Overwatering is reportedly the number 1 cause of indoor plant death in general and also in my home. I truly attribute this to the nature of plant lovers. We are people that like to nurture things and shower them with affection. Unfortunately, if you are showering them with both water and affection too often you might end up accidentally unaliving them.
What is overwatering?
As the Missouri Botanical Garden puts it:
“Heavy and poorly drained soils are susceptible to becoming waterlogged. Roots growing in waterlogged soil may die because they cannot absorb the oxygen needed to function normally. The longer the air is cut off, the greater the root damage. The dying roots decay and cannot supply the plants with nutrients and water.”
In other words, overwatering is drowning the roots. Much like us, if the roots can’t absorb oxygen they can’t do their job to feed & hydrate the plant.
In a plant with proper drainage, overwatering refers to the FREQUENCY with which you water your plant, not the amount. Without proper drainage, it can be unclear how much water is being absorbed and used in the soil. This should be avoided because we are not plant mind-readers and cannot accurately guess how much they are drinking and when.
Overwatering signs & symptoms:
It’s easy to identify overwatering when you have to stop yourself from running interference for the pots at Lowe’s that are filled to the brim with water but can be more difficult to spot on your indoor plants at home. You may notice some or all of the following:
Yellowing leaves: Yellowing leaves can be confusing because (as a simple Google search will tell you) they can be a sign of both overwatering or underwatering. If you are watering inconsistently, you will typically see some brown crispiness along with the yellowing. Yellow with a side of mushiness (leaves or stem) is your plant’s tell for overwatering.
Wilting: You may see your plant or just the branches/stems start to wilt if they have been overwatered. Again - you will start to see the difference between a thirsty plant and an overly-hydrated plant. This isn’t the pout of a thirsty Syngonium, it’s the off-kilter, heavy lean of a plant whose support has turned mushy.
Root rot: The dreaded root rot. When roots consistently exist in excess moisture, they are unable to do their job and succumb to rot. Roots will turn brown, mushy, and often emit an unpleasant smell. Untreated, this will be the end of your beloved houseplant. Because you can’t revive a root once it is rotted, it is necessary to trim away the infected parts with clean shears and repot the plant in new soil and a freshly-cleaned planter. Healthy root systems are bright white or yellow, while waterlogged roots are black or brown. Carefully remove the plant from its pot, gently brush away any loose soil, and cut out any black or mushy roots
Fungus gnats: Fungus gnats are annoying reminders that your soil is too moist (but very hospitable to these pests). Fighting fungus gnats is another beast entirely, but take these pesky creatures as a warning to ease up on your watering.
The path to recovery
If you catch your over-loving watering habits in time, the simple answer is……wait. Just wait to water your drowning plant until it dries through. If you love it, set it free (from overwatering).
I try not to stick to a regular watering schedule because different plants (sizes; environments; seasons) require different watering frequencies. For example, if I watered my snake plant every time I watered my alocasia, I might just end up with a limp snake. Bad imagery. Sorry. Moving on.
It’s best to test your soil for moisture before blindly watering it. I use my finger for smaller plants, but you can use any tool that will show you exactly where the moisture level is (wooden chopsticks work great). If you need something a little more black and white, try a moisture meter. Remember, different plants enjoy different levels of moisture. Do a little bit of research to learn what levels work best for that particular plant. Note whether the environment it is in is warm, cool, humid, dry, sunny, etc. All these things contribute to how the moisture will be absorbed.
If you feel like you really aren’t watering your plant that often but you are still seeing signs of overwatering, make sure to check out your plant. Do you have drainage holes, and are they clogged? (Hint: your answers should be YES and NO!). Is your soil retaining so much water that you can squeeze tons of excess out of it? You need chunkier soil!
Check your humidity, check your light, and if all else fails, virtual plant consults are a real thing.