Gardens Illustrated

How to avoid overwatering your plants this winter

As your houseplants take a break for the winter it can be easy to accidentally kill them with kindness. Here's how to avoid overwatering and even nurse waterlogged plants back to life.

In winter it’s not just hibernating animals that go to sleep to ride out the cold weather. Your houseplants do the same, reigning in their growth, conserving their energy, making the most of what little light and food there is and generally putting all the fun stuff on hold until things get a little brighter and warmer.

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It’s tempting therefore to start to treat them a little differently, be that bit more attentive as they appear to go into reverse and perhaps become a little more heavy-handed with the watering can.

Looking for more ways to avoid killing your houseplants? Go here.

group of pots inside pots
Are they ok? Do they need watering? It's tempting to over do it.

It’s easy to say ‘don’t overwater your plants this winter’, but what does that actually mean? What foolproof ways can we use to ensure that we’re not killing our dormant plants with kindness?

Fortunately, Richard Cheshire, Patch Plants' very own Plant Doctor has some simple guidelines to keep us all on the right track, and your plants on their way to a blooming spring.

Watch for waterlogged and mouldy soil

“Overwatering is one of the most common causes of mouldy plant soil in houseplants,” explains Richard. “We often think that more water equals a happier plant, but houseplants need air as well as water. Waterlogging the soil drowns the roots, and it could end up killing your plant.”

Is my houseplant overwatered?

There are four tell-tale signs that you've been overwatering your houseplants:

  • Wet soil. The soil around your plant should not be wet, and leave your finger wet when you touch it. Instead go for ‘lightly moist’ for most plants.
  • Yellow or falling leaves. When your plants are too full of water, their leaves will turn yellow and might even drop off.
  • Mushy growth. Some plants, like aloe vera or other succulents, will turn from their familiar, firm selves into a squishier, slimier form when overwatered. Give them a light squeeze to check.
  • A musty smell. If you sniff the soil and it has a new, unpleasant damp smell then you’re most likely overwatering.

How to avoid overwatering your houseplants

Do the finger dip test

Finger_Dip_Test
Patch Plant's simple (and lovely) dip test guide will keep you right.

A quick common sense check with a finger can tell you all you need to know. Instead of watering when you think your plant needs watering, through winter, get into the habit of checking first before you reach for your watering can. Simply dip your finger up to your second knuckle into the soil. Pull it out and if your finger comes out dry and clean, then it’s time to water. Ideally, only water your plants when the top two inches of soil feel dry. And for cacti and succulents, it is best to water only when the soil is fully dry.

Avoid repotting directly in decorative pots

decorative pots
Decorative pots look great, but if there's no drainage then roots may become waterlogged.

We all have our favourite decorative pots but they may not be really suitable for potting and growing plants. Often decorative pots – with a multitude of uses – do not have proper drainage holes at the bottom, making the plant more prone to overwatering and excess water has nowhere to escape.

Unless you're confident with your ability to correctly assess the moisture of the soil around your plants, always place your plant in a pot with drainage holes at the bottom.

You can always hide this functional pot inside a more decorative larger pot, or pot cover.

Make sure that excess water can drain off

Watering individually over a sink ensures that excess water drains away.
Watering individually over a sink ensures that excess water drains away.

Place your plants in a pot with with a saucer below to catch the excess water coming from its drainage holes. Alternatively, if you are using a pot without a drainage hole, water your plant in a sink or bathtub and let the excess drain off before putting it back in its decorative pot without a drainage hole.

Help air circulation at the roots

Check the soil around your plants
Make sure the soil around your plants isn't too compacted and poke holes to allow air to circulate.

Simply poke holes in the soil with a finger, pencil or a long stick (depending on the size of pot and plant) which will help air circulate, but be careful not to damage the roots. Air circulation prevents roots from rotting and promotes good growth.

Use a moisture meter

moisture meter

If you don’t trust your finger and your judgement then let science do the calculating for you. A moisture meter will accurately monitor the amount of water in the soil and – if you’re forgetful as to when you last watered – they’re a perfect reminder to re-water. Naturally, meters available range from the inexpensive – which change colour when the soil is too wet or dry – to fancier ones with digital displays.

Use a water dispenser

water dispenser

These days they’ve thought of everything. Water dispensers deliver water right to where it’s needed – the root – meaning that your plant doesn’t sit overwhelmed in soggy soil. Just fill the bulbs of your chosen slow release water dispenser with water and let your plant drink what it needs.

Just be sure to refill it once you see that it’s empty.

How to bring an over watered plant back to life

Young hipster woman tending to her succulent house plants
With regular checking to dry out the soil around it, you can nurse an overwatered plant back to life.

There’s good news. Provided the damage isn’t too great you can bring your plant back to its former glory simply by letting it dry out a little. It might seem a little harsh but simply stop watering until the soil is dry.

If you’re really worried you could try repotting the plant in fresh, new, dry potting compost. Break away and leave behind any wet, unpleasant smelling old materials and place your wet plant into its new dry cosy bed.

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And then – of course – recommence watering, but sticking strictly to the advice above. Good luck!

Authors

Daniel GriffithsDigital Editor

Daniel Griffiths is a veteran journalist who has worked on some of the biggest home and entertainment brands in the world. He is a serial house-renovator and home improvement expert, taking on everything from interior design and DIY to landscape gardening and garden design.

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