How To Water Indoor Plants (Complete Guide)

Although there are guidelines on how to water houseplants, the rules are not written in stone. How you water your plants is as important as when you do it and the water you use. You should consider the type of plant, its location in the house, the type of pot, and how dry the soil is. 

You should water indoor plants thoroughly with good quality water, using top or bottom watering. The water must soak through the soil and out the drainage holes. Use a soil probe to make holes in compact soil for better water absorption. Water plants with heavy foliage using a can with a long spout. 

Plants need water to survive, and an occasional “sip” doesn’t work. Underwatering plants is just as bad as overwatering. Keep reading to understand how best to water indoor plants, common watering mistakes to avoid, and why your houseplants are drying even though you water them regularly. 

Use Good Quality Water

The first step to watering indoor plants is to use the right water. Fortunately, you have multiple options, depending on what is available. Some of the best water sources for plants include;

  • Distilled water.
  • Rainwater.
  • Filtered water.
  • Cooled boiled water.
  • Boiled cooking water.
  • Aquarium water.
  • Banana peel water. 

Distilled water and rainwater are the best because they are soft, oxygenated, contain no minerals, and are slightly acidic. If tap water is your only option, you should make it safer by boiling and cooling it before use. You can also filter it to eliminate chemicals and minerals.

Only Water When The Soil Is Dry

Plants thrive in damp soil. So, before you water your plants, you must ensure they are ready for more water. If you water your plants too soon, the soil will be too wet, and the roots will suffocate in water. If you wait too long, the soil will be too dry, so you will likely underwater your houseplants. 

The timing has to be perfect, and you can only get it right by confirming that your plants need more water. You can do this in multiple ways. 

  • Lift the plant to feel if it is light or heavy. Water makes the soil heavy, so if it is light, it is ready for more water. If it is a little heavy, you probably should wait a few more days. 
  • Use your finger or moisture monitoring tools to check the soil. If the first 2 inches (5.08cm) are dry, your plants probably need more water. The moisture meter has a long probe, so it will give a better picture of the soil’s moisture levels deeper in the pot. 
  • Check the leaves. Most plants communicate through the leaves. They get droopy, turn yellow, and start to dry when they go for long without water. You shouldn’t allow your plants to get to this point because the soil may become too compact. Some plants, like the snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata), have sturdier leaves, so you’ll need to check the moisture level in the soil. 
  • The soil shrinks from the pot’s sides. As the soil dries, the particles pull together in a bid to hold onto the little moisture that is available. This is why the soil shrinks from the pot and clings to the roots.  

It is best not to wait for too long before watering your plants. When the soil gets too dry, you will have more trouble because the soil may become hydrophobic or it may become too compact to allow the water through. 

Avoid Watering Superficially 

Besides knowing when to water plants, you also need to be aware of the amount of water to use. This is where many people err because they water plants superficially, partly because they are worried about overwatering them. 

However, underwatering is just as bad as overwatering. Since you need to wait until the soil is dry before watering, you will need to water your plants until the roots and surrounding soil are properly drenched. 

When you water your houseplants superficially, the soil’s surface will appear damp, while the rest of the soil remains dry. Plants that are watered this way don’t grow deep roots

They may appear healthy, but as they grow, they will lean towards one side because the stems and leaves will be too heavy for the shallow roots. 

Water From The Top

Watering houseplants from the top is the most convenient and sometimes the only way to water plants, either because they are too heavy or too many. I find watering cans with long spouts handy for top watering because I get to all the plants easily, especially those in hard-to-reach areas.  

Thery are also less messy, especially when watering plants with heavy foliage. Ensure you move the spout around the pot’s edges and the center. This way, you can avoid dry patches on the root ball.

Check the pot’s saucer to confirm some water has come through the drainage holes. You can also use a chopstick or moisture meter to probe the soil. This is a great way to confirm if the soil is saturated. 

When watering plants in heavy pots, stop when the water starts collecting in the tray. Since you won’t pour out this water, the plant will absorb it. If you drench the plant from the top, there is the risk of overwatering because the pot will sit in the tray of water until it evaporates or the plant utilizes it.  

Use The Bottom Watering Method

Bottom watering is the alternative to watering plants from the top. The most common way of doing this is by filling the pot’s tray with water and the soil will absorb it through the drainage holes. 

The other way to bottom water plants is to fill the sink or bathtub with water, and then place the potted plants in there. This is a great way of watering multiple plants simultaneously. However, you need to be cautious because some plants need more water than others. 

For example, cacti don’t need much water. On the flip side, cacti and succulent pot mix absorb water slowly because it is made up of inorganic matter, so you probably need to be more careful about the plants in regular potting mix. 

