Underwatering in Houseplants: Symptoms, Causes, and Fixes

Adequate water is crucial for plant health and growth. Frequently underwatering your houseplants can affect their appearance, stunt growth, or lead to severe complications.

Underwatering is a common gardening problem in which plants don’t receive enough water to support biological functions. This can lead to leaf discoloration, drooping, wilting, or even plant death. Identifying the signs of dehydration early and fixing the issue can help save your plant.

The rest of the article will help you identify the signs of underwatering and provide practical solutions to ensure your plant is well-hydrated. I’ll also share appropriate watering practices to prevent underwatering problems.

Underwatering in Houseplants: An Overview

In simple terms, underwatering is giving your plant insufficient water or having large intervals between watering sessions. Without enough moisture, the plant can’t sustain metabolic processes or transport essential nutrients from the roots to the shoots. The issue can affect your houseplants at varying intensities depending on the frequency of occurrence.

Here’s how:

  • Occasional underwatering can lead to short-term damage, such as wrinkly or droopy leaves. Properly rehydrating your plant will help the shoots perk up.
  • Frequent underwatering or extended periods of drought cause severe dehydration, discoloration, and wilting of the stems and leaves. It can also turn the soil hydrophobic and kill beneficial microbes.

Underwatering is one of the leading causes of plant death—next to overwatering. The damage can progress in the following steps:

  1. The soil dries out.
  2. The roots are unable to absorb moisture or nutrients.
  3. Flat leaves turn yellow from the edges, succulent leaves may become wrinkly.
  4. The leaf tips gradually turn brown and crisp.
  5. The plant has stunted growth.
  6. The partially decomposed fatty compounds from the dried-out roots wrap around soil particles, making them hydrophobic. When this happens, your plant won’t recover even after you water it because the hydrophobic soil repels the water and prevents it from reaching the roots.
  7. Stems start leaning or become brittle as the plant uses the remaining moisture.
  8. All the inner layers of the stem and roots turn brown and the plant dies.

Underwatering and the later stages of overwatering and root rot share similar symptoms. Both issues can lead to dehydration. 

You can still save an underwatered plant by improving your watering routine or repotting it in fresh soil with better moisture retention. Dehydration from root rot, on the other hand, can be more severe and may kill your plant within 1-2 weeks if left unaddressed.

To treat your plant correctly, it’s important to distinguish between underwatering and overwatering. I’ll discuss the symptoms of underwatering in more detail below.

Symptoms

Look out for the following symptoms and their accompanying signs to confirm that your plant is underwatered:

  • Dry, water-repellent soil
  • Wilting and drooping
  • Wrinkled leaves or stems
  • Yellowing leaves
  • Crispy or brown leaves
  • Slow or stunted growth
  • Leaf drop
  • Brittle stems
  • Dried-out roots
  • Pest infestation

Let’s explore these symptoms in more detail:

Dry, Water-Repellent Soil

Dry soil that repels water is the first sign that your plant isn’t getting enough water. Potted plants depend on soil texture and quality to efficiently access the water you feed them.

You’ll know that your plant is underwatered if the soil exhibits the following traits:

  • The soil pulls away from the pot edges: Prolonged drought can cause a buildup of hydrophobic compounds from partially decomposed organic matter in the soil. These compounds wrap soil particles and form clumps, causing the soil to recede from the edges of the container.
  • Crusty surface with cracks: The clumps of soil may also form cracks between them. Since they’re coated with hydrophobic compounds, water will slide through the gaps and drip out of the drainage holes without properly reaching or rehydrating the roots.
  • The pot feels light because the soil doesn’t contain water: In contrast, well-hydrated soil should feel heavy.

Pro tip: Peat moss and coarse sand are more likely to become hydrophobic than clayey soil. Water molecules more readily bind to soil particles rich in negatively charged ions like clay.

Here’s how hydrophobicity occurs in sand and peat moss that are allowed to dry out for extended periods:

Coarse Sand Particles

Coarse sand particles have a smaller surface area and carry more cations or positively charged ions. This natural property of sand facilitates faster drainage. The fatty compounds wrapping around dehydrated soil further reduce the sand particles’ ability to bind with water. 

