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15 Ways to Tell if You Need to Water Your Plants

Watering is an essential step to keeping your plants healthy and thriving. But it can be hard to determine how much water to give your plants, and how frequently you need to water them. Overwatering and underwatering can be bad for your plant’s health, so how do you ensure you’re giving your plant the exact amount of water it needs, and when it needs it?

Here are 15 ways to tell if you need to water your plants:

  1. The soil is dry at the surface
  2. Using a soil stick
  3. Your plant is showing slow growth
  4. The leaves are blistering
  5. Pests are infesting the plant
  6. The soil is pulling away from the edge of the container
  7. The stems are brittle
  8. The tips of leaves are dry
  9. Wilting or drooping leaves
  10. Brown or yellow leaves
  11. Dry leaves
  12. Leaves are dropping
  13. The color of the soil changes
  14. The container feels light when picked up
  15. The moisture meter is coming up with a dry rating

In this article, we’ll go over the different telltale signs of thirsty plants and what to do when pests or brittle plant parts show up. We’ll also look at a few different tools that are good for testing moisture levels in your soil.

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Photo of a soil probe in the field. Photo by Nolan Berg

1. The Soil is Dry at the Surface

The first telltale sign you need to water your plants is if the soil is dry at the surface. Dry soil typically looks grainy and slightly discolored at the surface. When water is completely drained from your plant’s growing medium, your soil may develop “dry-out.”

Dry out happens when the soil or growing medium forms a natural seal that repels water. Most growing mediums contain peat moss, which is suitable for drainage purposes. However, when peat moss dries out completely, it’s incredibly difficult to wet again.

To prevent dry-out from happening, you should water the soil as soon as you notice the surface is dry.

2. Use a Soil Stick

You can also gauge whether you need to water your plants by performing a simple test with a soil stick, which can be any wooden stick, but wooden chopsticks are the most commonly used utensil.

To do a soil stick test, all you need to do is insert the chopstick into your soil. When you pull it out, you’ll be able to determine the water levels adequately. If the stick comes out only slightly damp, your water levels are okay. However, dry soil will leave you with a dry stick and an overly wet one if the soil is overwatered.

Keep in mind, though, the chopsticks or wooden skewers used shouldn’t have any finish or special coating that protects the wood from water. You need to see the water’s effect on the wood to get an accurate reading.

3. Your Plant is Showing Slow Growth

You may also need to water your plants if you notice the stem or leaves are growing slower than expected. We know water is an essential ingredient to life, but it’s especially important in collecting nutrients for your plants.

Maintaining proper water levels in your plant’s soil is an integral part of nutrient management. Aside from keeping your plant hydrated, it also provides a pool of dissolved nutrients for your plant to feed on. If your soil doesn’t contain enough water, your plant won’t have the proper hydration to grow at a healthy pace.

Plants need water and nutrients, just like humans need food and liquids. If you see your plant hasn’t grown as fast as it should, it’s likely time to give it a drink.

4. The Plant’s Leaves are Blistering

Blistering leaves are a common sign of dry rot in woody plants. If you don’t use the proper measures in plant care for each specific species, you run the risk of underwatering and letting fungus grow in the soil and on your plant.

Leaf blisters are also a problem on their own. A plant fungus causes this issue in the genus Taphrina. It most commonly affects different tree and fern species and can be detrimental to entire crops too.

Treating affected plants with appropriate fungicides usually solves the problem, and your plant will recover fully.

5. Pests are Infesting the Plant

Pest infestations on your plant typically indicate soil that is too moist rather than too dry. Many soil pests can’t survive in soil that’s dried out. However, if you notice a pest infestation on your plant, you should let the soil dry to the point where its leaves begin to wilt.

Once dried out, remove the plant from the pot along with as much soil as possible. Discard the old soil and place it into a new mixture. Water the plant according to its unique watering needs, and you should be all set.

Be sure to check out our post on organic pesticides to get rid of pest infestations.

6. The Soil is Pulling Away from the Edges of its Container

When your plant’s soil gets too dry, it’ll begin pulling away from the pot, which happens because the soil particles draw closer together when they lose moisture. It’ll then become hydrophobic and begin repelling water.

If you notice your soil has become hydrophobic, use any of these tricks to get the soil rehydrated:

  • Submerge the entire pot in water. Keep the pot submerged until you don’t notice any more air bubbles. While the root ball starts with a fair amount of air, water gradually takes the air’s place, therefore stopping the air bubbles.
  • Place the pot in a shallow container. Doing this will allow the soil to absorb the water via bottom watering slowly. Check the shallow container every hour or so and take the pot out after a few hours.
  • Trickle water slowly onto the soil. Trickling water is ideal for larger pots that you can’t move easily. For this, it’s important to make sure there isn’t any runoff. This method can take a long time, so it may also be helpful to set a timer.
  • Utilize weather forecasts. If there are rain showers in your area’s future, you can set the pot outside during the rainfall and let nature do all the work for you.

