How to Tell if a Plant is Overwatered or Underwatered

Disclaimer: Some of the links below may be affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I will earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

How to Tell if a Plant is Overwatered or Underwatered

All houseplants need water, but it can be tricky to know just how much. Are you wondering if you’re giving your plant too much or too little water? Well, you’re in the right place! In this post, I’ll show you how to tell if a plant is overwatered or underwatered.

I’ll also show you how to know the right amount of water to give your plants, and how to gauge soil moisture to prevent over- or under-watering in the future.

How to Tell if a Plant is Overwatered or Underwatered

Overwatering is the lead cause of houseplant death. When you get a new plant and you aren’t sure about watering yet, it’s better to err on the dry side instead of drowning the roots with too much water. In most cases, it’s easier to save a plant from underwatering than overwatering.

If you know you have a problem but you aren’t sure why, there are some easy signs you can look for to tell if your plant is overwatered or underwatered. Let’s take a look at the best ways to spot these issues.

Overwatered Plants

When a plant’s roots sit in water too long, they begin to rot (a condition known as root rot). As the roots deteriorate, they lose the ability to take up water, which causes the plant to wilt. You may think that watering a wilting plant will help, but in this case it only makes things worse!

If the container feels heavy, but the plant is drooping and wilting, you probably have an overwatered plant on your hands. Another sign is standing water spilling from the container, yet the plant continues yellowing and wilting.

Overwatered plant
This plant is wilting from root rot due to being overwatered.

To save an overwatered plant, remove the plant from its container, and place the roots on a folded up newspaper to dry overnight. Use sharp scissors to snip away any slimy or dark roots before repotting in fresh soil. If you’re lucky, the plant will survive.

Underwatered Plants

One way to tell if your plant is underwatered is to examine the soil. Is it coming away from the sides of the pot? Does the container feel very light when you pick it up? Does the soil appear hard and dry? Can you easily pull the entire plant (including soil) out of the pot?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you probably have an underwatered plant.

Underwatered Plant
See how the soil pulls away from the side of the pot? This is a sign of an underwatered plant.

Place the entire pot in a sink of lukewarm water and allow it to soak for 30 minutes. Most underwatered plants recover if they’ve only been neglected for a short period of time. If all the leaves and stems have turned brown and crunchy, you might be too late.

Watering Terms

You’ve probably heard the terms “lightly moist,” “moderately moist” or “allow to dry out between waterings.” But what do these actually mean? And how do you know if you’re watering your plant enough or too much?

These are all general terms or tendencies, and they’re open to interpretation depending on the plant. (I know – not very helpful!) But, let me explain each one better and offer some guidance.

Lightly Moist

This means the plant needs soil that is never truly wet and never completely dry. To achieve this, simply water regularly – usually ever other day or so. Make sure to distribute the water evenly around the container (don’t just pour it in one spot). Never let the soil become dry to the touch.

Many plants that are native to forests and jungles require soil that’s kept lightly moist. Think about the soil on a forest floor underneath thick tree cover. It will be moist, but not wet.

Moderately Moist

Plants that require moderate moisture are usually fast growing and require high light. These include many indoor flowering plants and some robust foliage plants, too.

This is a challenging water level to maintain. You want to provide enough water to keep the soil “moderately moist” – which is more than “lightly moist” – without keeping it wet enough for root rot to develop. Plants that require moderate water are some of the most difficult to grow.

Gloxinia needs moderate moisture
Gloxinia is a flowering houseplant that needs moderate moisture.

Water daily or every other day, distributing water evenly throughout the container. Also, make sure these plants are in containers that drain well to avoid standing water (which causes root rot). Soil should never be truly wet.

Plants in this category typically need a period of dormancy in winter where they require less water, so read care guidelines carefully.

Allow to Dry Out Between Waterings

If a plant’s care requirements state you should allow it to dry out between waterings, this means it benefits from brief periods of dryness. Many succulents, such as Snake Plant, fall into this category (but not all of them).

These are probably the easiest plants to care for, since you don’t have to worry too much about soil moisture levels. Simply water once a week or so, any time the soil feels dry when you touch it or to within 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the soil’s surface (depending on the plant).

How to Gauge Soil Moisture

The most common (and easiest) way to check soil moisture in your houseplants is to stick your finger into the soil up to the first knuckle. Then, decide if the soil feels dry an inch under the surface. If so, it usually needs to be watered.

Gauge Soil Moisture with Finger
Wiggle your finger into the soil up to the first knuckle to gauge soil moisture.

However, there are some limitations with this method. You can’t tell how much moisture there is deep inside the soil. And you don’t know if the center of the root mass, which is the most difficult part to reach, is receiving enough water.

You can also use weight checks to help you gauge soil moisture. This means gently tipping the container to see if it feels light or heavy. If it feels very light, there isn’t a lot of moisture in the soil. This takes practice and knowing how your plants feel when they’re dry or moist.

There’s always some guesswork involved in watering plants. Care guides can help you with general advice, but you’ll need practice and experience to figure out how much water your individual plants need in your environment.