Peat Moss

Peat moss is widely used in potting mixes because of its high moisture retention capacity. Microscopically, it has a spongey inner layer that draws and holds water. The outer part contains hydrophobic filaments that prevent rapid moisture loss. If the inner layer completely dries out, it can’t readily draw water in due to the hydrophobic outer layer that also functions to prevent moisture.

To fix the problem, you may need to rehydrate the peat-rich or sandy soil mix using a wetting agent or repot the plant in a new substrate with better moisture retention.

Wilting and Drooping

As previously discussed, hydrophobic soil may also form a barrier around the plant roots, preventing them from accessing water despite regular watering. This worsens the dehydration of the shoots.

The shoots’ turgidity depends on the plant cells’ water content. If your plant is underwatered, the cells shrink and the leaves and stems start wilting or drooping.

Wrinkled Leaves or Stems (on Succulents)

Succulents and cacti have modified stems or leaves that help store extra moisture to survive long periods of drought.

If the plant is well-hydrated, its stems and leaves appear plump or fleshy. Conversely, they become wrinkly as the cells lose turgor pressure due to dehydration.

Yellowing Leaves

In some cases, leaf yellowing may manifest before wilting or wrinkling. This is one of the early signs of underwatering. 

The lack of moisture affects the transport of essential nutrients like nitrogen, magnesium, or iron, which are necessary for chlorophyll synthesis. Without adequate chlorophyll, the leaves appear pale or yellow.

The symptom may manifest in the following ways:

  • Yellow leaf tips: This indicates dehydration or moisture loss through transpiration.
  • Interveinal chlorosis: The lack of iron or magnesium will turn the leaf surface yellow while the veins remain green.
  • Yellow older leaves: Bottom, older, or larger leaves may turn yellow first in case of nitrogen deficiency.

The discoloration may be confused with overwatering or nutrient deficiency in the soil. Here’s how to tell them apart:

Overwatering

Leaf yellowing typically occurs once overwatering has progressed so badly that the roots decay and can no longer send moisture and nutrients to the shoots. The yellowing is also accompanied by other symptoms like mushy leaves, wet soil, and smelly, black roots.

Nutrient Deficiency

Nutrient deficiency may occur if you don’t fertilize your plant during the growing season or it’s been too long since you repotted it in a fresh soil mix. If the soil is well-saturated (not soggy) and there are no signs of rot, the discoloration is most likely due to nutrient deficiency. 

Crispy or Brown Leaves

If the plant isn’t properly rehydrated, the yellow leaves will eventually turn brown and crisp at the edges. The discolored edges may also feel paper-thin and curl.

This shouldn’t be confused with sunburn, which manifests as brown or black burn marks on leaf surfaces (not only on the edges). You can also distinguish sunburn because the damage is apparent only on the leaves exposed to the sun.

Slow or Stunted Growth

The lack of moisture can prompt plants to enter dormancy prematurely and stop growing to protect themselves from more severe damage due to dehydration. 

However, other environmental cues like warm temperatures and longer daylight hours will stimulate the plant to keep growing. The stressed plant will still put out new growth but the new leaves will appear smaller or deformed due to insufficient resources.

Water is also vital for proper flower or fruit development. A stressed plant may have a lower yield or deformed flowers or fruits due to dehydration.

Leaf Drop

Plants naturally lose water in vapor form through transpiration. Drought-stricken plants may drop their leaves prematurely as a survival mechanism. This behavior helps them conserve moisture in their stems and roots. 

Once the plants receive adequate moisture and a consistent watering schedule, they will start producing new leaves.

Brittle Stems

Stems have water channels that may remain green even after all the leaves have fallen. As the underwatering issue progresses, the plant may use up the remaining moisture in the stems and dry them out completely. 

Scratch a thin layer off the stem to see if the inside is still green. A green layer indicates that the plant is still alive and may still be revived.

On the other hand, a dead plant’s inner stem layers will appear brown. It’ll also feel brittle and easily snap between your fingers.

Dried-Out Roots

Roots can store some moisture, especially the thicker ones closest to the base of the stem. Desiccated roots from severe underwatering will appear light brown, thin, and brittle. Thicker roots will also snap between your fingers when completely dry.

