Overwatering vs. Underwatering Plants: Warning Signs and Tips to Fix Both

a light-skinned forearm and hand is visible in the upper right frame of the photograph watering a potted Pilea peperomioides houseplant on a wooden table with a natural top, but white edges. The pot that the plant is in is white. The plant is green with round leaves about the size of half dollars. there are a dozen or so leaves in the photo using white metal watering can.
DimaBerlin/Shutterstock.com

Written by Em Casalena

Published: May 27, 2023

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Do you find yourself constantly killing your plants? Don’t worry, you’re not under some sort of plant-killing curse. It is very likely that you are simply making some very easy mistakes. Two of the biggest mistakes novice plant parents make are overwatering vs. underwatering their plants.

Unfortunately, overwatering vs. underwatering have a lot of the same signs and symptoms. In this article, we’ll take a look at the basics of plant hydration and how you can properly diagnose and treat a plant that has been the victim of overwatering vs. underwatering.

Overwatering vs. Underwatering: Understanding Plant Hydration

A crucial mechanism for ensuring the life and well-being of plants is plant hydration. Like people and other living things, plants need water to carry out vital tasks and maintain their general well-being. In order to perform the many physiological processes required for growth and development, plants must absorb, transport, and use water. This process is known as hydration.

Water is necessary for plants because it facilitates the intake of nutrients and is required for photosynthesis, which is how plants turn sunlight into chemical energy. Plants cannot properly undertake photosynthesis without an appropriate amount of water, which eventually impairs their capacity to create carbohydrates and other essential molecules required for their existence.

The Process of Watering Absorption in Plants

Water is first absorbed by the roots, which starts the process of hydrating the plant. The surface area is accessible for water absorption on plant roots is increased by specialized structures called root hairs. The dissolved minerals and nutrients in the water are also absorbed by the roots together with the water from the soil. A concentration gradient and the root cells’ capacity to actively transfer ions into the plant both contribute to this absorption.

Water travels through the plant’s vascular system, which is made up of xylem and phloem tissues, after being absorbed by the roots. Water and dissolved minerals are principally transported via the xylem tissue from the roots to the leaves and other parts of the plant. Transpiration and capillary action are just two of the processes that help the water in the xylem travel higher.

Through tiny holes known as stomata, water evaporates from the leaves and stems of plants during the process of transpiration. Small pores called stomata are mostly found on the surface of leaves. Water is drawn up from the roots as a result of the transpirational pull produced by the evaporating water from the stomata. The cohesion and adhesion forces that sustain this transpirational pull enable water molecules to form a continuous column in the xylem.

Capillary action, in addition to transpiration, aids in the flow of water in plants. Water may rise in narrow spaces because of a process called capillary action, like the tiny tubes in the xylem. This phenomenon happens because water molecules are cohesive and adhesive. Water molecules can cling to one another thanks to the cohesive forces between them and to the xylem walls thanks to the adhesive forces. Water is then pulled upward through the xylem channels against gravity.

How Water Benefits Plants

Water is used in photosynthesis and other metabolic activities after it reaches the leaves. When water molecules break during photosynthesis, oxygen and hydrogen are released into the atmosphere and combined with carbon dioxide to create carbohydrates and other organic substances. Water must always be available for this process to continue at optimal photosynthetic rates.

Water is also essential for maintaining the turgor pressure of plant cells, which is another important function. Turgor pressure is the force applied to the cell walls by the fluid inside plant cells. Plant cells that are adequately hydrated stay turgid, supporting the structure and preventing wilting.

The process of a plant becoming hydrated involves the absorption, transportation, and use of water by the plant. Intake of nutrients, photosynthesis, control of turgor pressure, and general plant health all depend on water. For gardeners, farmers, and researchers to guarantee the optimum development and production of plants in varied situations, it is essential to understand and maintain correct plant hydration. With this in mind, let’s dive into overwatering vs. underwatering.

A potted spider plant being watered with an orange spout

Watering your plant (pictured) properly is the key to long-term health.

