Overwatering is a common beginner mistake. Unfortunately, if unchecked, it can quickly lead to your plant’s demise. So, in this article, I’ll go through how to save an overwatered plant.
Too much water happens a lot because we’ve learned somewhere along the way that sunshine, water and fertilizer help plant grow.
Unfortunately, what most people forget to mention is that too much of any of these components will also damage or destroy your plant.
As such, many owners end up killing their plants with kindness.
Here’s why overwatering is bad for plants. And, what to do in case you discover that your plant is overwatered.
The Dangers of Overwatering Plants
Overwatering is the #1 cause of dead for plants in pots. As such, it is the most important thing to look out for when growing houseplants or container plants.
The issue is less of a problem in the garden because they get a lot of sunlight. And, unless your garden soil is heavy or retains a lot of moisture, it will somehow drain the excess downwards.
Unfortunately, that’s not he case with pots and containers.
More importantly, unlike low light, hot conditions, neglect or poor soil, plants are not able to tolerate or adapt to too much water.
So, you can end up killing your plants with kindness like many beginners do as they tend to water more often.
The reason overwatering harms plants is two-fold.
- Too much water will cause root rot. A plant’s roots are its source of sustenance. That’s because it absorbs moisture and nutrients from the soil using its root tips. Additionally, roots absorb oxygen. This makes the balance between oxygen and water very important. That’s because only one of the two can take up the crevices and small air pockets in the soil. With overwatering, all these air pockets are clogged with water. As a result, the roots are drowned and the plant suffocates. Allowing roots to sit in water for long periods of time on a regular basis will lead to root rot. Note that short term soaking like that when you thoroughly water the plant or apply deep watering does not harm the roots. However, if that excess moisture is not drains completely it can lead to problems. Here, 10-15 minutes is no problem. But anything more than 30 minutes can start causing some issues.
- Overwatering increases the risk of diseases. Excess moisture is the breeding ground for mold, fungus and other infections. They need this environment to thrive. And by overwatering you encourage these problems. As such, well-draining soil is very important so that the plants are able to get enough nutrients through the water but the excess water is drained out to allow the roots to breathe.
How to Tell If Your Plant Is Overwatered?
Overwatered plants will give you signs of the problem. But, you have to know what to look for.
In many cases, the symptoms of overwatering overlap with those of underwatering. As such, it can be misleading.
The best way to tell one from the other when you’re not sure is to check the soil.
If the symptoms are there and the soil is moist or wet, it is very likely due to overwatering. But, if the symptoms are there and the soil is very dry and hard, odds are it is due to lack of water.
Here are the most common signs of an overwatered plant.
- Yellow leaves. Yellow leaves can be a sign of aging. Old leaves turn yellow. But if many leaves turn yellow around the same time something bad is happening. It can be too much sun, overfertilizing or something else. But, more often than not, it is too much water. That said, brown leaves can be caused by overwatering as well. So always check the soil for wetness if you see either change in color.
- Wilting if the plant still hasn’t has the opportunity to dry unfortunately, this can be misleading as both overwatered and underwatered plants can both wilt. So, you need to know what you’re looking for. Wilted leaves in overwatered plants will look soft and limp. On the other hand, wiling in plants that lack water present themselves as dry and more crisp.
- Rotted or damaged roots. Wilted leaves are actually a result of roots that are in trouble. So you always want to check to see if the roots are okay if you see yellow or wilted leaves in an overwatered plant. That’s because wilting happens when water clogs the air pockets preventing oxygen from getting to the roots. As the roots weaken, die or get diseased, they can’t absorb water as well, which results in wilting. This is why it is important to check the soil for moisture before watering. If you add more water when the plant is wilting without checking the soil first, it will drown the plant until the roots are completely rotted.
Other symptoms of overwatering include:
- Soft stems or puffy looking stems.
- Brown spots on leaves
- Dropping leaves.
- Stunted growth or slower grown than usual.
- Fungus and mold developing.
- Powdery mildew, fungus gnats and other pests.
Overwatering: Causes and Prevention
So why are plants overwatered?
Unfortunately, in container plants, it is mostly man-made. The good news is, this makes it easy to fix and reverse as long as you catch it early.
The biggest problem with overwatering is that it is very difficult to undo the damage once it gets past a certain point.
As such, knowing the causes of overwatering will help you avoid the unpleasant results.
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Watering Too Often
The most common reason for overwatering it watering your plants too frequently.
Many beginners like to water too often because they think the plant needs that much water. Additionally, it requires a bit of experience to understand and realize that each plant’s watering needs are different.
As such, plants are often treated the same way. This causes some plants to be overwatered while others are underwatered.
Additionally, following a fixed schedule can be damaging as the weather affects how much water the plant will need. This means you’ll likely need to water more often in summer and much less in winter.
Poorly Draining Soil
The next common issue is the type of soil.
The kind of soil you use affects how quickly or slowly water is drained. As such, you can water perfectly, meaning the right amount with he right frequency and still end up overwatering your plants.
That’s because the soil retains the water for long periods of time.
As a result, the plant’s roots end up sitting in water while oxygen is not able to get to the roots. Over time, this can develop into root rot.
