Houseplants and Water: How to Know When a Potted Plant Needs Water

Watering your plants is a little bit art and a little bit science. If you’re wondering how to know when a potted plant needs water, it’s good advice to first do some research on the plant so you know exactly what the plant likes.

But it’s also good advice to take a more artful approach and just observe the plant to see what it’s doing.

All plants have certain conditions that they like. Dry soil, moist, lots of sun, a little sun.

But each individual plant is unique, too. So you have to get to know your own plants to be able to tell what’s just right for it.

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Step 1: Know What the Plant Likes

How to Know when a potted plant needs water

The first thing you need to know in order to tell if a potted plant needs water is what exactly the plant likes in the first place.

Plants like Ferns are happy with moist soil so you stand less of a chance of overwatering them.

Succulents on the other hand prefer the soil to dry out before you water them again.

It makes sense when you think about it because Ferns grow naturally on damp forest floors and succulents grow naturally in arid deserts.

So if you have a fern and a succulent, you can’t keep them on the same watering schedule. You have to know when the Fern is ready for more water and when the succulent is ready for more water.

The easiest way to know what your plant likes is to have a trusted resource for plants. I use the plant directory in How To Houseplant or the Plant Care Guides on Bloomscape.

Step 2: Feel the Soil

Once you know what your plant likes, it’s time to get dirty.

My green-thumbed mother would tell me to “feel the soil” when I asked how to know when a potted plant needs water.

So dainty me would touch the top of the soil and if it felt dry, I would water.

That’s not how you do it.

How to Know When A Potted Plant Needs water - Woman testing dirt.

For most plants, you need to actually stick your finger 2-3 inches into the soil to check if it’s dry!

Told you you were going to have to get dirty.

If at 2-3 inches deep the soil is dry, then the plant needs some water.

Step 3: Other Methods

There are other ways to tell if your plant needs water that don’t require sticking your finger in the dirty. Personally, I think finger in the dirt is the best method to start with because it’s hard to get it wrong.

Once you get comfortable with your plants, you may be able to tell if they need water just by picking them up. If they feel considerably lighter than they do right after watering, then they are probably dry.

You could also try a moisture meter if you really are worried about over or under-watering. This will work, but, to me, a big part of caring for the plants is getting your hands a little dirty!

How to Water a Potted Plant

Once you’ve determined that your plant does indeed need some water, it’s time to, you guessed it, water your plant.

You do definitely want to invest in a watering can as an essential supply for your houseplants. It will make things easier and neater for you in the long run especially as your plant collection grows.

You aren’t going to want to be refilling a cup at the sink over and over again.

When you water your houseplants, whether it’s a moisture loving fern or a dry soil loving succulent, you want to be generous with water.

Water the plant until there is excess running out of the drainage hole at the bottom of the plant. (This is another reason that the right pot for a houseplant will have a drainage hole! How will you know when to stop watering if the excess isn’t draining?)

Water all the way around the plant, not just in the center or at one side. Having a watering can is going to make this much easier.

If your watering a plant with a saucer, dump out the water that collects in the saucer.

If your pot has a drainage hole but no saucer, you’re going to want to water them in the sink or somewhere that can collect the excess water.

There are some plants that you are not going to want to water from the top of the plant.

Some plants need to be “bottom-watered” which means you’re going to need to sit the bottom of the plant in a bowl of water for about 30 minutes and allow the water to be absorbed from the bottom up.

African violets are an example of a plant that will want bottom watering. So double check what your plant likes if you aren’t sure if it wants top or bottom watering.

Signs That You’ve Watered Too Much or Too Little

You will make mistakes and over-water or under-water your houseplants at times.

Even if you’re an experienced houseplant caretaking, sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get to understand when a new plant is happy with its water situation.

Don’t worry. There are signs of both over-watering and under-watering that you can watch out for.

Signs of Over-Watering

  • Droopy leaves
  • Yellowing leaves

If you see that your plants are showing signs of over-watering, first of all, test the soil. If it’s wet, then it’s probably over-watering.

Let the soil dry out completely before watering them again.

Signs of Under-Watering

  • Drooping
  • Leaves that turn brown or brittle
  • Soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot

Wait, some of this sounds a lot like the signs of Over-Watering. That’s why we stick our finger in the soil.

You might not even have to do that if you suspect under-watering because if the soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot and if water doesn’t seem like it’s absorbing when you do water, then under-watering is probably your culprit.

If you’ve under-watered your plant, you can give it a soaking until it starts absorbing some water. If all else fails, you can try repotting the plant with fresh potting soil.

Ready to Water

You’ve got all of the information you need to feel confident in watering your plants. Learn about what your plant likes in general and then keep an eye out and see what your unique plant might like specifically.

It’s what makes houseplants fun!