When I moved into my first flat in my early 20s, I thought that filling my south-facing window with an abundance of plants would be a great way to jazz it up, easy and cheap. Little did I realize that caring for plants was a delicate art to be honed with time and research.
It seemed that if I even looked at them the wrong way they would just give up and die. I’ve killed plants with drafts, too much sunlight, not enough light, from having them set too close to the radiator, from too much water, not enough water, improper pot transfer, buying the wrong soil, and from overfeeding and underfeeding.
In other words, I’ve done all the right things to all the wrong plants. As I write this today, 20 years and many panicked phone calls to my hobby-botanist father later, I’m happy to report that my current roster of greens is thriving, and that success is due in large part to my finally getting a handle on the proper watering regimen for each.
How can I tell when my plants need water?
For most plants, you’ll need to allow the soil to dry down at least an inch or two before watering (press your pointer finger into the soil, and it should feel dry down to just about the mid-finger knuckle); for desert plants like cacti and succulents, you’ll want the soil to be completely dry before watering (you can also lift the pot, and if it’s dried through, it will feel very light.)
For plants with thinner leaves, you can always watch for signs that they need water—any drooping, or drying, curling, or browning on the edges is a sign they need a good drink.
Still not sure? Use a moisture meter—this is a helpful tool you can pick up at your local garden center which, when inserted down into the soil, can let you know if it’s time to water.
When you are planning to be away from home for a week or two, here are some easy watering hacks to keep your plants alive and kicking.
How to Water Your Plants
While there is quite a bit of variability in terms of water needs, here are some general rules of thumb that you can use to keep most of your indoor house plants happy and healthy:
Use the right soil for the right plant. Potting soil is not the best choice for all, so be sure to read the bag and see what mixtures are best for the particular plants you have on hand. The best soil will allow for the right amount of moisture/drainage for your plant.
Dry soil will not hold on to water right away. You will need to water thoroughly (and for a few minutes) in order for there to be even distribution of water, and for it to actually soak into the soil.
Topping the soil with small pebbles will help to reduce evaporation of moisture from the soil which is helpful if you’re going to have to extend the time between waterings.
Watering larger plants in the bathtub or shower allows for plentiful watering and proper drainage. Soak the soil thoroughly, then allow them to fully drain before resetting them on their base.
Smaller plants will dry out faster than larger plants (though larger plants obviously need more water), so they will need to be watered more frequently.
Pots & positioning
All plants will need good drainage and breathability; clay pots are best to release moisture throughout, and you’ll need to be sure that your plants aren’t sitting in pools of water after watering. Placing a few shards of broken clay or pottery beneath the hole at the bottom of the pot will allow for proper drainage without the risk of soil loss.
Group your plants together according to their watering needs so it’s easier to keep track and get the job done.
Plants will need to be watered more when it is hot and sunny, and less often in the darker, cooler months (though humidity is often higher in the summer, so placing pebble-filled water trays under your plants are a good way to elevate ambient moisture in the drier winter months.)
House Plant Watering Guide
The tricky part about watering indoor plants is that there are so many different varietals, and different families of plants need different amounts of moisture and care. If you’ve got some fancy plants on hand, I’d recommend doing some additional research online to be sure you aren’t watering too much (which can cause drowning, leaf drop, fungus, and root rot) or too little, but we’ve put together a quick and easy guide to help you manage some of your more common types of indoor plants:
For your desert-friendly plants (think cacti, succulents, aloe, snake plant), you will only need to water every two weeks or so. When you do water, it needs to be thorough (think monsoon season!), then let them be until they’re fully dry again.
There’s nothing quite as beautiful as a structural orchid, but they can be finicky. These plants like to be spritzed with water daily if possible, or set it in the bathroom where the shower mist will lend it some humidity. In addition to the misting, you’ll need to give your orchid a good watering once a week.
Palms lend a dramatic and tropical feel to any space. While you’ll see palms in dry, hot climates, these plants thrive naturally in humid rainforest locales, and so you’ll need to stay on top of their moisture needs.
The one-inch dry rule works well for palms, and you’ll want to direct most of the watering to the base of the trunk. If you see the edges of the fronds turning brown, it’s not getting enough water, but if it starts dropping healthy green fronds or if the soil smells foul, you’re watering too much.
I have to say from experience that palms can handle a bit of neglect, just keep your eye on any browning at the edges, and go from there.
Growing lemons, limes, orange, and bergamot trees indoors is a lovely idea (and makes your house smell great during the blooming period), but make sure you are watering enough. Citrus plants like moist but well-drained soil.
Once a week should be a good schedule for these, but keep your eye on the leaves which should look shiny and sturdy, and they’ll need water if you notice the leaves beginning to curl.
Everybody seems to have had one of these in their houseplant roster at some point, and they are so popular likely because of how much character they add with such little care. These plants are survivors, and while you can follow the finger in the soil test (1-2″ down should be dry), watering less frequently won’t be as problematic as watering it too much.
Once every week to week and a half depending on the intensity of sunlight and heat in your home could be your general guideline.
I’ve got this lovely ivy growing in just about every room in my house–it’s a great choice for lower light areas, or drier conditions, and like the spider plant it really doesn’t need much in the way of tender loving care. I have one in the window of my yoga room that’s still in the tiny plastic pot it came in, and it has happily climbed up and around the frame adding such a lovely spray of green. Let the leaves guide you on the watering schedule.
Leave it alone and don’t give it a drink until you see the leaves asking for one–you’ll notice them begin to soften and droop a bit when the plant gets thirsty. Give it a thorough watering when it is dry and ready, ensuring that the water you pour in is soaking into the soil rather than pouring straight through. Fun fact: this plant also grows well in water!
Fiddle Leaf Fig
This striking star of Instagram design feeds needs no introduction. Since I personally have never had the pleasure of caring for one of these beauties, here are some helpful tips from some Fiddle Leaf Fig experts. While this plant likes humidity (misting or a humidifier is a great way to add moisture to the air around your plant), it is used to drying out between heavy rains so you’ll want to mimic that environment as much as possible.
If your plant is still wet an inch or two down into the soil, let it be a while longer, and you’ll definitely want to ease off the water if you notice dark spots on or at the edges of the leaves or a mildew-y odor emanating from the soil. On the other hand, if your otherwise healthy plant is dropping leaves which are yellowing or browning, and the soil is dry when you do the finger in the soil test, your plant is thirsty.
Once a week is a general guideline for a watering schedule, but again, you’ll need to adapt this based on your own home environment as needed.
Too much or too little water?
If you find yourself in a situation where your plants are in a sad state, either from too much or too little water, it’s not necessarily a lost cause! Here are some ways to revive a green friend on its last legs.
With a bit of attention to the signs your plants are sending you in regards to their specific thirst levels, it’ll be much easier to help them thrive. Wait, watch, and water well when (and only when!) the soil has dried out enough to need more.
Remember that tending to the appropriate sunlight, temperature, humidity, and fertilizer requirements of your particular plants will also help to keep them healthy and robust.6