11 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Watering Your Plants

When watering your garden plants, a lot can go wrong if you aren't careful. Luckily, many issues can be resolved if addressed early enough. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton shares 11 common issues you need to be aware of when watering your plants this season.

common watering mistakes

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After planting in the right conditions, one of the most consistent garden tasks you’ll have to think about season after season is watering. All plants need water to survive, but how they get that water and how much of it they receive can make or break plant health.

Ornamentals will often need a different watering frequency than vegetables in the garden. Assuming all plants need the same amount of water can end up with a garden tragedy.

We’ve all made watering mistakes before – gardening is a lot of trial and error after all! But with this list, you can learn from my (and many other gardeners’) mistakes without making them yourselves.

Watering Too Much

Close-up of a Zamioculcas plant with rotting stems due to overwatering. Stems are upright, green, rotting, soft at the base. The stems bear oval green and yellow leaves with a waxy texture.
Overwatering is a common and deadly plant problem that can lead to suffocation of roots and fungal growth.

One of the biggest plant killers, especially when it comes to indoor plants, is watering too much. It always comes from a place of love – you’re worried your plants don’t have enough water and want to ensure they have everything they need to thrive. But unfortunately, this will likely end up with you killing your plants with kindness.

Overwatering is a common and potentially deadly plant problem. Most plants appreciate moist but well-draining soil that allows air to flow around the roots. If the soil holds onto too much moisture and becomes waterlogged, the roots will essentially suffocate.

The additional moisture also encourages fungal growth that leads to a deadly problem known as root rot.

Since roots are the foundation of strong plants, keeping them happy should be your number one priority. Never water when the soil around your plants is sufficiently moist, and check the requirements of your specific plants to know when to water next. It may be just as the top soil dries out or when all the soil dries out completely in the case of succulents.

Watering Too Little

Close-up of a Ficus plant with withered and fallen leaves due to underwatering. Ficus has dry upright stems and oval smooth leaves of pale green and light brown.
Without enough water, plants will wilt and their growth will be stunted.

The other side of the coin is watering too little. Between the two extremes, this is the end I certainly fall on. While I know I shouldn’t water when the soil is still moist, it’s harder for me to remember not to let it dry out too much. As an admittedly forgetful gardener, I am painfully aware of how many plants I’ve killed from lack of watering.

Water is essential to so many plant processes that they simply can’t live without it. Some may be able to survive slightly longer than others, such as succulents that store water in their stems and leaves in times of drought. But once these stores run out, your plants will rely on you (or the rain outdoors) to keep them going.

Lack of water will quickly result in wilting leaves, drooping stems, and brown leaf tips. Without water, the cells cannot hold the plant upright, and photosynthesis cannot occur, stunting growth. Don’t wait for any of these signs to water – check the soil regularly and monitor environmental conditions for changes.

Not Watering The Soil Directly

Close-up of watering pepper seedlings at the base, in a vegetable garden, using a hose with an orange spray nozzle. Seedlings have vertical stems covered with oval smooth leaves of bright green color.
It is best to water the soil directly to ensure that all roots have access to moisture.

Whether you’re watering with a watering can or a hose, it seems much simpler to water directly over your beds or pots until the soil appears soaked. However, this doesn’t really get the water to the parts of the plant that need it – the roots.

Some plants may benefit from an occasional overhead shower to rinse any debris off the leaves, but most of that water will likely evaporate before it reaches the soil.

The top layer of soil will appear moist, but the bottom layers, where the roots likely reach, will stay dry. This can lead to wilting and early death, along with confusion as to what went wrong.

Whenever you water, indoors or out, always focus the stream of water on the soil and not the leaves or stems.

Water deeply to completely saturate the soil, ensuring all the roots have access to moisture – even those deep into the soil. After every couple of waterings, you can add a sprinkle overhead to rinse the leaves, or simply wait for the rain to take care of that for you.

