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Underwatering -or- "Did I do thaaaat?"

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Although there are a ton of ways to, well, unalive a plant, underwatering is one of the most commonly feared causes of untimely plant death. Underwatering a houseplant occurs when a plant is not given enough water to sustain its growth and survival. This can cause the soil to dry out, the leaves to wilt, and the plant to become stunted or even


Signs that a houseplant has been underwatered include:

  1. Dry, brittle soil: The soil has gotten a case of the crispies. It will feel dry and hard to the touch - sometimes even a bit like styrofoam. It may pull away from the sides of the pot (the dreaded gap of death).

  2. Wilted or crispy leaves: The leaves will droop and appear wilted. They often become dry and crisp to the touch. Essentially, they look like you feel after drinking one too many glasses of wine.

  3. Brown leaf tips: The tips of the leaves may turn brown and dry, indicating that the plant is not getting enough water. This just in: this is the plant equivalent of split ends. They're not coming back. Just chop them.

  4. Slow growth: The plant may appear stunted and not grow as quickly as it should. Like us, plants need to drink water regularly to thrive. Even if you aren't noticing any of the other signs, you might want to consider your watering habits if your plant is just....stuck.


To fix underwatering, you can try the following:

  1. Watering: Crazy, right? Make sure that you are watering your plant ALL THE WAY THROUGH (or as Krystal says, "drown that hoe"). You want to see water draining from the bottom of the pot.

    • If the water is pooling at the top for longer than a few seconds, the soil has likely become too compact due to dryness. Break it up using a chopstick or whatever you have handy. If it is still in a flexible nursery pot, you can squeeze the sides to start breaking up the soil.

    • If you notice the water immediately running out of the bottom, your roots and soil are not absorbing it. Check it out to see if the plant is potentially rootbound or if the soil has become hydrophobic.

2. Soil: If the soil is dry and crumbly, we need to do some work to make sure it can do its job again. If you have tried breaking up the soil, but it either a. turns into smaller chunks of impermeable soil or b. is actually still just a block, you can try soaking it. Use a deep bowl that is able to fit your soil ball. Fill it with water, and add some kind of weight so your soil doesn't float. Once the soil has absorbed water, remove it from the bowl and squeeze the excess water as needed. What do you know? You've got non-hydrophobic soil! (Hydro-phillic? Hydro-happy?)

3. Frequency: Water the plant more frequently, making sure the soil does not dry out completely. Most plants are going to want water before they are totally parched, so check on them regularly. I just use my finger to feel for some kind of moisture in the soil, but cleaner people use a chopstick, a moisture meter, or even a grow probe. You might also be able to gage the moisture by feeling the weight of the pot - the lighter the pot, the drier the soil.

4. Drainage: Make sure that the pot has drainage holes to prevent waterlogged soil (and eventually root rot). We've all heard people say that you can put rocks at the bottom of the pot, but in reality, then you just have wet rocks. If your pot doesn't have a hole in the bottom, find a local shop to drill one for you (hi! Me!) OR get mad and drill it yourself. Be sure to use a diamond drill bit with water on your surface. Check out this tutorial, and maybe don't start with your very favorite pot. You'll get there!


Listen, we've all been there. I am guilty of forgetting I even own a plant until its soil can only be likened to styrofoam. It's important to not overcompensate and overwater the plant as it will time for the plant to drink that water and rehydrate. I have never been able to keep a strict watering schedule for all of my plants because their needs change with the seasons/weather, their pot size, root growth, etc. I find it best to do a quick check and water where it is needed. If that method is just NOT you, it might be helpful to use a plant journal to keep track of who is getting what and when. That way your missteps and successes will be well documented and therefore easy to replicate. Or not.

Happy Plant Parenting, friends!


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