Conversely, decayed roots from overwatering are black, feel slimy and mushy, and smell rotten.

Pest Infestation

Many plants contain calcium oxalate crystals in their sap to deter pests or prevent long-term infestations. 

The nutrient deficiency caused by underwatering can reduce the concentration of crystals in the sap. As a result, these plants become vulnerable to attacks from sap-feeding insects like aphids and mealybugs.

Causes

Here are the primary causes of underwatering in houseplants:

Infrequent Watering

Irregular watering schedules or large intervals between watering sessions can leave plants thirsty and stressed.

This can lead to the following issues:

  • Hydrophobic soil
  • Dehydrated shoots, leading to wilting, drooping, or discoloration
  • Stunted growth

Suboptimal Soil

Drought-tolerant plants generally prefer loose, fast-draining soil because their roots can absorb moisture quickly and store it in the modified leaves or stems. 

On the other hand, moisture-loving plants like soil mixes with an excellent balance between drainage and water retention.

Using the incorrect soil type with fast drainage and poor water retention can dehydrate your plant despite regular watering.

Incorrect Pot Size or Type

Small pots can hold less soil and moisture. If your plant is too large for the container and soil volume, it will be more prone to underwatering.

In addition, some plants require consistently moist soil, so they do best in glazed containers. Unglazed clay containers, on the other hand, have porous walls that can wick away moisture quickly.

Intense Sunlight

High light intensity can increase your plant’s metabolic rate and water use. It can also promote rapid moisture evaporation from the soil surface. 

Without an appropriate adjustment in the watering frequency, too much sunlight can worsen the effects of dehydration.

High Temperatures

High temperatures promote more active metabolism and a higher evaporation rate. Heat stress can also cause leaf discoloration and dehydration. If the plant stays above the optimal temperature range for too long, it may wilt, have stunted growth, or even die.

Low Humidity

Dry indoor air can prompt your plant to transpire more or release water from leaf pores in vapor form. This behavior draws the moisture from the soil to the roots and shoots like a vacuum, resulting in drier soil and potential plant dehydration.

Fixes and Solutions

You can fix underwatering problems with the following steps:

  1. Prune or trim the discolored or deformed leaves to redirect energy to healthier sections and improve recovery. Use sharp, sterile shears for a clean cut and prevent potential contamination from plant pathogens.
  2. Rehydrate the soil using the bottom watering method. Soak the bottom half of the pot in water for 10-30 minutes until the soil surface feels moist. Alternatively, you can add a wetting agent to the water to rehydrate the soil more quickly.
  3. Let the excess moisture drip from the drainage holes. Avoid overwatering your dehydrated plant to compensate for the damage caused by underwatering. The stress will make it less tolerant to excess moisture and increase the risk of root rot.

Pro tip: It’s sometimes more practical to repot the plant instead of rehydrating poor-quality soil. Depending on the plant type, use an appropriate soil mix and pot material. Ensure the pot has drainage holes regardless of the material.

Drought-tolerant plants like loose soil and breathable pots. To improve moisture retention, you can add up to 20% compost to the soil mix. 

On the other hand, you may use coco peat or coir instead of peat moss for moisture-loving plants. Coco peat and coco coir don’t become hydrophobic and are easier to re-wet when dehydrated. 

Here’s my go-to remedial procedure if the soil appears too dehydrated and water-repellent:

  1. Carefully unpot the rootball. To make it easier to slide out, use a flat knife or spatula to loosen the soil from the pot’s edges.
  2. Remove the old soil using a hand cultivator or wooden chopstick.
  3. Prune dry and crisp roots using sterile shears. 
  4. Soak the remaining roots in filtered water for 10-15 minutes.
  5. Fill the bottom third of the new pot with fresh, moist soil.
  6. Spread the rehydrated roots over the soil and fill the gaps with more soil.
  7. Press the moist soil firmly to keep the stem upright.
  8. Place the plant in a warm room with bright indirect light. 
  9. Wait until the top 2 inches (5 cm) of the soil feels dry before watering deeply.
  10. Use a watering can with a narrow spout. Swirl it around the plant’s base to evenly saturate the soil until the excess drips from the drainage holes.