Splashing The Leaves/Stems When Watering

Close-up of watering a flower garden from a blue hose with an orange sprayer. The garden has a variety of plants including rose bushes.
Avoid watering plants from overhead to prevent disease, as water on foliage can lead to various issues.

Speaking of watering overhead, another reason this practice is best avoided is to prevent disease. When water collects on the foliage of plants and does not evaporate away, it can encourage a range of diseases, especially in plants like roses that are particularly susceptible to problems.

Signs of these issues include leaf discoloration – particularly yellow and black spots – that may also appear on the stems. If the water evaporates off the plants throughout the day, there is usually no cause for concern. However, if it is particularly cloudy or cold, or if moisture gets trapped between leaves and stems, it can lead to disease and rot.

Another common issue cited by gardeners is sunburn. There is a widespread belief that water droplets can act as a magnifying glass during the day, intensifying the sun’s rays and causing the leaves to burn.

However, studies show this is unlikely for most plants and will only occur in rare cases, making disease the primary cause for concern when overhead watering.

Not Mulching

Close-up of watering a mulched garden with a Garden Sprinkler. The soil in the garden is covered with a layer of straw mulch.
Mulching helps retain moisture in the soil, reducing water usage and preventing moisture stress in plants.

When planting in garden beds or even in containers, mulching is a step you should always consider. It comes with a range of benefits, from weed suppression to improved soil health. But in terms of watering, the greatest benefit of mulch is that it helps retain moisture in the soil.

For water-wise gardeners, mulch can help you cut down on the amount of water you use. This is especially helpful for thirsty plants that can have quite an impact on water consumption in large gardens. With a thick layer of mulch over the soil, the moisture will not evaporate away so quickly, delivering it to the roots where it is needed.

Mulch is also great for plant health overall. The roots are less likely to dry out quickly, preventing moisture stress that can lead to stunted growth.

Most mulches help regulate soil temperature, limiting the impacts of extreme fluctuations in summer and winter on the roots. Considering the little effort it takes and the rewards given, there is little reason not to mulch your beds.

Watering All Plants At The Same Rate

Close-up of a gardener watering a flower garden with a yellow hose with a spray nozzle. Plants such as yellow chrysanthemums, pink petunias, orange marigolds, and roses bloom in the flower bed.
Different plants have varying water requirements, so it’s important to research and understand the needs of each plant before watering.

This one almost goes without saying, but it can be easy to forget sometimes – not all plants require the same amount of water. The general advice of one inch of water per week, however difficult it can be to track, is helpful for a wide range of ornamental plants and vegetables.

However, it certainly doesn’t cover all plants or account for environmental conditions that may impact the soil’s moisture levels.

Before planting, it’s important to understand how much water your chosen plants need on average. Companion planting also plays a role here, as you shouldn’t be planting two species with completely different watering needs right next to each other.

Grouping your plants by their moisture needs will cut down on watering time and improve the health of your plants too.

As with many things in gardening, make sure you do your research. The rest comes down to practice and trial and error. Understanding your gardening environment and how it is influenced by things like heavy rains or sudden temperature changes will help you know when to water without applying a blanket approach.

Watering On A Schedule

Close-up of a gardener watering a vegetable garden with a large metal watering can. Different types of herbs grow on a raised bed. The gardener is wearing blue pants.
Watering at specific intervals without considering soil moisture levels can lead to over or underwatering.

If you’re a forgetful waterer like me, you’ve probably considered setting a reminder to stop yourself from forgetting. You may have done some research, seen advice like ‘water once every 5-7 days’, and marked that in your calendar.

Unfortunately, although this approach is well-meaning, it completely ignores the factors that influence moisture levels in the soil. Drainage, sunlight levels, temperature, position in your garden, and rainfall in your region will all influence how quickly the soil dries out.

Watering at specific intervals without determining whether your plants actually need water or not will quickly lead to issues with either over or underwatering.

