How to tell if you are overwatering your plant

When it comes to plants there are two types of people: the forgetful and the overprotective parents. The first group are those who completely forget to water or tend to their plants, and may even forget that they have plants at all. The second group are the ones who are always checking their plants, fertilising, touching and watering them. The irony of the matter is that both end up with the same result: dead plants. Believe it or not, too much affection and attention to your plant can be just as fatal as neglect, if not worse.

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One of the most common problems is overwatering. You may be following your watering instructions to the letter, but your plant is still not growing and looks more like it is about to cross the rainbow. What happens is that watering instructions are usually rather referential, as the amount and frequency of watering will even depend on environmental factors. But don't worry, we're ready to teach you all about it. You will learn how to tell if you are overwatering your plant, how to rescue it and how to avoid this mistake in the future.

Signs that you are overwatering

  • Sagging and heavy stems

Your plant looks wilted and droopy, but when you touch the substrate it's moist. It's strange, because the plant looks green, but sad and with heavy stems. In fact, you touch the leaves and far from feeling dry or crisp, they feel heavy and sad. You should pay attention to the base of the trunk, which is in contact with the substrate, because it is the first part to rot.

  • Brown leaves

Leaves turn brown when the roots cannot meet the plant's demand for moisture, so they start distributing what they can get to maintain the most basic processes, leaving the higher and more distant parts first, which will start to dry out and the tissue will eventually die. This happens when you don't water enough, but if you water too much, you will drown the roots which will not be able to absorb the water well and you will have the same effect because in both cases the roots are affected. Keep an eye on the tips of the leaves, which are the first to suffer.

  • Edema

The root of the plant is an efficient machine that absorbs water to supply the plant's needs. But if it has too much at its disposal, then water pressure begins to build up in the leaf cells. These cells burst, forming a kind of blister-like lesion. These lesions burst open and grow into granular formations that look like warts. This is often seen on vegetables, leaves of succulents and other plants. It does not cause severe damage on its own, but it does spoil the plant and its fruit.

  • Yellow leaves falling off

This is one of those typical signs that almost everyone recognises right away. The leaves and stems of the plant look yellowish, heavy and light in colour. On top of that, the plant stops growing and developing. The yellowing of the leaves has a name: chlorosis and occurs when the leaf lacks chlorophyll, which is what gives it the green pigment. Without enough chlorophyll, the plant stops synthesising sunlight, i.e. it does not photosynthesise, so it cannot feed itself and will die.

  • Root rot

This symptom is not visible to the naked eye, you would have to remove the plant from the pot. In any case, pay attention to the base of the stem, as it darkens and becomes soft. When the substrate remains wet for too long, this creates the perfect conditions for certain fungi to proliferate and do their thing. Fungi such as Pythium, Fusarium and Phytophthora will happily thrive in poorly drained, clayey, over-watered and oxygen-poor soils.

The first symptoms of root rot are yellow leaves and drooping stems. If you take the plant out of the substrate and look at the roots, you will notice that they are brown, look slimy and smell rotten, musty and mouldy. At this point, the damage is irreparable. The big problem is that if the plant is in the ground or shares a pot with another plant, the fungus will contaminate the substrate and can spread to other plants. It is a disease that spreads.

Rescuing a plant that has been overwatered

It is important to bear in mind that not all plants that have suffered from overwatering can be saved. In fact, it is much easier to rescue a plant that has dried out due to lack of watering than one that has been over-watered; too much moisture attracts fungus and other problems that affect the roots immediately. If this is the case and the plant dies, it is advisable to throw it away with all the substrate, as it will be contaminated with fungus and it is possible that it will remain there until you plant a new plant. If you are going to keep the pot, don't forget to wash it thoroughly with soap and water.