Thus, it is important to know what kind of soil your plant needs.
Most houseplants are tropicals. As such, they prefer well-draining soil. This kind of soil holds just enough water to keep the plant hydrated while draining excess moisture.
Note that well-draining soil with lots of organic matter can get compacted over time. If you use this kind of soil, it is important to replace the soil every year or so to prevent this issue.
As a result, many houseplant owners tend to use perlite, pumice and coarse sand instead. These media improve soil drainage without posing the same compaction problem.
As mentioned, different plants have different watering needs. This means understanding when to water each plant.
Here 3 things come into play.
- How often you water – this is actually easy to get right once you figure out that each plant’s water need is different. As such, you don’t water them all at the same time and do so invidiually.
- What kind of soil – soil composition and drainage affects how quickly they dry up or stay wet. This goes in conjunction with frequency. But can magnify or reduce the end result based on how quickly or slowly the soil drains moisture.
- How you water – Finally, how you water is also important. With thirsty plants a good soaking is important. However, whether they like dry soil or wet soil will determine if you use fast-draining or well retaining soil. For example, cacti need a lot of water but after getting doused, the soil should be able to quickly drain the excess. In contrast, plants with shallow roots are better off with wider, shorter containers so their roots don’t drown in water. Soaking these plants with tons on water is likewise not a good idea.
The right sized container allows enough space for roots to grow while accommodating enough moisture for the plant to quench its thirst.
- Larger pots contain more soil. As such, it also takes in more water. This means is takes longer for the soil to dry out. While you don’t need to water as frequently, it also puts the plant at a higher risk of overwatering since the ratio of roots to soil skews towards the latter.
- Smaller pots dry out quicker since they have less soil. The drawbacks here is that an overly small container will keep the plant pot bound. Some plants like this environment while others suffer because of it. This is why repotting is needed once the pot is too small of the plant. Smaller pots also mean you need to water more often. Thus, the risk of lack of water can happen of you forget or are too busy.
Warm weather causes more evaporation. And, cold weather slows it down.
As such, you need to adjust how much and often you water in the summer and the winter when the weather will swing one way or another.
In addition to drainage, water also evaporates. However, the rate at which water from the soil evaporates depends in part to humidity.
The more moisture there is in the air (higher humidity), the slower water evaporates from the soil.
And, because most houseplants come from tropical regions, they need humid conditions to thrive.
This high humidity increases the risk of overwatering since excess water in the soil does not evaporate as fast without the extra humidity.
Like your clothes when hung outside the dry, windy weather will cause soil to dry out faster than during non-windy days.
Obviously, this only affects plants in containers that are left outside.
The kind of pot you use also affects how much water is stored. Plastic is not porous. So, it will help retain water, less you create small holes on the sides manually.
Terracotta pots are porous making them helpful in avoiding overwatering as some moisture is able to escape through the container.
This is a requirement for all pots. You want to have at least one drainage hole at the bottom of the container. This allows the excess water drained from the soil to drip out of the container.
In cold weather, some plants will go dormant. Although, there are also other reasons for this. But in most cases it is because their activity slows during cold weather.
When this happens, they don’t need much water.
Is It Possible to Fix an Overwatered Plant and How Long Does It Take?
In most cases, you’ll be able to fix an overwatered plant and nurse them back to full healthy. But, a complete recover depends on a few factors.
How Early is the Problem Caught?
This is one of the most important. I can’t stress how critical it is to spot the problem early.
Past a certain point, it takes longer for the plant to recover. And, further along, they can recover but not fully. As such, you’ll see some deficiencies afterward.
Then, there’s that dark area after they pass a certain threshold. It’s like the point of no return where you can try different solutions but the plant continues to deteriorate.
Past this point, you’ll likely end up throwing the plant away.
Thus, regular inspection for symptoms and always checking the soil before you water are essential.
Some plants are hardier than others. Similarly, some are delicate which makes them easily get overwhelmed by overwatering.
The former has the best chance of recovering. The latter likely won’t.
Then there are those in between. Of these, some will fully recover while others will come back but not be the same as they once were.
Amount of Damage it has Sustained
The more damage there is, the harder the recovery will be. Often, this has to do with the magnitude of the damage and how early you catch the problem.
For the former, light overwatering on a regular basis will not cause as much damage as heavy overwatering. But, things even out if you catch the latter circumstance early and let the light overwatering keep going for many months.
In most cases, you’ll either need to trim off infected or damaged parts and hope they grow back healthy. Often, this will take a while to happen.
Repotting and giving them dry, well-draining soil to start over also helps in many situations.
Treatment and Aftercare
What you do and how you do it affect the outcome as well. unfortunately, there are right and wrong ways to treat an overwatered plant.
In addition to spotting the problem early, figuring out the cause also helps. This way, you can change your watering schedule, the kind of soil your use, how much you water or something else.
Fast growing plants tend to recover quicker than slow growing ones.
As such, the time of recovery varies significantly. For example, slow growing shrubs can take years to get back to where they were before overwatering. On the other hand, a strong tropical plant may do so in one growing season.