How to Diagnose Overwating vs. Underwatering

Diagnosing Overwatering

It’s crucial to identify overwatering in plants in order to preserve their health and avoid harm from too much moisture. Overwatering can damage the roots and result in saturated soil. The following are some essential symptoms and techniques for identifying overwatering in plants:

  • Wilting – Overwatered plants frequently display wilting or withering, despite the fact that this may appear paradoxical. This occurs when oxygen-deprived roots in wet soil are unable to efficiently absorb water. Even when the soil is too damp, the leaves may droop and seem wilted as a result.
  • Yellowing foliage – Plants that receive excessive water may produce yellow leaves that feel mushy and squishy to the touch. This happens as a result of the extra water upsetting the plant’s nutritional balance and damaging the root system’s efficiency.
  • Root rot – Root rot can result from plants being overwatered for an extended length of time. Gently dig the plant out of the ground, then look at the roots to check for root rot. While rotten roots are dark, mushy, and smell bad, healthy roots should be solid and white.
  • Stunted growth – Overwatered plants may develop slowly or with stunted growth. The plant’s overall development may be hampered by the extra wetness by preventing the intake of nutrients and oxygen.
  • Mold or fungus – Overwatered plants foster an environment that is conducive to the growth of mold, fungus, and other infections. It may be a sign of overwatering if you see mold or fungus growing on the soil surface or the plant itself.

Check Your Soil Regulary

It’s critical to evaluate the plant’s overall symptoms and the soil moisture content in order to detect overwatering. To determine how much moisture is in the soil, use a moisture meter or your finger. Overwatering is probably the root of the plant’s problems if the soil feels overly damp or saturated.

Diagnosing Underwatering

It is essential to diagnose underwatering in plants in order to pinpoint the problem and take early action since a lack of water can cause wilting, stunted development, and even plant damage. The following are some essential symptoms and techniques for identifying underwatering in plants:

  • Wilting – Wilting is one of the key indicators of underwatering, which can also be a sign of overwatering. Lack of water makes plants unable to maintain turgidity, which results in drooping or wilting of the leaves and stems. When plants are underwatered, the soil is frequently dry or abnormally dry, unlike when they are overwatered.
  • Dry soil – Use a moisture meter or stick your finger in the soil to measure the soil’s moisture content. If the earth seems dry to the touch or powdery, there may not be enough water in the area. In extreme instances, the dirt may even begin to pull away from the container’s sides.
  • Leaf yellowing and crispiness – Plants’ leaves can turn yellow, brown, or crispy and dry when they don’t get enough water. This happens as a result of water constraints, which impair nutrient intake and cellular functions and damage leaf health.
  • Stunted growth – Underwatered plants may develop slowly or with limited growth, which is another symptom shared with overwatering. The plant’s capacity to photosynthesize and generate energy is hampered by a lack of water, which has an influence on its overall growth and size.
  • Leaf dropping – As a survival strategy, plants may lose their leaves early in extreme situations of underwatering. This is a drastic measure taken to safeguard important resources and conserve water.

Always Observe Your Plant’s Symptoms

It’s important to look at the overall symptoms and gauge the moisture level of the soil while diagnosing underwatering. Adjust your watering procedures if you suspect underwatering. Increase the frequency and volume of water you give the plant, making sure the water gets deep enough into the roots. Overwatering, on the other hand, should also be avoided since it can be harmful to plant health.

Golden Pothos houseplant with yellowing leaves

Yellowing leaves (pictured) and stunted growth are two symptoms shared by overwatering and underwatering.

How to Prevent Overwatering and Underwatering

For plants to stay healthy and flourish at their best, it’s essential to avoid both overwatering and underwatering. Luckily, there are some essential and easy tactics for avoiding both extremes.

Understand Your Specific Plant’s Water Needs

Study each plant you are taking care of to determine its precise water requirements. Think about things like species, size, development stages, and environmental circumstances. You can avoid overwatering and underwatering by providing the proper quantity of water and simply being aware of the plant’s requirements for water.

Check Your Soil Regularly

Consistently check the soil’s moisture content. To determine the moisture level of the soil, either stick your finger into it or use a moisture meter. By watering when the soil is mostly dry but not entirely or too moist, you can maintain a balance. This habit guards against both extremes.

Improve Your Soil Quality and Drainage

By including enough drainage holes in your container, you can ensure optimum water drainage. Use soil that drains properly to let excess water run off and avoid waterlogging. This encourages healthy root development and prevents overwatering.

