The Dos and Don’ts of Watering Plants

How, when, and where you water your garden and houseplants can critically impact their greenery and blooms. Read on for the best ways to ensure success.

The Dos and Don'ts of Watering Plants

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No matter what color your thumb, you likely already know that all plants need water to reach their full potential—after all, that basic knowledge goes back to introductory middle-school science class. But what you might not know is that incorrect watering techniques can put plants at risk for disease and even kill them. Whether you want to cultivate pretty outdoor perennials or you just bought a new houseplant, heed these best and worst practices for watering plants indoors and out and you’ll reap healthy, happy specimens.

Watering Outdoor Plants

1. DO hydrate plants in the morning.

Top Tips for Watering Plants

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The most efficient time to water outdoor flowers and vegetables is before the heat of the day when the soil is cool and the water has the best chance of seeping down to the roots of the plants before evaporating. Watering plants early will ensure that they have sufficient store of moisture beneath the soil to withstand the heat of a hot summer day.

2. DON’T water too frequently or too little.

Especially during hot weather, it may be tempting to water just enough—and often enough—to keep the soil damp. Shallow surface watering, however, discourages deep root development. Instead, opt for a less frequent watering routine that thoroughly saturates the soil. This method encourages the roots to reach deeply for residual water, even when the surface of the soil appears dry. The standard rule of thumb is to give your flowers and vegetables the equivalent of at 1 inch of water per week (and as much as double that amount in the peak of summer).

3. DO water plants at soil level.

Directing water at the base of your plants delivers the hydration right where it’s needed: the roots. Consider winding a soaker hose between plants in a flower or vegetable bed to soak the soil slowly and deeply and ensure healthy growth.

4. DON’T use broadcast sprinklers.

In addition to soaking the plant’s leaves, which can increase the risk of a fungal disease, broadcast sprinklers are simply inefficient. On a hot or windy day, much of the water distributed by this type of sprinkler can evaporate before it even reaches the plant and less water goes to the base of the plant.

5. DO water outdoor container plants at least once per day.

Soil in container gardens and flowerpots dries out more quickly than soil in a garden plot or flower bed. The smaller the container, the more frequently you need to water. Soak the soil in containers in the morning, and, if the mercury in the thermometer climbs to 90 or above, give them another soaking in the afternoon. Alternatively, insert an automatic plant waterer that features a hollow spike and attaches to a standard plastic water bottle. When the spike is inserted in the pot, water slowly seeps into the soil, offering the plant a steady supply of water.

The Dos and Don'ts of Watering Plants Watering Trees

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6. DON’T forget that trees need water, too.

Newly planted trees and shrubs should be thoroughly soaked with water two or three times per week for the first month. After that period, water weekly during their first growing season. Established trees and shrubs (which are at least two years old) only need to be watered once every two weeks during the growing season when rain is scarce.

7. DO use a wand to water container plants.

A watering wand extends the reach of your arm, allowing you to direct water at soil level in overhead hanging plants and in short, ground-level flowerpots on the ground without having to stretch or stoop. You’ll conserve water by directing only the amount needed to the base of the plant and you’ll save your back.

8. DON’T water container plants with a jet-type spray nozzle.

Pressurized nozzles are great for washing off driveways and sidewalks, but the spray that they deliver can damage tender foliage and blossoms. It can also disturb the soil around the roots of a container plant. If you don’t have a watering wand, just remove the nozzle from the garden hose, hook the hose into the hanging pot or container, and let the water run out slowly.

9. DO check moisture levels

Garden plants can suffer when the soil dries out. On the flip side, they don’t like “wet feet,” meaning they also suffer if their roots are sitting in water and not getting sufficient oxygen. On a hot, windy day, the soil’s surface may appear dry, while the ground beneath is still moist, so it’s essential to perform a quick check to ensure you don’t overwater. Keep a wooden dowel handy and insert it a few inches into the garden soil and then pull it out and check it. Moist soil will stick to the dowel, but if it comes out clean, the soil is dry, and it’s time to water.

10. DON’T Rely on Rain

Most garden plants, flowers, and shrubs do best when they receive at least 1 inch of water per week, although they may need more during hot, dry spells. Rain isn’t always sufficient at supplying enough water for plants to thrive, so don’t count on it to keep plants healthy. Instead, insert a simple rain gauge in the garden and use it to monitor the amount of weekly rainfall. If the garden gets less than 1-inch of rain, supplement by watering.

The Dos and Don'ts of Watering Plants Watering Indoor Plants

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Watering Indoor Plants

11. DO use a watering can for houseplants.

Trying to water a leafy houseplant from a drinking glass or carafe is just asking for water to spill out over the rim and onto your table or windowsill. Not only does a watering can’s long spout eliminate spills, but it also allows you to precisely direct water right at the base of the plant even if you’re watering plants that hang overhead.

12. DON’T water houseplants with treated softened water.

Home water softeners impart sodium into your tap water, which, over time, can negatively affect the mineral makeup of a houseplant’s soil. Depending on your plumbing, your water softener may connect only to the hot water faucets or to all the faucets in your home, both hot and cold. If it’s the latter (or you aren’t sure), stick to filling your watering can at an outdoor spigot to minimize the amount of sodium you introduce to the soil.

