Underwatered vs Overwatered Houseplants - Signs and How to Save Them

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Water plays a crucial role in the overall health and growth of houseplants. Just like humans, plants require an adequate supply of water to survive and thrive. Water is involved in numerous vital processes within plants, including nutrient absorption, photosynthesis, and maintaining cell structure. Having a proper watering schedule can keep your plant healthy and thriving and protect it from many issues. However, striking the right balance between too much and too little can be challenging.

Underwatering and overwatering thus are among the most common problems encountered by houseplant owners. Both can have detrimental effects on plant health and can lead to various complications if not addressed promptly. Understanding the signs, causes, and solutions for underwatered and overwatered houseplants is crucial for maintaining your green friends’ vigor and health. 

The Importance of Correct Watering

First and foremost, correct watering is vital for nutrient absorption and utilization. Water serves as a medium through which plants absorb and transport essential nutrients from the soil to different parts of their structure. Adequate moisture in the soil allows roots to efficiently take up these nutrients, enabling plants to thrive and develop optimally. Underwatering can limit nutrient availability, leading to deficiencies and poor growth, while overwatering can disrupt nutrient uptake and cause nutrient imbalances.

In addition to nutrient absorption, proper watering is essential for healthy root development and growth. By maintaining consistent soil moisture levels, plants are encouraged to develop robust and extensive root systems. 

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Correct watering will protect the plants from common diseases.

Photo by Ronstik

Correct watering also directly impacts photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light energy into chemical energy for growth and survival. Water is a vital component in photosynthesis, as it is used to transport carbon dioxide into plant cells and facilitate the production of glucose and oxygen.

Proper watering also contributes to the overall resilience of houseplants against pests and diseases. Water-stressed plants are more vulnerable to pest infestations and disease development, as their weakened state compromises their natural defenses.

It is important to note that watering requirements may vary based on the specific needs of each plant species, environmental conditions, and growth stages. Adjusting watering practices accordingly and regularly monitoring soil moisture levels are key to providing plants with the optimal amount of water they require.

Underwatered Houseplants

Effects of Underwatering on Houseplants

  • Damaged foliage: When plants lack water, their leaves and stems lose turgidity and become limp.
  • Root Damage: Roots are responsible for absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. Underwatering causes the roots to shrink and become brittle. Prolonged water stress can result in root damage, impairing the plant's ability to absorb water effectively and exacerbating the effects of underwatering.
  • Hindered growth: Water is essential for the process of photosynthesis, which produces energy for plant growth. Insufficient water supply limits photosynthesis, leading to reduced energy production and hindering overall growth.
  • Increased Susceptibility to Pests and Diseases: Underwatered plants are more susceptible to temperature extremes, pests, and diseases. Water stress weakens the plant's natural defense mechanisms, making it more vulnerable to external factors that can further compromise its health.

Signs of Underwatering

  • Wilting: One of the primary signs of underwatering is wilting. The leaves of the plant may appear limp, droopy, and lack turgidity. In some cases, the entire plant may droop.
  • Dry and Crispy Foliage: Underwatered plants often exhibit dry and crispy foliage. The leaves may feel brittle to the touch. The leaves may curl or develop brown edges.
  • Leaf Yellowing and Browning: When a plant is underwatered, its leaves may begin to turn yellow or brown. This can start at the tips or edges of the leaves and gradually spread throughout the foliage.
  • Stunted Growth: Insufficient water supply can stunt a plant's growth. Underwatered plants may grow slower and this is particularly noticeable in younger or actively growing plants.
  • Soil Dryness: When you check the soil with your finger or a moisture meter, it may feel very dry to the touch.
  • Leaf Drop: In extreme cases of underwatering, plants may shed leaves as a survival mechanism. This is a way for the plant to reduce its water loss and conserve resources during periods of drought.

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Yellow leaves and brown tips can be the signs of underwatered houseplants

Photo by Irina Tiumentseva

How to Save An Underwatered Houseplant

  • Thoroughly water the plant: Place the pot in a sink or basin and slowly pour water onto the soil until excess water drains out from the drainage holes. Allow the plant to soak up water for 15-30 minutes, ensuring that the entire root ball is thoroughly moistened. 
  • Monitor and adjust the watering schedule: Keep a close eye on the plant's recovery progress. Observe any changes in its appearance and monitor its growth. Evaluate your watering routine and make necessary adjustments. Underwatered plants often require more frequent watering. Regularly check the moisture level of the soil and water when the top inch of the soil feels dry. 

Overwatered Houseplants

Effects of Overwatering on Houseplants

  • Root rot: The number one plant silent killer! When the soil is consistently saturated, it deprives the roots of oxygen, leading to the growth of root-rotting fungi and bacteria, which attack and decay the roots. Damaged roots are unable to take up water and nutrients effectively to keep the plant alive and healthy.
  • Fungal diseases: Overwatering creates a damp and humid environment that promotes the growth of fungal pathogens. Fungal diseases can further weaken the plant and impede its growth.
  • Mushy foliage: When a plant is overwatered, the excessive moisture in the soil prevents the roots from properly absorbing oxygen. The lack of oxygen leads to a condition called hypoxia, where the plant's cells are deprived of oxygen necessary for their normal functioning. As a result, the cells may become waterlogged and look mushy. 
  • Slow growth: Excessive water in the soil can inhibit root development and restrict oxygen availability. This leads to slowed or stunted growth in overwatered plants. 

Signs of Overwatering 

  • Yellowing, wilting, falling mushy leaves: Overwatering interferes with nutrient uptake and can lead to nutrient deficiencies, resulting in leaf discoloration, waterlogged and dying foliage. 
  • Mushy, discolored, and foul-smelling roots: These are the signs of root rot.
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Wilting, falling mushy leaves are signs of overwatered houseplants
Photo by Firn

How to Save an Overwatered Houseplant

  • Drain all excess water and place the plant in an area with good airflow and ventilation to dry out the moisture. Avoid placing the plant near cold drafts or direct heat sources, as extreme temperature changes can further stress the plant.
  • Stop watering until the topsoil is dry to the touch.
  • If there are signs of root rot, remove your plant from the pot and trim off damaged roots before repotting in well-draining soil. Make sure to disinfect the tools between cuts to avoid spreading the diseases.
  • Make sure you optimize drainage using a well-drained soil mix and a porous pot with drainage holes.
  • Provide proper care: In addition to addressing the overwatering issue, ensure that the plant receives adequate light and appropriate temperature to help it recover. 
  • Monitor and adjust the watering schedule: Keep a close eye on the plant's recovery progress. Adjust your watering routine and check the soil’s moisture before watering. 

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