you will need to remove any standing water left over once the soil has kept what it needs. You can do this a couple of different ways. You can bring your plants to a sink, bathtub or other drain to hold them over while watering, allowing any excess to leave the pot freely and go straight down the drain. That will prevent any standing water from collecting at all. If you’d rather leave your plants where they are, dump out the drip trays they’re sitting in once you’ve watered enough. Or, you can use the absolute plant life hack of a turkey baster to remove and reuse excess water for another thirsty plant.

Watering issues contribute to the highest number of plant deaths annually. That sounded super official and I don’t have any actual data on this at all. However it’s by far the most common theme I’ve seen when anyone has brought me a dying plant of theirs, and the issue I dealt with most when I was first learning. 

If you’ve read to this point, you can now better determine WHEN your plant actually needs a drink, and HOW MUCH water is really enough for your green friend. To summarize, lean towards a larger quantity of water, only when you’re sure your plant is thirsty, and proper drainage is king. I expect excellence only from this point forward. 

Just kidding. Remember this is a learning process, and the fact that you’ve even read this gives you a leg up that you didn’t have before. 

If you have any questions or need more individualized help, you can always reach out at or schedule a call with a plant pro here.

Thanks for reading, and may all your plants’ deaths be Slow and Green.

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