How To Fix/Save An Overwatered Plant
Once you realize that a plant is suffering from overwatering, the goal it to try and save it.
Then, reverse all the previous actions that led to the situations and let the plant recover.
Here are some useful tips that will help you fix an overwatered plant.
Stop watering. Don’t water until you’ve fixed the situation.
- Check for drainage. Make sure the pot has drainage holes and that these are not covered or blocked. The excess moisture needs somewhere to escape.
- Move the plant away from bight light. most houseplants need medium to bright light to grow their best. But, with roots that are clogged, you want to limit the plant’s growth since it cannot be sustained by the struggling roots.
- Stop fertilizer even if it is growing season. Again you want to keep the plant from growing, at least until the plant recovers.
- Place the plant in a warm area. This will help excess moisture evaporate. Avoid overly hot locations. Just 3 to 5 degrees will help a lot.
- Create air pockets. Overwatered plants have moisture that blocking the air pockets. This makes them suffocate which leads to root rot. As such, you want to introduce more oxygen to allow them to breathe. One way is to move the soil by tilting the pot or keep it unbalanced so the soil will open up new air pockets for oxygen to get through to the roots.
- Repot. This will let you start fresh but introducing well-draining soil that’s currently dry. In doing so, the plant is able to escape the wet, soggy soil is was in. if you spot damaged roots (black, mushy ones), cut them off. If you’re using regular potting mix, add perlite or coarse sand. Adding chunky pieces of bark also allows for more air pockets.
- Only water when the soil is dry. In most cases, the soil will still be moist. You want to allow the soil to dry a bit before watering again. This means waiting for the top soil to dry at least 2 inches before watering.
- Wait. It will take about 1 to 2 weeks to see any signs of recovery. So, patience if important.
All About Root Rot
Root rot is one of the worst plant problems you’ll see. That’s because if not found early and treated, it will eventually cause the plant to die.
Root rot is a result of overwatering. That’s because roots need oxygen as much as they need water. And, the air pockets in loose soil allow them to breathe.
But, when overwatered, moisture clogs all these air pockets. So, the roots end up drowning in water.
And without oxygen they eventually get damaged and die.
When this happens, the roots which look firm and dirty white in color, turn black, brown and mushy. They’ll also stink as they become rotten.
The problem is, root rot will often start with a few roots and quickly spread destroying other roots if not treated or discovered soon.
Since the roots are hidden from sight due to the soil, it’s not always easy to tell unless you take the plant out of its container and check the roots.
Once enough roots get destroyed, the plant will not be able to absorb enough water and nutrients from the soil. As a result, the plant will get weaker.
When too many of the roots are damaged, there’s no other option but to throw away the plants.
How to Treat Root Rot
There’s good and bad news here.
Root rot can be treated. But, you need to act quickly and discover the problem early enough.
Just as importantly, you need to take dramatic action. Minor adjustments and modifications will not be enough.
Here’s how to treat root rot to save an overwatered plant.
- Take the root ball out of the pot and check the roots.
- If you spot roots that have rotted or are rotting, wash away any mold present. Avoid damaging the remaining healthy roots as your plant will need them.
- Get pruning shears or a sterile pair or scissors. Then start snipping away any rotted roots. These are black, mushy and decayed. They’re very easy to spot against healthy roots which are white in color and firm to the touch.
- Cut off any yellow leaves as well. Prune them like you normally would damaged or discolored leaves.
- Remove the stems that are attached to the rotting or rotted roots. Since there are fewer healthy roots, the plant won’t be able to sustain the full size of its original self. So, you need to reduce its size on top to help it survive.
- Make sure to sterilize your cutting tools after you touch root rot since you’ll likely use them again for other plants.
- Repot the reduced plant. Get a smaller container that fits the plant then fill it with well draining soil.
- Water the plant in its new home then allow to completely drain. Leave it somewhere with enough light. Some gardeners add natural fungicide like chamomile tea to the water to fight fungal growth.
- Resume watering at a reduced rate. Cut back from your previous watering schedule. You want to avoid the same process that caused the root rot. And, since the plant is smaller with fewer roots, it won’t need as much water.
How to Prevent Overwatering
The best way to deal with the overwatering problem is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
And, you can do so by following these tips.
- Switch to plants that thrive in water. Drought tolerant plants cannot take a lot of water. Similarly many tropical plants are prone to overwatering as well since they’re used to hotter weather than what most cities here in the U.S. have. So, choose plants like alocasia, Boston fern and Cyperus which are difficult to overwater.
- Use clay pots or drill holes into the sides of plastic containers. This will allow excess moisture to drain better.
- Light, well draining potting mix. Even if you have a heavy hand or tend to be overly generous with water, soil that’ drains well will help prevent you from overwatering. Adding perlite, pumice and pine bark help excess moisture drain and allow more air pockets for the roots to breathe.
- Always use pots with drainage holes. This allows excess moisture to escape. In contrast not having drainage holes will cause excess water to pool at the bottom of the pot.
- Repot regularly or replace top soil annually. Repotting lets you change spent soil, which tends to get compressed or compacted over time. As such, replacing this with fresh soil gives the plant light, loose soil that allows more air to get through to its roots.