Overwatering vs. Underwatering Plants (Signs and Fixes)

Let’s be honest – watering plants can be a bit confusing for beginners. Plants have different watering preferences and with changes in environments, it’s so easy to overwater or underwater accidentally. Luckily, there are signs of both underwatering and overwatering that show up quite quickly to tell you something is wrong. 

Some signs of underwatering for indoor and outdoor plants include wilting, dry or dead leaf tips, and visible footprints in grass. Some signs of overwatering include wilting and yellow leaves. Often these signs overlap, meaning you’ll need to assess your routine to determine which issue is more likely.

Read on to discover the most common signs plants display when they are underwatered and overwatered. We’ll also discuss some things you can do to help remedy the situation and bring your plants back to good health.

Signs Comparison

The table below provides a comparison of overwatering and underwatering signs in plants.

Overwatering signsUnderwatering signs
Wilting (common sign for both)Wilting
Yellow leavesDry or dead leaf tips
Browning and yellowing leavesDry, crisp leaf edges
Browning can occur anywhere on leavesStunted growth
Leaves appear watersoakedSlow growth
Root rot due to excessive moistureSoil dries out quickly
Fungal growth on soil surfaceSoil feels excessively dry
Slowed or stopped growthLeaf discoloration
Excessive moisture in soil
Muddy or foul-smelling soil

1. The Plant Is Wilting

Wilting is one of the most obvious symptoms you may see in your plant. This sign is quite defeating, as it’s almost as if the leaves are bowing down to confess that they have given up. It also looks quite dramatic, and some new gardeners may assume their plants are already dead when they appear sad and shriveled.

Despite the fear surrounding wilting plants, this sign doesn’t always mean something ominous. In fact, most times, it’s quite an easy fix.

While many things can cause a wilting plant, it is usually caused by not watering it correctly. Many signs of overwatering are distinct from underwatering and visa versa, but wilting is a common sign for both.

Here’s what to look out for to identify this common problem:

  • Leaves that are shriveling
  • Leaves that are hanging lower than usual
  • Plant stems and branches bending over or drooping
  • Some discoloration in the leaves

How to Fix 

The fix for wilting depends on whether the problem is due to overwatering or underwatering, but this should be fairly easy to figure out by looking at the soil. More often, wilting is caused by underwatering rather than overwatering. 

If you aren’t sure what the problem is, the easiest way to figure it out is to feel the soil. If the soil still feels overly wet several days after watering, then the wilting is caused by overwatering. 

In contrast, you will know that the wilting is caused by underwatering if you haven’t been watering your plant regularly. You can also confirm by checking the soil a day after watering. If the upper half is dry, then your soil is draining too quickly, resulting in underwatering. 

Sometimes, soil can also become hydrophobic. Water pools on the upper layer of the soil, but the deeper layer remains dry. This prevents water from penetrating down the soil to the plant roots, causing the same problems with underwatering.

Luckily, there are ways to fix the issue, whether it is caused by underwatering or overwatering.

Rehydrating a Wilting Plant

If you’ve determined that your plant is wilting due to underwatering, there are a few steps that you can take to get the plant rehydrated:

Check the Soil Texture

Sometimes, if your soil drains too quickly, no amount of watering can rehydrate your plant effectively. It’s crucial to check the soil and amend it if necessary.

You can add peat moss or coco coir for better water retention, as well as compost. Alternatively, you can re-pot the plant in fresh soil with better water-holding capacity.

Move It Out of the Sun Temporarily

The sun works to dry out the soil, and the plant will recover significantly faster if it isn’t under bright, direct sunlight. If the plant is directly in the ground, try to set up something that will shade the plant temporarily, such as an umbrella. 

Start the Rehydrating Process

Set the potted plant in a sink or a tray filled with water. Leave the pot until the soil expands and looks moist.

Let the excess water drain out for 30 minutes and place the pot back on the plant saucer. If the plant is in the ground, water the surrounding soil until it’s moist a few inches (5+ cm) down. You can also poke the soil to allow the water to penetrate through.

Wait 30-60 Minutes

Next, wait for 30 to 60 minutes after watering the plant thoroughly. Check the soil again to see if the upper layer is dry. Add more water gradually to avoid letting the excess water pool around the plant stem.