For long-term solutions, you must also make the following changes in your gardening practices and the plant’s environment:

  • Create a plant diary or set an alarm or reminder to check the soil moisture and water your plant as needed.
  • Avoid exposing your plant to too much direct sunlight, which can increase the risk of dehydration. Most houseplants do great with 8 hours of bright indirect light daily.
  • Keep your plant away from heating vents or strong winds, which can wick moisture away from the soil. 
  • Monitor your plant’s recovery with a weekly check. Look for new signs of discoloration, if any, to quickly identify and solve the problem. 
  • Avoid fertilizing your recovering plant right away. If you repotted your plant in fresh soil, you can wait until the next spring before applying fertilizers. Alternatively, you can spread about an inch (2.5 cm) of compost over the soil surface for plants that remain in the same pot. Compost can improve moisture infiltration and retention and slowly release nutrients for the plant roots.
  • Address pest infestations promptly. Pests may take advantage of your plant’s stress and feast on the leaves. Catch and eliminate pests using tweezers or a cotton swab with alcohol and prevent further infestations by spraying your plant with a neem oil solution.

With a more stringent watering routine, your plant should bounce back within a month or up to a year. The duration can vary depending on the plant type, age, and overall health before the treatment. 

Be patient and consistent with your improved watering practice. Watch out for signs of growth, such as new leaf buds or green leaves unfurling, which indicate that your plant is recovering.

Preventive Measures and Best Practices

Here are some practical tips to help you prevent underwatering problems:

Understand Your Plant’s Water Needs

Plants have different levels of tolerance to underwatering based on the following:

  • Plant type: Drought-tolerant plants like cacti and succulents can last longer without water than moisture-loving plants like ferns. I recommend getting yourself drought-tolerant plants for low-maintenance gardening because they require less frequent watering.
  • Growth rate: Fast-growing and fruit-bearing plants tend to use moisture more quickly to fuel their rapid growth and the development of flowers and fruits. Without enough water, the yield decreases significantly.
  • Age and size: Mature and larger plants have robust root systems and stems that absorb and store moisture. They generally prefer deep but infrequent watering. Young transplants and seedlings, on the other hand, typically require frequent and shallow watering.
  • Local climate or indoor environmental conditions: Plants growing in brighter and warmer locations require more frequent watering because the soil tends to dry out much faster.
  • Soil type: Loamy soil or potting mixes rich in organic matter have better moisture retention than loose soil mixes.
  • Container type: Hanging baskets hold less moisture and dry out faster than regular pots. Gravity and better air circulation promote rapid moisture loss.

Here are common houseplants and their corresponding moisture requirements:

PlantSoil DrainageWatering Frequency
African violets
(S. ionantha)
SlowWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Air plant
(Tillandsia spp.)
SoillessEvery 1-2 weeks
Soak in water for an hour
Aloe vera
(Aloe vera)
FastEvery 2-3 weeks
Top half of the pot is dry
Anthurium
(A. andraeanum)
ModerateWeekly
Top 2-3 inches (5-7.6 cm) are dry
Chinese evergreen
(A. modestum)
ModerateWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Chinese money plant
(P. peperomioides)
SlowWeekly
Top 2 inches (5 cm) are dry
Cornstalk dracaena
(D. fragrans)
ModerateWeekly
Top 2-3 inches (5-7.6 cm) are dry
Croton
(C. variegatum)
ModerateWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Dieffenbachia
(D. seguine)
ModerateWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
English ivy
(H. helix)
ModerateWeekly in pots / Daily in hanging baskets
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Fiddle leaf fig
(F. lyrata)
SlowWeekly
Top 2 inches (5 cm) are dry
Gardenia
(Gardenia spp.)
ModerateWeekly
Top 2 inches (5 cm) are dry
Haworthia
(Haworthia spp.)
Fast Every 2-3 weeks
Top half of the pot is dry
Jade plant
(C. ovata)
FastEvery 2-3 weeks
Top half of the pot is dry
Lipstick echeveria
(E. agavoides)
FastEvery 2-3 weeks
Top half of the pot is dry
Lucky bamboo
(D. sanderiana)
SlowWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Majesty palm
(R. rivularis)
Slow1-2 times weekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Money tree
(P. aquatica)
ModerateWeekly
Top half of the pot is dry
Monstera
(M. deliciosa)
SlowWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Nerve plant
(F. albivenis)
ModerateWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Parlor palm
(C. elegans)
ModerateWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Peace lily
(Spathiphyllum spp.)
ModerateWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Pearl echeveria
(E. elegans)
FastEvery 10-14 days
Top half of the pot is dry
Heartleaf philodendron
(P. hederaceum)
ModerateEvery 10-14 days
Top 2 inches (5 cm) are dry
Tree philodendron
(P. selloum)
ModerateWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Ponytail palm
(B. recurvata)
FastEvery 2-3 weeks
Top half of the pot is dry
Pothos
(Epipremnum spp.)
SlowWeekly
Top 2 inches (5 cm) are dry
Prayer plant
(Calathea spp.)
SlowWeekly
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Rubber plant
(F. elastica)
ModerateWeekly
Top 2 inches (5 cm) are dry
Snake plant
(D. trifasciata)
FastEvery 2-3 weeks
Top half of the pot is dry
Spider plant
(C. comosum)
ModerateEvery 10-14 days
Top half of the pot is dry
String of pearls
(S. rowleyanus)
FastEvery 10-14 days
Top half of the pot is dry
Tradescantia zebrina
(T. zebrina)
ModerateWeekly in pots / Daily in hanging baskets
Top inch (2.5 cm) is dry
Wax plant
(Hoya spp.)
ModerateEvery 10-14 days in pots / Twice weekly in hanging baskets
Top half of the pot is dry
ZZ plant
(Z. zamiifolia)
FastEvery 10-14 days
Top half of the pot is dry

Note: The watering frequencies above are based on each plant’s active growing seasons. Some may enter dormancy or require a brief rest period after flowering, during which they’ll require less frequent watering.

In addition to soil drainage, their individual light, temperature, and humidity requirements can also influence their watering frequency.

Observe Proper Watering Practices

Establishing a consistent watering schedule helps prevent underwatering. This will encourage houseplants to keep growing, remain vibrant, and build resistance against pests.

Here are additional tips to improve your watering routine:

Monitor Soil Moisture

Use your fingers or a wooden chopstick to measure the depth of dryness from the soil surface a few days before the recommended watering session (i.e. on the 5th day for plants with weekly watering recommendations). This will help you determine when it’s time to water your plant.

Saturate the Soil Evenly

Saturate the soil evenly to prevent the accumulation of hydrophobic compounds in a few areas of your potting mix. Check if the soil is evenly moist by inserting a wooden chopstick or moisture meter in multiple spots.

Avoid Wetting the Foliage

Wetting the foliage can encourage mold growth or infection on the leaves. It also reduces the amount of water that goes directly into the root zone. Pour the water directly into the soil using a watering can with a narrow spout. Swirl the spout around the base of the stem so the water can reach the root zone evenly.

Alternate Bottom & Top Watering

Bottom water your plant once after 3-4 times of regular top watering. This will further ensure that the soil is evenly rehydrated. It can also break up small hydrophobic clumps that build up over time.

Provide Proper Drainage

Let the excess moisture exit through the drainage holes. Overwatering can damage (or kill) houseplants more quickly than underwatering. Give your plant proper drainage to prevent the soil from staying wet or soggy for too long.

Group Your Plants Strategically

Group plants with similar environmental and watering needs to simplify plant care schedules, including watering, pot rotation, and dusting of leaves.

Adjust Watering Frequency Based on the Season

Most houseplants enter dormancy or a period of slower growth in winter, so it’s necessary to reduce the watering frequency. Gradually revert to the regular watering schedule as the light intensity and temperatures rise to optimal levels in spring so your plants remain well-hydrated as they grow more actively.

Use a Humidifier

Set up a humidifier a few feet (0.6+ m) from your indoor plants to maintain the humidity and prevent dehydration.

Use Self-Watering Pots

Grow moisture-loving plants in self-watering pots to avoid underwatering. Check the water reservoir weekly to ensure it doesn’t dry out and the soil remains adequately moist.

Use the Right Substrate

A watering routine is easier to maintain if you use the right substrate for your houseplants.