The size of the plant and pot will also determine how long you should soak the plants. Smaller plants absorb water quickly, while the larger ones need to sit in the water for longer. 

The average watering period is 20-30 minutes, so you’ll need to determine how much extra time to give plants that require more water. 

If you are concerned about underwatering or overwatering, you can use a moisture meter to see how far the water has moved through the soil. Alternatively, use your finger to see if the soil is damp after bottom watering for 15 minutes. 

There are instances when the soil remains bone dry even after the pot sits in water for some time. This is common when the plant goes for too long without water. The soil may also be hydrophobic or the water level is too low.

Fortunately, there are simple solutions to this problem. 

  • If you are using the pot’s tray, move the pot into a slightly larger bowl of water, sink, or bathtub. The idea is to submerge the pot in enough water, to trigger the roots into absorbing the water. 
  • Use a commercial wetting agent. It will to help break down the waxy coating around the soil particles that make it hydrophobic. 
  • Add liquid fertilizer (half strength) to the tab filled with enough water to cover the pot. The fertilizer will reintroduce nutrients into the soil, forcing the plant’s roots to start absorbing the water. The fertilizer will also encourage microbial activities, which will help the soil absorb water readily. 
  • Reduce the water if the pots are not upright. This is a common problem when using plastic planters because they are light. When tilted, the drainage holes are not at the best angle to absorb water. Reducing the water will provide greater stability. Alternatively, water the plants from the top to make the soil heavier. 

Remember to drain the plants after bottom watering. The soil hardly ever takes in more water than it needs, so you won’t have much to drain. 

This video covers multiple areas of watering indoor plants, including the do’s and don’ts. 

Drain Water From The Pot’s Tray 

Whenever possible, drain the trays after watering your plants. This is an important step, whether you watered from the top or bottom. Some water in the tray will evaporate, but most will be soaked back into the soil. 

Leaving your potted indoor plants sitting in trays of water will increase the risks of root rot. The salts and chemicals washed off from the soil while you were top watering will also leach back into the soil. These salts slow the plant’s growth.

Identify Indoor Plants That Need More Water

Some plants are usually thirstier than others, so you should water them according to how much water they need. Plants with thick stems and dense foliage tend to be more water tolerant.  Examples include; 

  • Cat palm (Chamaedorea cataractarum)
  • Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans).
  • Bird of Paradise (S. reginae).
  • Majesty palm (Ravenea rivularis)

When watering these plants;

  • Ensure the water runs through the base of the plant. If the plant has dense foliage or many stems, move them to the side or tilt the pot to ensure the water gets to the soil. 
  • As you water, allow the water to soak through the soil.   
  • Water until you see water run through the drainage holes. 
  • Leave the plant in the sink or a draining pan until the water stops pouring out of the pot. 

Avoid Following A Watering Schedule 

When researching your plant’s watering needs, you will come across statements like “water every 7 – 10 days”. These are guidelines on the estimated period the plant takes to utilize water in the soil. 

However, plants may take a shorter time or even longer, depending on the conditions in your home. Factors like humidity, the potting medium, and light intensity will influence your plant’s water needs. 

For example, some plants, like aloe vera, jade, bird of paradise, and ponytail palm, require bright light. They also consume more water. Others like the ZZ plant, dracaena, parlor palm, and the snake plant thrive in medium to low light and don’t require much water. 

You will need to monitor the plant’s behavior and the soil to determine if the plant is ready for the water. Methods such as using a moisture meter, the finger, or the stick method will give you a better feel for when the soil requires more water. 

Although it is easier, watering all your plants on the same day will leave some plants overwatered or underwatered. It is best to consider individual plant needs, and water them based on demand. 

Water Your Plants Slowly

The other factor that is often overlooked is the soil’s absorption rate. The speed at which you water your plants matters, because the slower you do it, the better the absorption. When you have too many plants, your priority is probably to get through as many as possible. 

However, the risk of underwatering your plants is higher. Not only are you likely to give your plants too little water, but sometimes when you water too fast, the water flows between the pot and the soil, not through the soil. This usually happens when the plant has gone too long without water. 

You should observe how the water moves through the plant as you water it. Is the water sitting on the soil’s surface for too long before it is absorbed? Is it flowing out of the drainage holes too soon? Is it taking too long and too much water before some water starts leaking out?

You need to have these questions in mind when watering your plants. The answers will give you a clue about the state of the soil, and the roots. For example, water that flows out too quickly may be because;

  • The soil is too dry, so the water is passing through the space between the soil and the pot. You may also be dealing with hydrophobic soil. 
  • The plant may be root bound. The soil holding the roots may be too little, so the water just passes through.
  • The soil is compact.
  • Microbial activity has reduced significantly.