In addition to these steps, you can spray the plant’s leaves with water, which will assist in rehydrating the plant. However, be sure that your plant variety can tolerate wet leaves. Some plants, like African violets, dislike water on their foliage.

Reviving a Wilting Plant Due to Overwatering

The process of removing water from overly wet soil is more complicated. Often, it’s best to pull out the plant from the pot and move it to fresh soil with better drainage.

Pulling out the plant can also help you examine the condition of the roots more closely and see if there’s any sign of root rot due to overwatering.

However, if you don’t suspect root rot or don’t have a new pot to move it into, you can just amend the soil by improving drainage. You can add compost or sand and work it into the soil. These materials can also improve aeration and speed up the drying process.

You can also do the same for plants grown in your garden. Just be careful not to damage the roots while tilling and aerating the soil. Your plant is already distressed, so it doesn’t help to injure the roots while addressing the watering problems.

2. The Plant Has Dry or Dead Leaf Tips

If your plant tips are dry or dead, you’re probably not giving it enough water. This will nearly always come in conjunction with some other signs, such as wilting or discoloration of the leaves. 

Sometimes, your plant may experience dry or dead leaf tips and not have excessively dry soil. When this happens, the problem typically goes back to a combination of underwatering and too much sunlight or heat. 

Dry soil doesn’t have enough moisture in it for the plant’s roots to absorb enough nutrients. Moisture is necessary to deliver nutrients from the soil to the roots and, ultimately, to the rest of the plant.

Plants tend to extract the nutrients and moisture stored in the leaves first to support the roots and main trunk or stem. Moreover, high temperatures can cause the moisture from the leaves to evaporate faster than the roots can replenish them with water from the soil. As a result, the leaves begin to die off before the deeper systems of the plant.

Another indication that the discoloration in the leaf tips is due to underwatering is if it feels dry and crisp. Browning edges and tips are a clear indication of underwatering. In contrast, crisp, brown spots in the middle of the leaves can be a sign of sunburn.

Dry or dead leaf tips are more common in plants with stiff leaves, such as rubber plants and magnolias. They are more prone to experiencing this issue than some other plants. In contrast, you will probably see this issue less often in plants with softer leaves which show dehydration primarily through wilting.

How to Fix

The first step to fixing a plant with dry or dead leaf tips is to cut off the damaged parts. Leaves with dried tips are unlikely to recover, and the plant will just be wasting its energy maintaining them.

Removing them will relieve the plant of such burden and encourage faster recovery. Remove the entire leaf, not just the part of it that is damaged.

After pruning your plant, rehydrate it. This process will look different depending on how dehydrated the plant has become. 

Always check the soil before beginning any rehydration process. While some plants may need the full rehydration process we discussed in the previous section, others may only need a little extra water and relief from the scorching sun.

How to Prevent

To prevent such problems from happening again, you can check the weather forecast in your area regularly for predicted temperatures and dry spells. If possible, move your plants to a shadier part of your garden or keep them indoors during extremely hot and dry days.

Alternatively, you can increase your watering frequency or set up a shade or overhead covering for your garden plants to protect them from intense heat and light. You may also mist plants that can tolerate misting to reduce heat stress. 

Mulching the soil can also help regulate the temperature and retain moisture. Just be sure to avoid very thick and fine mulch materials that can compromise the air circulation in the root zone.

Fresh compost can work wonders for your plants. It works well as a mulching material, feeds your plants nutrients, improves soil drainage, and enhances the soil’s water-holding capacity.

3. The Plant Has Brown or Yellow Leaves

Leaf discoloration is often thought of as a sign of underwatering. Surprisingly, however, this sign is more closely related to problems with overwatering.

When a plant receives too much water, it essentially suffocates the roots. In the same way a human will choke if they breathe in the water, the plant’s system can’t handle excessive moisture and lack of oxygen.

When the plant lacks oxygen, it can’t send it to the leaves. The result is that the leaves begin to change color – usually to either yellow or brown.

Usually, you will see a mix of brown and yellow leaves when the plant has received too much water. However, the browning in overwatered plants will appear watersoaked and can occur anywhere on the leaf’s surface.

