About once a month I’m asked that age-old burning question, “How often should I water my houseplants?” Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as “once a week.” But fear not. With just a few guidelines, you’ll be watering like a pro!

Planting media before and after watering

Use the color of your potting media as a good visual indicator for when to water. (The darker media on the right has just been watered.)

Photo Credit: Diane Mays

Bougainvillea needs water

This wilting bougainvillea could use a good drink.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

It‘s a very rare occurrence when all of the plants in your house need to be watered at the same time. Although this is a convenient approach to watering, it’s most likely how the habit of overwatering starts. So each time you break out that watering can, avoid watering all of your plants simultaneously, and treat every plant individually. Check how wet each plant’s media is before deciding whether it needs watering.

Due to the power of gravity, media dries out from the top of the pot and continues down toward the roots. To check moisture level, look at the color of the media’s surface. Typically dry media is lighter in color than wet media. Next check the weight of the plant. Water adds weight to media, so a heavier plant means wetter media. And lastly, feel how wet the media is. Stick your finger down into the media an inch or two to assess its moisture content.

Now that you know what your plant’s moisture level is, what’s next? Since different types of houseplants, or species, prefer different media moisture levels (depending on their root systems’ requirements), the following moisture-level categories aim to make your watering decisions easier. They are “wet,” “moist,” “somewhat moist,” “somewhat dry” and “dry.”

Plants that require a “wet” media mean that the surface of the media should never be allowed to dry out between waterings. Some examples of plants that prefer a wet root environment are bog plants, like the pitcher plant and Venus fly trap, as well as aquatic plants, such as water hyacinths and cyperus.

“Moist” means that approximately ¼ -⅓ of the media should be allowed to dry out between waterings. Examples are ferns and mosses.

“Somewhat moist” means ⅓ -½ of the media should be allowed to dry out between waterings. (This is where your highly sophisticated “moisture probe” comes in handy – i.e. your finger!) Examples are philodendrons, prayer plants and dumb canes.

“Somewhat dry” means that up to ½ -⅔ of the media should be allowed to dry out between waterings. Examples are peperomias and snake plants.

“Dry” means that the entire pot of media should be allowed to dry out between waterings, often for extended periods of time. Examples are cacti, jade plants and agaves.

Leaves can give you signs that your plant is thirsty as well. For example, the leaves of many tropical plants will have a grayish-blue hue when the plant’s too dry, and the foliage of other plants may start to wilt. Stems will also droop if not given enough water. But be careful! Plants with rotted roots (probably a result of overwatering) will show these same signs. Dead roots cannot take up any water.

Instead of relying on a rigid watering schedule, use your keen senses and let observation guide your watering instincts. (And as your houseplants drink in their water, you can drink in your growing success!)