I’ll never forget the time I helped my neighbor pick out some Gerbera daisies for one of her flower beds. In short, she’s an animal person, and I’m a plant person (’nuff said). She called me later in the day to proudly report the daisies had been planted. Half-joking, half-serious, I replied, “Great. Did you remember to water them in?” I wasn’t too surprised when she answered, “Do I need to do that now?”

Watering in

The first watering after transplanting should be a thorough, saturating one.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Wilting lily

This poor wilting peace lily is in need of a drink.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Perky lily

Less than three hours after watering, the plant is feeling great again.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

The answer is, “Yes – always right after planting.”

Plants need three things: water, air and sunlight – and in the proper balance. The watering required right after planting is referred to as “watering-in.” (Then directly following watering-in is a period of establishment that also deserves careful watering practices.)

When planting – whether in a pot or in the ground – a hole is made in the soil to accommodate the plant’s roots or rootball. Once the plant is in place, some of the soil removed from the hole is put back to anchor the plant. As long as you don’t overly compact the soil around the plant, there should be air spaces around the roots. This is a good thing, because roots need some air, but too much will cause them to dry out. Watering-in helps to settle the soil around the roots so that adequate air and water is available.

Transplanting a plant from one location to another – even if it’s from pot-to-pot – is a stressful event for the plant (and maybe even for some gardeners). For the first couple weeks after transplanting, keep an eye on your plant to make sure you’ve provided enough water. And just so you know, a wilted plant doesn’t necessarily equate to a dead plant. Wilting is a plant response to drought stress, and in most cases, once the stress is relieved (i.e., the plant is given a thorough watering), the plant will fully recover.

In fact, occasional drought stress can be used to your advantage: Plants that are allowed a slight drought between waterings will ultimately adapt to the stress and become more drought-tolerant. Constant moisture encourages a plant to devote its energy to vegetative growth, possibly leading to tall, leggy plants. Occasional drought stress not only controls plant height, it induces the plant’s reproductive response, which leads to flowers. Nice.

On the flip side, if plants are watered too much and the roots never have a chance to “breathe,” the plant will simply “stall out.” Perhaps you’ve seen this with annuals that are subjected to a long period of rain. Only when the sun returns and the soil starts to dry out do they really take off again. Overwatering can also promote root disease and eventual plant death. Not good!

That said, make sure you water thoroughly when you do water. A fun test to measure your watering habit is to water as usual, then lift the plant out of the pot or dig a small hole next to the plant and see how far down the water made it. Often folks find that they’re only watering the top inch of the soil. That may be fine for young plants, but established ones need water to reach the base of the roots to encourage further growth.

It’s no doubt that watering plants is a complex issue. Anytime someone approaches me with the concern, “I have a plant that’s not doing well,” my first question is, “Is it overwatered?” Trial and error are perhaps the best teachers. “How often,” and “How much,” are million-dollar questions, perhaps most accurately answered by “as needed” and “enough.” Gardeners who come to understand what those vague responses mean will be rewarded with a green thumb – and a healthy plant!