Water Deeply and Periodically

When watering, use an amount of water that will reach the root zone and efficiently allow the roots to receive water. Water deeply and wait until the soil has almost completely dried up before applying more water. This strategy promotes the development of deep roots and guards against both overwatering and underwatering.

Mulch the Soil

Around the bases of your plants, spread a layer of organic mulch. Mulch aids in controlling soil moisture levels, evaporation, and temperature. It serves as a safeguard, limiting water loss and preserving a more stable soil moisture balance.

Observe Your Plant’s Reaction

Keep an eye out for symptoms of stress in your plants, such as wilting, yellowing leaves, or slower growth. These signs of overwatering and underwatering might both be present. Depending on the particular requirements of each plant, modify your watering techniques accordingly.

Consider the Environment

When choosing your watering schedule, consider climatic factors including temperature, humidity, and rainfall. To avoid both extremes, modify the frequency and volume of your watering based on these variables.

You can strike a balance and make sure your plants get enough water, but not too much, by adhering to these preventative steps for avoiding overwatering vs. underwatering. The key to avoiding both overwatering and underwatering and maintaining the general health and well-being of your plants is regular monitoring, identifying plant needs, and modifying watering tactics accordingly.

How to Treat Too Much or Not Enough Water

To restore health and encourage recovery, a plant that has been the victim of overwatering vs. underwatering requires treatment. Both situations may harm plants by stressing them out and harming their roots, among other problems.

Treating Overwatered Plants

Start by removing extra water. Dig gently around the plant’s roots in the garden or carefully remove it from its container if the soil is soggy. Permit the extra water to drain. If the plant is in a container, you might want to think about replacing it in new, drained soil.

Next, work on your drainage. The pot or container must have adequate drainage holes. If more holes are required, drill them to improve drainage. To improve drainage, use a well-draining soil mixture or add perlite or coarse sand to the current soil.

Change your watering schedule accordingly. To stop further overwatering, alter your watering habits. Before rewatering, let the soil partially dry out. Follow a watering schedule that is suitable for the type of plant and the surrounding circumstances.

Just as well, you might wish to prune the impacted foliage. Carefully trim the plant’s leaves if they have become yellow or brown as a result of overwatering. This will assist in refocusing the plant’s energy on future growth.

After that, keep an eye on your plant. Keep a close watch on how well the plant is recovering. Watch for indications of progress, like new growth or better leaf health. Depending on how the plant reacts, modify your care procedures accordingly.

Treating Underwatered Plants

Water your plant well to start the treatment process. Give the plant a good soaking to ensure the soil is sufficiently wet while treating an underwatered plant. Water gently and thoroughly so that it may reach the root zone. Depending on the amount of water the plant requires, repeat the procedure as necessary.

Mulching the soil may also be a good idea. Apply an organic mulch layer all the way around the plant’s base. Mulch aids in the retention of moisture in the soil, lowering evaporation and preserving more stable soil moisture levels. By doing this, the soil won’t dry up too rapidly.

Do not forget to modify your watering schedule. Make a watering regimen that is tailored to the demands of the plant. Take into account elements like the kind of soil, plant species, size, and environmental conditions. When the soil is nearly dry but not quite so, water the plant.

Some plants, especially those that have been submerged, benefit from higher humidity levels. To raise the relative humidity around the plant, spray the foliage or put a tray of water there. By doing this, you’ll be able to stop future water loss via transpiration.

Monitor Your Plants for Long-Term Success

Now is the time to wait and watch. Keep an eye on the plant’s development and how it responds to the modified watering schedule. Also keep an eye out for indications of enhanced leaf turgidity, better growth, and general wellness. As necessary, alter your care procedures to satisfy the plant’s needs.

In both situations, it’s crucial to balance your watering techniques. Avoid swinging to the other extreme and overcompensating for prior errors. Maintain constant soil moisture monitoring, make necessary watering adjustments, and pay close attention to the requirements of the plant.

Keeping a healthy indoor plant can be tough. However, with your newfound know-how of overwatering vs. underwatering, you can prevent the very common mistakes of novice plant parents!


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About the Author

Em Casalena is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on plants, gardening, and sustainability. Em has been writing and researching about plants for nearly a decade and is a proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor. Em is a resident of Arizona and enjoys learning about eco-conscious living, thrifting at local shops, and caring for their Siamese cat Vladimir.

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