The Dos and Don'ts of Watering Plants Choose the Right Soil

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13. DO choose the right soil

Houseplants will benefit from an indoor potting mix that’s made for the particular type of plant being grown. Avoid filling indoor pots with outdoor garden soil, which can contain pathogens, insects, and fungi that result in plant diseases and can even fill the house with an infestation of gnats. Opt for a soilless houseplant mix that contains a mixture of peat moss and perlite or vermiculite. These mixes won’t pack down so roots can reach deep, and they often come with fertilizer to boost plant growth.

14. DON’T use a potting mix that’s overly water-retentive

Most houseplants need a well-drained potting mix that doesn’t remain soggy for hours (or days) after watering. When shopping for an indoor, houseplant potting mix, look for products that contain either coconut coir, vermiculite, or perlite. All three ingredients are used in potting mixes to help aerate the soil and encourage draining. For the best draining, use a potting mix that does not contain more than 1 part peat moss.

15. DO check a soil moisture gauge.

An inexpensive soil moisture gauge costs less than $20 and you can insert it directly into the soil to find out whether it’s dry, moist, or wet as many as several inches deep by the roots. Large houseplants in small pots absorb water more quickly than small plants in large pots. When you use a moisture gauge, as opposed to following a watering schedule, your plants will get the water they need, when they need it.

The Dos and Don'ts of Watering Houseplants in Pots with Drainage Holes

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16. DON’T put houseplants in pots without drainage holes.

Most houseplants need well-drained soil in order to grow and thrive. If water cannot drain out through the bottom of the pot, the roots are subject to sitting in water and potentially rotting. Check the bottom of each potted houseplant and repot any without drainage holes into a more appropriate container with them.

17. DO water less in winter and more in spring.

During the winter, the days are shorter and indoor houseplants receive less ambient light through windows. As a result, photosynthesis (the process in which a plant turns light into food) slows and the plant enters a resting phase, during which it needs less water. As spring approaches, however, longer days signal the plant to start growing, and at this time, its water needs increase. Adjust your habits for watering plants accordingly so as not to cause distress or thirst.

18. DON’T forget to dump the water collection tray.

When watering, excess H2O will drain into the collection tray beneath your houseplant almost immediately, but don’t pour it right away—the plant may reabsorb some of it within the next 30 minutes. After that, go ahead and dump. Allowing a plant to sit in standing water increases the risk of root rot, a potentially deadly development for the plant.

19. DO wick while you’re away.

Even the healthiest houseplants will suffer from not being watered for a week or two when the family goes on vacation. Avoid setting them in the tub or sink filled with a couple of inches of water, or they could perish from wet feet. Wicking is a simple way of ensuring the plant gets enough water without flooding it. Place a large jar of water next to the plant. Cut a section of cotton rope or even a strip of absorbent fabric long enough to reach from the plant to the bottom of the water jar. Poke one end into the top of the soil and insert the other in the water jar. The rope acts as a wick to slowly transfer water to the plant while you’re away.

The Dos and Don'ts of Watering Plants Don't Owerwater

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20. DON’T overwater.

Overwatering is one of the main causes of houseplant failure. Houseplant newbies have a tendency to water houseplants too often, thinking that’s just what they need. Overwatering, however, increases the risk of root rot and fungal disease. If you see droopy stems, wilting leaves, a whitish coating (fungus), or fungal gnats in the home—pests that thrive on consistently wet soil—it’s a good bet that you’re watering plants too much.

On the other hand, when the bottom leaves on your houseplant dry out and drop and edges of the leaves elsewhere on the plant become crisp and brown, it’s probably not getting enough water. Again, refer to the soil moisture gauge for that happy medium.

Top Tips for Watering Plants

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FAQ About Watering Plants

Indoor houseplants add beauty and bring a touch of natural décor to the home, while outdoor garden plants enhance landscapes. However, keeping them healthy and lush means giving them adequate water. Those new to gardening or keeping houseplants will likely have some questions.

How often should plants be watered?

Water once or twice per week, using enough water to moisten the soil to a depth of about 6 inches each time. It’s okay if the soil’s surface dries out between waterings, but the soil beneath should remain moist.

How much water do plants need a day?

Plants don’t need daily watering. Instead, water deeply but less frequently. Deep waterings allow the water to seep beneath the roots, which encourages the roots to grow downward.

How do you properly water plants?

The general rule is to water plants at ground level rather than using a sprinkler, which can leave water on the foliage, increasing the risk of harmful fungal growth.

Is it better to water plants or depend on rain?

Outdoor plants love natural rain, but if it doesn’t rain at least 1 inch per week, considering watering to supply enough moisture for healthy plant growth.

Final Thoughts

In addition to light and oxygen, plants need water to thrive. Good watering practices will result in healthy plants—both indoors and out—that add to a home’s décor or landscaping. Regular watering is also essential for producing healthy fruits and vegetables in the garden.