7. The Stems are Brittle

If your soil has been left dry for too long, your plant may have died. To check for this, test the stem. If it’s brittle and pieces break off, you should uproot the plant gently and check its roots. If the roots show the same signs as your stem, you’ll need to start over with a new plant.

However, if the roots are pliable and firm, you can save the plant by repotting it and giving it a good drink of water. Keep in mind that when checking the stem for brittleness, be very gentle, as it’s critical in ensuring you don’t harm the plant.

8. The Tips of the Plant’s Leaves are Dry

An effortless way to tell if your plant needs water is to see if any part of the plant is dry. Dry and brittle leaves indicate that part of the plant isn’t receiving enough liquids and nutrients.

If you notice dry leaves on your plant, thoroughly water your soil and leave the plant alone for a little while before rechecking the leaves.

9. Wilting or Drooping Leaves

Leaves wilt or droop if the soil is left dry for too long. Like with dry leaf tips, wilting and drooping commonly occur when there isn’t enough water or nutrients in a plant’s soil.

Although this can look very unsightly, wilting leaves aren’t necessarily a serious condition. Usually, a plant’s leaves will perk back up after getting adequate water. However, keep in mind that drooping and wilting leaves can also indicate low sunlight levels or overwatering issues.

10. Brown or Yellow Leaves

Leaves that become discolored may suffer from a variety of different ailments. In this case, it’s imperative you know the correct watering instructions for your specific plant. While some plants are okay with going weeks between watering, others may require consistently moist soil.

If you notice brown or yellow leaves, check your soil and give it a good watering if necessary. If you don’t see any change, you can gently remove the leaf from the plant. Doing this will allow newer, healthier growth to come in.

damaged yellow and brown leaved pepper plant with pepper pods
Photo by Viktor Kovtun

11. Dry Leaves

Anytime you notice dry parts on your plant, lack of moisture in the soil is likely the problem. A good rule of thumb is that your plant will follow whatever condition its soil is in. If the soil is too dry, your plant will likely exhibit dry parts. If the soil is moist, then your plant will look and feel more hydrated.

If you notice dry leaves beyond repair, remove them to encourage new growth to come in. You may choose to leave the dead leaves in the soil or discard them altogether. But if you leave the dead leaf in the plant’s soil, it’s best to crumble it up first to make fungal growth or infestations less likely.

12. Leaves Dropping

When your plant’s leaves are dropping off their parent plant altogether, this likely means they became so dry that they couldn’t keep a hold on their stem anymore. It’s worth keeping in mind that dropped leaves can also be caused by other signs of improper care . If the soil wasn’t already dry, watering the plant may work, but it could also lead to root rot if you’re not careful.

Dropped leaves can also be due to overwatering, so it’s essential to make sure you check your soil after you notice the plant is losing leaves. Without checking, watering the plant may work, but it could also lead to root rot if the soil wasn’t already dry.

13. The Color of the Soil Changes

When the soil is too dry, it usually has a greyish and discolored look. When it has adequate moisture, it has a deep brown or black color. The soil may also be crumbly and gritty to the touch when underwatered, rather than light and airy.

Aside from lack of moisture, discoloring in the soil can also mean some kind of contamination. If your soil has some mold or fungus, it can change your soil’s look and composition. If this issue arises, it’s important to take care of it as soon as possible to avoid further health issues.

14. The Container Feels Light When Picked Up

If your soil is too dry and your plant is in a smaller container, there’s a quick test that you can do to determine whether the soil may be too dry.

Without adequate water, the container will likely feel much lighter when you lift it. Adding water to anything also adds mass, which adds weight. If there isn’t any water weight in the soil, then the pot would be much lighter without it.

15. The Moisture Meter is Coming Up with a Dry Rating

Using a moisture meter is by far the best way to measure the amount of water present in your soil. This way, you can water your plant only when it needs it instead of relying on the soil to be ready for the water at a set time.

Generally, potted plants in 6-inch (15 cms) containers need water when the soil is dry two inches (5 cms) deep. However, larger containers are ready for more water when the soil is dry at 1-1 ½ inches (2.5-4 cms) deep. To get an accurate reading, you can use a moisture meter available at just about any big home improvement store.

To use a moisture meter, insert the probe until it’s around ⅘ inches (2 cms) deep. If you meet any resistance in the soil, it’s important not to force it but rather find a different spot for it. You don’t want to aggravate the plant’s root system as it can cause distress to your plant.

Once you insert the meter, wait a minute, and then check the reading on the meter. After finding out the moisture level, compare it to that plant’s needs and adjust accordingly.