Some potting mix materials that help with moisture retention include:

  • Compost
  • Coco peat or coco coir
  • Peat moss
  • Vermiculite

On the other hand, materials that promote faster drainage include:

  • Perlite
  • Pumice
  • Bark
  • Horticultural sand

Houseplants are typically grouped into three categories based on moisture and soil requirements:

  • Moisture-loving plants: Use loamy soil or potting mixes that contain 50-75% moisture-retaining materials and 25-50% porous materials.
  • Plants with moderate water needs: They require equal parts moisture-retaining and porous materials.
  • Drought-tolerant plants: Prepare a soil mix with 60-70% porous materials.

Pro tip: Adding at least 10% high-quality organic compost to your potting mix can help improve your plant’s health and growth. It adds organic matter to the substrate and encourages the growth of beneficial soil microbes. It also has excellent drainage, aeration, and moisture retention.

Prepare for Vacations

Many houseplants go dormant or require less frequent watering in late fall and winter, so they won’t mind if you go on vacation for 2-6 weeks. 

However, if you’re going on a long vacation during spring or summer when your plants are actively growing, you may ask a friend or family member to help with your watering tasks.

Alternatively, you must plan on how to provide adequate water to your plants so you don’t come home to a wilting indoor garden.

Here are some tips to avoid underwatering your plant when you go on vacation:

Maintain Optimal Environmental Conditions Indoors

Plants can handle a few more days without water if the environmental conditions are moderate.

Here are some tips:

  • Reduce the light intensity. Move your plants a few feet (+ 0.6 m) away from a bright window to reduce the light intensity and their water consumption. You may also hang sheer curtains to filter the light.
  • Maintain moderate temperatures. Most houseplants thrive at 70-75 °F (21-24 °C) in spring and summer or around 60 °F (15.6 °C) in winter.
  • Set the humidity accordingly. Keep the humidity at 40% for plants with low to moderate moisture needs and 60% for those that like high humidity. Grouping plants with similar needs closer together will help increase the local humidity.

Water Cacti or Succulents Deeply

Water drought-tolerant plants deeply and let the excess water drain out. They should survive for 2-3 weeks without water. Mature or larger plants have better chances of surviving longer periods of drought.

I once went on a 2-month spring vacation and came home to a wilting ZZ plant. It was a 2-year-old plant I grew from a stem cutting, so it was disheartening to see all the leaves had dried out. 

Thankfully, I kept the shootless rhizomes and replanted them in fresh soil. By the middle of summer (around 2 months later), new leaf buds sprouted and began to unfurl a few weeks later.

Cacti and succulents are very resilient and can tolerate underwatering or irregular watering schedules better than other houseplants. That’s why I highly recommend them for novice gardeners or those who don’t have enough time to follow a consistent watering schedule.

Set Up Self-Watering Pots or Install Wick-Watering

Repot your moisture-loving plants in self-watering pots 3-4 weeks before your trip to give your plant a chance to adjust to the new container. Alternatively, you can install a wick through the drainage hole and place the other end in a water reservoir.

Remember the following considerations when using wick-watering:

  • Adjust the number of wicks depending on the pot size. You can use one wick for pots 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) wide and deep, two wicks for 8-10 inches (20-25 cm), or three wicks for pots larger than 12 inches (30 cm).
  • Use a partially closed water reservoir. You’ll want the water to move through the wick into the soil instead of losing it through evaporation.

Final Thoughts

Chronic underwatering can lead to a myriad of problems in plants, including wilting, drooping, leaf discoloration, stunted growth, and even plant death.

The issue may stem from infrequent or irregular watering, poor soil quality, and incorrect pot size or type. Suboptimal environmental conditions like intense sunlight, high temperatures, and low humidity can also contribute to plant dehydration.

You can fix mildly underwatered plants by properly rehydrating the soil through bottom watering or using a wetting agent. In severe cases, you may need to prune the damaged foliage and repot your plant in fresh soil and a container with better moisture retention.

Regular monitoring can help you detect and fix the symptoms of underwatering more easily. I recommend doing weekly checks and maintenance to make your gardening routines more manageable.

Feel free to ask questions or share your experiences and tips for dealing with underwatering in houseplants.

Recent Posts