All these reasons, except for the plant being root bound, are connected to underwatering or your plant going too long without water. Unless you solve the problem, your plant will start to show signs of stress. 

If you don’t have time to water your plants slowly as you observe them, you’re better off bottom watering.

Probe Dry Soil Before Watering

If after watering your plants, the water comes through the drainage holes too quickly, the soil is not watered thoroughly. You can quickly fix the problem by creating a few holes in the soil using a soil probe or chopstick before watering. Ensure the holes are at most 3 inches (7.62cm) deep because you shouldn’t interfere with the feeder roots. 

Replace Compact Soil With Fresh Soil 

Compact soil will not absorb water, so your plants will start showing signs of underwatering even when you water them regularly. Sometimes, the plants don’t improve even after creating holes on the soil’s surface. 

When this happens, it is best to assume that the soil around the roots is too compact. You may need to get the plant out of the pot, loosen the soil around the roots and add some fresh soil

After replacing the soil, water your plants. Do it slowly, as you observe how the water moves down to the drainage holes. The water should soak the soil and take longer to get to the bottom of the pot. 

Avoid Getting Water On Fuzzy Leaves 

It is natural for water to get onto the leaves when watering houseplants. Most plants will have no problem with a little water on the leaves. However, you must be careful when watering plants with fuzzy leaves.

These leaves have small hairs which trap moisture. When wet, the leaves are vulnerable to leaf bacterial and fungal diseases. Examples of houseplants with fuzzy leaves are African Violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) and Purple Passion (Gynura aurantiaca)

Gently water these plants, ensuring the water goes straight into the soil. A watering can with a long, thin spout is your best bet. However, you can also consider bottom watering, especially if wetting the leaves is unavoidable. 

Pour Out Excess Water From Pots With No Drainage Holes 

The ideal pots for houseplants are those with drainage holes. However, some pots, especially ceramic pots, don’t have drainage holes. If you have a houseplant in this pot, you can still water it and avoid root rot.

Water your plant slowly and allow the soil to take in enough water. Keep watering until you are confident the plant has soaked enough water. Now, gently tilt the pot, but support the plant to ensure you only pour the excess water. 

Unfortunately, this only works if you have a small, portable plant. If the plant is heavy, you’ll have to water with just enough water. Unfortunately, there is a lot of guess work here. You can use a moisture meter to monitor moisture movement and confirm the water has moved to the roots, without suffocating them.

Given the difficulties associated with watering plants in pots without drainage holes, it is best to avoid them. If you have to use these pots for aesthetics, use a smaller pot with drainage holes and place the pot inside the ceramic pot.  

Don’t Rely On Bottom Watering Alone 

Bottom watering is great because plants only take up the water needed, minimizing the risk of overwatering. However, this also means the soil retains the salts from the water, especially when using well water or tap water.

When there is a salt buildup in the root zone, the roots stop drawing water from the soil. 

Whenever possible, flush out the salts by thoroughly watering your plants from the top using rainwater or distilled water.

Look Out For Weak Stems And Drying Leaves

Plants will give signs when they are not receiving enough water. Sometimes, signs of underwatering are evident in the entire plant. It may have drooping or yellowing leaves. In instances of uneven watering, the plant has one healthy side and another poorly performing side.

The side getting insufficient water has poorly developed roots, which fail to nourish a section of the plant properly. Pay attention to the neglected areas when watering.

Leave Tap Water In Watering Cans Overnight

If tap water is all you have available, fill your watering cans at least a day before watering your plants. At least, your plants will be saved from chlorine damage. This is especially helpful if you have plants that are very sensitive to chlorine. They include the peace lily and prayer plant. 

Unfortunately, while this process will help eliminate chlorine, your plants will still be exposed to salt buildup in the soil. The salts will slow plant growth. 

Tap water should be your last choice. However, if it is unavoidable, you should consider filtering the water before use. Whenever possible, use distilled water, rainwater, or reverse osmosis water to flush out the salts. 

Ensure The Plants Get Adequate Airflow After Watering

Plants need adequate air circulation, especially immediately after you water them. If you have many plants, you may need to move them around to create room for air to flow between the potted plants. 

Move plants most vulnerable to leaf rot, such as air plants and African violets, closer to the window or use a fan to improve air circulation

Monitor The Plant’s Growth Rate

How fast or slow your houseplants grow will also tell you if you’re using the right water and if you’re watering them correctly. Most plants have accelerated growth in spring and summer, while it slows during autumn and winter. Your plants will still need to adjust the watering schedule during these seasons. 


Proper plant care is primarily about how often you water plants but how you do it. You can water plants regularly, but they remain unhealthy because you’re doing it wrong. 

On the one hand, you may be underwatering. On the other, you may be overwatering. The water you use will also contribute to your plants’ overall health.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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