Dispatches From "The Jungle Upstairs:" 5 Essential Watering Tips Every Plant Parent Should Know

ciara benko

Ciara Benko

Watering your plants may sound like the most basic, snooze-worthy part of keeping your green friends alive—and yet, somehow, it’s the most perplexing.

Leaves begin to yellow because your plant is being underwatered... or, overwatered… or, because of some infuriatingly intangible nuance in-between.

I’ve learned quite a bit about those nuances from endless Googling, years of trial and error, and a handful of pointers from my grandma, which at first blush, sounded like—dare I say it—“old wives’ tales.” Of course, those pointers ended up being pretty magical after all—but we’ll get to that.

Watering your plants may sound like the most basic, snooze-worthy part of keeping your green friends alive—and yet, somehow, it’s the most perplexing.

Without further adieu, here’s a compilation of the top five things I think every plant parent should know about watering your plants.

 1. The Way You Water Your Plants Matters

When I first started building my collection, I would dump a mug of water smack dab in the middle of the plant. The issue with this, I’ve learned, is that your water tsunami is concentrated directly on the root ball, but isn't getting all the roots wet. Also, it's like drinking from a fire hose, which isn’t fun for anyone.

The key here is to find a delicate balance of finding yourself the right utensil and employing a technique that hydrates every part of the plant’s root system.

A brash old plant shop owner once told me to water my plants like I was making a pour-over coffee: start by circling your way around the edge of the soil and into the center. I personally like to use a watering can with a long, slim spigot, which feels like a gentler means of delivering that dose of much-needed hydration.

And if you have a lot of plants, I’d spring for the gallon-sized can—it saves you from running back to the tap after each plant, and cuts your watering time in half!

2. Watering Isn’t a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Sunday watering day “used to be my thing. But over time, as I brought home more and more houseplants of different species and varieties, I started to realize that sticking to such a rigid schedule just wasn’t going to cut it.

The reasons that plants’ schedules vary so drastically may include—but are not limited to—the following: the type of plant, the type of soil (slow or fast-draining), the seasons (plants need less water in the winter, which is the dormant season), the size of the pot, the type of pot (ceramic vs. terra cotta, which is a porous medium and allows water to evaporate faster), the amount of sun (direct light dries out soil more quickly), and, well, you get the point.

There are a lot of factors.

The rule of thumb is: when in doubt, stick your finger into the soil and if the top two inches are dry, give that baby some hydration. If any damp soil sticks to your skin, then you can probably leave him be for another day or two. It’s always better to err on the side of underwatering.

3. Know the Difference Between Bottom Watering and Top Watering

I’ve stepped off my “pour-over coffee” soapbox to hit you with an alternative to watering your plants with a can. The term is: bottom watering. I’ve always known it to be called bottom watering—but, between us, I hate that term. If there’s a better way to refer to it, well, my DM’s are open and waiting for you.

Bottom watering is exactly what it sounds like: watering your plants from the bottom.

You’ll need a pot with a drainage hole, and all you do is fill up a large bowl or bucket with a few inches of water, and place your plant in it. And then, your plant will drink up all the water it needs over the course of the next couple of hours. Once you see the water level drop and the plant start to perk up, remove it from your vessel and return him to his spot on the windowsill.

This technique is great if you’re struggling with fungus gnats (which lay their eggs in soggy top soil), or are having issues with compacted soil. The one big drawback is that it does take a dedicated plant parent who has some time on their hands—and that person is not me.

4. Overwatering Isn’t About Quantity, it’s About Frequency

 People often ask me if I’m drowning my plants when I put them in the shower (which I am wont to do). Their worry is that I’m giving the plant too much water at once, which is not only a pretty common misconception, but a major fear of new plant parents as well. The damage of overwatering is REAL, and it’s a pretty ubiquitous cause of plant death (see: root rot).

The real definition of overwatering is watering too often. Watering sparingly—once or twice a week—but in large quantities is actually a good thing.

The trick is to make sure you have a drainage hole. With proper drainage, the moisture that isn’t retained by the soil will come trickling out—or gushing out, if you water with the heavy hand I do—the bottom of the plant.

When water drains out the bottom, you avoid the causes of root rot (which is exactly what it sounds like), and it flushes out salts and minerals from the soil that can build up and damage your plant over the long term.

5. Soften Your Water By Leaving it Out Overnight 

If you live in a city with hard water, meaning it has high levels of calcium carbonate and magnesium —among a variety of other metals—it could be messing with your plants.

Without boring you too much, here’s the scoop on how this works: your tap water is graded on levels of parts per million (ppm), and there are websites you can peep to find out whether your local water is soft (good for plants) or hard (harsher for plants).

I live in NYC, which has pretty spectacular water, so I usually just go for it and use water straight from the tap. Even so, many rare varieties—including popular houseplants like Calatheas—call for distilled bottled water.

The blessing and the curse of having plants is that there’s no one way to do anything—it all depends on a sliding scale of circumstances.

Don’t want to splurge on Essentia for your houseplants? My grandma has the perfect hack for you.

The trick is to fill up a watering can with water and leave it out overnight. You can even leave it out for a few days… but who has that kind of patience besides my sweet, sweet grandmother?! By letting the water breathe, some of the harsher chemicals begin to evaporate. By the morning, your water will be gentler and less harsh on your beloved greens.

Five tips does sound like a lot of rules, but my number one rule is just to listen to your gut. The blessing and the curse of having plants is that there’s no one way to do anything—it all depends on a sliding scale of circumstances and only you can really feel out what’s best for the plants in your home!

And, yes—some of these hacks may start to tread into that “old wives’ tales” territory, but you know what?

Maybe those ladies just really know what’s up.