Overwatering is probably the n.1 house plant killer. I’ve done it, you’ve probably done it, too. Everybody has at some point because it’s just such an easy thing to do. Overwatering your plant means that roots are actually drowning, unable to absorb oxygen from the soil.
Fortunately, it’s not always too late to save your plant and in this article I’m going to show you everything you need to know about overwatering, how to save your plant if its suffering from it and how you can prevent overwatering in the first place!
How does an overwatered plant look like – sings of overwatering
There are different signs of an overwatered plant, depending on the type of plant that you have. Leafy plants will start to rejects leaves. You’ll notice that the leaves are turning yellow throughout the whole surface of the leaf. This will happen quite fast and leaf after leaf will start to fall out.
When you see yellowing leaves, it might not be to late to save your plant! Check out the roots immediately and follow the steps written down below.
Another sign of overwatering appears on the trunk of the plant (if a plant has a woody trunk). You’ll notice, by squeezing it, that the trunk is starting to get soft and, in some cases, the bark will start to detach from the trunk.
My experience is that when this happens, it’s probably too late to save the plant. But what you could do is to take a cutting where the trunk is not yet rotted and hope you’ll be able to propagate it.
When it comes to succulents, you’ll also notice the yellowing in the plant and the softening of the plant. Overwatered succulents tend to die really fast.
It’s important to get them out of soggy soil ASAP.
Then, what I usually tend to do with them is really simple. I take off all the dead leaves and roots, and I just place my succulent on top of fresh soil. I don’t water the soil, I don’t plant it in the soil – I just let them rest on a bed of well draining (dry) soil.
What is root rot?
Simply put, as the name suggest, root rot is the decaying of plant roots. Roots go from being firm, light colored and healthy to dark, mushy and dead.
What is causing root rot?
By constantly watering your houseplant, not allowing the soil to dry out, roots literally begin to suffocate because they lack oxygen. This will most likely happen when the soil has bad drainage (the soil itself is not well draining or the planter does not have drainage holes, keeping all the water inside the planter). Because of that, the soil will stay soggy for a long period of time.
The roots can absorb only a certain amount of water at a time, and by keeping all this water constantly in the soil, the roots don’t stand a chance.
The other cause of root rot are different type of fungus that are already in the soil. But what activates them is, yet again, overwatering. Without longer periods of moist soil, they would not be able to grow and affect the roots.
Steps to fix an overwatered plant
When you identified that your plant is suffering from root rot, there are a few steps I always do to keep my plants alive.
First of all, I always repot the plant in fresh soil. Some may advise you not to do that until the soil (the soil the plant is currently in) dries out, but I don’t like to wait when roots already started to rot. My logic is that rot will continue to spread if you don’t cut the rotted roots and place your plant in fresh soil.
When you take the plant out of the pot, gently untangle the roots with your fingers, letting the soil to fall down. Some roots may fall along with the soil, but some may still be attached to healthy ones.
Take a pair of pruners or scissors and be sure to disinfect them with alcohol. The easiest way is to pour some alcohol on a cotton pad and clean the scissors. This is an important step, because we don’t want to introduce new problems to our plant, like bacteria that could spread from dirty scissors.
Cut away all the dead roots and throw them away, along with the old soil. Before repotting, you can wash out the root system of the plant also.
Now its time to repot!
Don’t repot the plant in its old soil!
Choose a suitable pot, it can be the same one (clean it before using it again) or a new one. If you are saving a bigger plant, I would advise to take a terracotta pot. The watering is so much easier to control and the chances of root rot are reduced because terracotta is porous and allows better air circulation.
Don’t go up a size when you are choosing a new pot. This is not the same situation as repotting a healthy plant. Quite the contrary, you might want to consider a smaller pot if you removed a lot of roots. Choose a pot that is a couple of cm bigger then your plant’s root system.
Water it (if it’s not a succulent), throw away all excess water and leave it a brightly lit spot. Don’t water it again until the soil has dried out!
Don’t give it any fertilizer until it’s not completely recovered!!
How to prevent overwatering/root rot?
This may seam obvious, but it’s really important to understand. The best thing you can do with your plants is to back away from the watering can.
Let the soil dry out, or almost completely dry out (depending on the plant and its needs), and then water your plants thoroughly. After watering them be sure to THROW AWAY ALL THE EXCESS WATER. This is extra important. You can let them sit in water 10-15 min, so they can drink up the water, but after that, throw the rest of the water out.
Trust me, even if the soil is dry for a couple of days, the majority of houseplants won’t mind it at all. I know is counter intuitive, and that our nurturing senses are telling us our plants need to drink, but overwatering is the number one houseplant killer.
Helpful index by plant type:
If you have succulent or “semi-succulent” plants, feel free to let the water completely dry out. These type of plants store large amount of water in their meaty leaves and stems, and can go without any additional water for really long periods of time.
If you have woody plants, like smaller or bigger trees, you can apply the same method. Let the soil dry out and then water thoroughly.
Only in rare cases, plants won’t like dry soil, like plants from the prayer plant family. But even them don’t like soggy soil! There is a difference between soggy and moist. Soggy soil does not allow air circulation.
Lastly, when you repot your plant, repot them in well draining soil.
Depending on the type of plant, some will need better drainage then other. Succulents can survive in extra well draining soil (orchid bark, cactus mix), while some other houseplants will require soil that keeps the moist longer than a day (houseplant mix with peat moss or coco coir along with pumice or perlite for aeration).