When a beginner gardener sees brown or yellow leaves, they often conclude that the plant needs more water. Once they give the plant more water, the damage can’t be undone, as it can take time to drain the soil.

Take my advice here and be sure to check your soil if you notice that the leaves are brown or yellow. If the soil feels excessively dry, proceed with watering. Otherwise, check out the solution below. 

How to Fix

Once leaves turn yellow or brown, it’s difficult at best and impossible at worst to bring the specific leaves back to full health. An overwatered plant can still recover, but the damaged leaves are beyond help. Therefore, it’s best to cut them off.

Here are some steps to help your plant dry out faster:

Stop Watering

Move the plant to a dry spot and stop all watering. You’ll want to wait until the soil is almost completely dry before adding more water. Add only enough water until the soil is slightly moistened.

Limit Light Exposure

While light and heat from the sun can help dry out the plant, it can also cause damage if it dries the plant too quickly. Instead, schedule your plant’s move between bright and shaded areas.

Remove Potted Plants From the Soil

You can place potted plants on a cooling rack and help to facilitate the drying process. Remove as much soil from the roots as possible.

Cut off the Rotten Root Parts

Cutting off rotten root parts is important because rotten roots often carry diseases that will continue to spread throughout the rest of the plant. Healthy roots typically appear white. Cut off brown or black sections.

Remove Flowers and Fruit

Remove the flowers and fruit, and prune back some growth at the top of the plant. Flowers and fruits require a lot of energy, so it’s also best to remove them when the plant is damaged. With the dead weight gone thanks to pruning, the plant can focus all its energy on recovering.

4. The Surrounding Grass Leaves an Imprint When Stepped On

When you walk on your grass, it should bounce back almost immediately. This indicates that the grass is well-hydrated. 

This is similar to pinching the skin with your fingers and waiting for it to bounce back. If it stays in the same place, this is typically an indication that you are dehydrated. In the same way, if an imprint stays in the grass, it’s typically a sign that the grass and the soil are dehydrated.

You can also use this as a reference to the overall water-holding capacity of your garden or lawn soil. You can tell a lot about what is going on in the soil by looking at the surrounding area. 

To test this, walk on the grass surrounding the plant you are concerned about. Take note of how the grass is lying before you walk on it. The grass should return to its former state within about 30 or 40 seconds. If it stays lying down or in the shape of your foot, it’s a sure sign that the soil doesn’t have enough water.

Often, this sign appears even before other signs of underwatering, such as extremely dry soil or dry leaf tips. Usually, you can get a head start on rehydrating your plant before things get bad simply by paying attention to the surrounding grass. 

How to Fix

The good news is this problem is fairly easy to fix. While the area is still underwatered, the problem is usually manageable at this point. 

In this situation, you won’t need to go through a full rehydrating process. Instead, you can poke some holes in the soil around the plant and add some water. As we discussed, go back after about 30 minutes and check the soil again. The soil should feel damp after the first watering session.

You can also help to block some of the light surrounding your plant. This can be done with an umbrella, tarp, or similar materials.

You should also note what other plants are growing around the plant you are concerned about. If there are weeds surrounding your plant, that could explain why it isn’t receiving enough water. Weeds thrive in dehydrated soil better than most garden plants. They can also indicate poor soil quality.

Remove unwanted weeds and plants to ensure your plant benefits the most from water and nutrients in the soil. After watering, give the grass a day or so and then test it by walking on it again. 

Final Thoughts

Overwatering and underwatering share some similar signs. Wilting and leaf discoloration are two signs that tend to show for both issues. Wilting is equally common, but leaf discoloration is present more in overwatered plants than in underwatered plants. 

Other signs that the plant is underwatered or overwatered include dry and dead leaf tips and deep, lasting grass imprints. Apply the relevant fixes to bring your plants back to good health.

Dr. Moritz Picot

Dr. Moritz Picot is a horticulture enthusiast and the founder of TheGrowingLeaf.com, where he serves as the lead content writer. He established the website in 2022 as a valuable resource for both gardening aficionados and beginners, compiling all the gardening tips he has accumulated over the past 25 years. Alex has a passion for nurturing plants, transforming backyards into inviting spaces, and sharing his knowledge with the world.

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