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The most important thing when trying to save a plant that has been overwatered is to act quickly. Don't let too much time pass and get to work with these first aid measures for rescuing drowned plants:

  • Even if your plant is in full sun, move it under cover. I know the first instinct is to put the plant in the sun to dry out, but this will only exacerbate the problem. What happens is that when in shade, a plant will use less water so the roots will stop absorbing the excess water that is in the substrate and that is what causes problems such as oedema.
  • Make sure the pot has drainage holes and that the water has a way to drain out. If it is on a saucer to hold the water, take it out of the saucer and allow it to drain freely.
  • Take the pot, tilt it and tap it to loosen the substrate. The idea is that if the substrate is almost solid from excess water, by moving it around you are creating air bubbles that will help it dry out more quickly, as well as allowing the root to get some oxygen.
  • If the size of the plant allows, you can move it to a new pot with fresh, new substrate. This will allow the roots to grow in a new environment that will give it the nutrients and oxygen it needs, immediately eliminating excess moisture that can compromise root health.
  • Allow the substrate to dry and evaporate naturally. Water only when it feels dry to the touch. Do not wait too long as this extreme will cause additional shock and stress to the poor plant. If during the waiting process you see that the plant is drying out too much, you can mist or spray it with a little fresh water.
  • Avoid using fertiliser on a plant that is in the process of recovering from overwatering, as the roots are vulnerable and you may cause fertiliser burn. Once you notice that the plant has resumed its growth process, has new leaves and looks better, you can resume the fertiliser cycle.
  • You can use a broad spectrum fungicide, just as a preventative as excess moisture is the perfect breeding ground for fungi that can lodge in the roots and kill your plant.
  • Once you have taken all these precautions, you will know if the plant will make it or not within a week or so.

How to avoid overwatering

The secret to not having to deal with the terrible results of over-watering is one: prevention. In addition, providing just the right amount of water not only prevents problems with your plants, but it's better for the environment because you're not wasting water. Here are a few tips to make sure you're doing it right:

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- Choose the right plants: While it's true that you can grow almost anything with the right care, it's best to choose plants that are best suited to the natural environmental conditions of your space and your particular needs. In fact, you can look for plants that grow in water if you are one of those who can't leave the watering can alone.

  • Use the right substrate. Using the right substrate for the type of plant you are growing is essential to prevent problems with moisture retention that can affect certain types of plants. If you have purchased plants that prefer dry or well-drained soils, such as succulents or similar, it is best to mix the substrate with a little perlite or sand, which facilitates drainage. A good trick is to use a layer of pebbles, pebbles, expanded clay or pieces of polystyrene at the bottom of the pot to facilitate drainage.
  • Location, location, location. Just like when you buy a flat, location is everything to plants. Not only should you offer them the amount of light they require, but it is advisable to group them with other plants that have similar watering needs. You can create 3 groups: those that require frequent watering, those that require moderate watering and those that prefer to be left to die of thirst. This will help add structure to your watering schedules, plus they will balance each other's humidity levels.
  • Conserve moisture. The only time I ever had a problem with overwatering was because I had some plants in full sun and the substrate dried out very quickly. I was terrified that the plants would die, so I watered too often and came close to killing them. The solution to this is very simple: protect the substrate. A layer of mulch prevents evaporation from the sun as well as keeping the soil temperature cooler, even in summer. Depending on the mulch you choose, you may even be able to prevent waterlogging.
  • Use self-watering. In our shop we have valuable accessories for automatic watering of any plant. This way, you can forget about schedules and quantities, as the plants will get just the right amount of water they need. You can also use humidity sensors that indicate when it is the perfect time to water.
  • Do not rely blindly on watering instructions. They give a general idea of the plant's needs. They may indicate whether they like dry, moist or well-drained soil, for example. They are guidelines to guide you, but they are not rules that you have to follow to the letter. The problem with watering is that the amount of water a plant needs depends on the environmental conditions. For example, watering a plant in the middle of summer is not the same as watering it in winter. Therefore, always observe the substrate, its moisture levels and the time it takes before it dries out, and adjust watering instructions according to the needs of the plant and the space.
  • Avoid watering every time you see a plant drooping. Sometimes, especially in summer, plants can look a little depressed and wilted during the hottest hours. This is normal and, as soon as the atmosphere cools down, they will recover their appearance. Plants wilt for a variety of reasons, so it is better to make a diagnosis than to use the watering can. Beware of dramatic plants such as Phytonia, Basil and others that faint easily at any environmental change that causes them stress.
  • Check before watering. I like to take a wooden stick (like the disposable ones you get in Asian restaurants) and dip it into the substrate before watering. This gives me an idea of the moisture content of the substrate, because if I were to rely only on the first few centimetres of the substrate, I might overwater because the deep part of the substrate is still wet.
About the author
Ame Rodríguez

Dedicated to creating an army of cacti, succulents, poodles and cats to help me conquer the world. In the little free time I have left, I play, write and dance.