I like setting reminders to check my plants so I don’t forget. I keep the intervals shorter and use the time to test the moisture levels in the soil rather than watering every time. That way, I can ensure the plants get water only when needed – not too early or too late.

Forgetting About Drainage

Close-up of a woman holding a black plastic pot with three round drainage holes from which the drainage pebbles and roots of the plant can be seen. A woman in a long-sleeved gray sweater and a brown apron. A green flower pot, a black tray of soil, and a green plastic shovel and rake are on the table.
Proper drainage is crucial for plant health, as soil type and container drainage can impact moisture levels.

You can have watering completely handled, understanding the right time to water, how much water to provide, and how to best deliver it. But if you haven’t considered drainage, getting these right won’t stop your plants from facing an early death.

Drainage levels in your soil are the first thing to consider. Heavy clay soils hold a lot of moisture and have small spaces between soil particles.

Sandy soils have large spaces and hold onto very little moisture. Understanding your soil type and how fast the soil drains will determine whether your plants will be happy and how often you will need to water.

When planting in containers, the water also cannot drain away if there are no drainage holes in the pot. Any container you plant in should have at least one drainage hole at the bottom, preferably more for plants that are highly susceptible to root rot. This will prevent any accidental overwatering, limiting your chances of root rot.

Watering In The Middle Of The Day

Close-up of watering a flowering garden with an irrigation system. A variety of plants bloom in the garden, such as sunflowers, canna lilies and others. A powerful jet of water is sprayed using a small sprayer mounted on a hose.
Watering in the middle of the day can result in wasted water and stressed plants due to evaporation rates.

You’ve probably heard that the best time of the day to water is in the early morning or evening. But what impact does this have on the health of your plants?

As mentioned, the belief that watering in the middle of the day can burn the leaves of your plants is not likely, depending on the plant you’re dealing with.

The real answer lies in evaporation rates. When you water in the middle of the day when the sun is at its peak, the water evaporates much quicker than it normally would.

Depending on temperatures and sunlight levels, it may evaporate before the roots can absorb what they need. Not only does this waste water, it also leaves your plants slightly underwatered, potentially resulting in stress.

Watering in the middle of the day is used as a tactic to provide relief to plants during heat waves. Outside of this specific case, it’s best to water your plants early in the morning before the heat of the day sets in or later in the evening.

Always Using A Watering Can Or Hose Sprayer

Close-up of garden watering with drip irrigation system. Young lettuce plants grow in the garden. Lettuce has a rosette of oval elongated bright green leaves with cut wavy edges. The drip irrigation system is a black hose laid at the base of the plants with holes from which water drips.
Consider using drip irrigation systems as a convenient and water-saving option for watering your plants.

Most people use a watering can or hose sprayer to water their plants. However, if you have a lot of plants and struggle to give them sufficient water or water at the right time, it may be helpful to look into drip irrigation.

Drip irrigation is a great way to simplify watering, save water, and improve the health of your plants. These systems are ideal for large vegetable gardens (I also installed a system in my cut-flower farm) where regular watering is needed, but you may not have the time or resources to give the plants what they need.

Drip irrigation kits are available online that make the process simple. To save water, you can even hook yours up to a rainwater tank to cut down on your water bill altogether.

Always Using Tap Water

Close-up of a garden watering with a Garden Sprinkler. The Garden Sprinkler is a blue, vertically mounted hose with a green nozzle that sprays water.
Rainwater is a free and environmentally friendly alternative to tap water.

Depending on where you live, the tap water quality in your area may not be suitable for your plants. The chemicals used to purify water can have a negative impact on root growth, especially with long-term use. Tap water also costs money – not ideal for those with large gardens or plenty of plants to water.

While tap water is not severely damaging to most plants (and certainly better than no water), there is a wonderful alternative that is completely free – rainwater.

Rather than waiting for the rain to water your plants naturally, you can recycle rainwater from tanks to use in your garden. This will save you money and helps the environment at the same time – a real win-win.

Some states have rainwater collection regulations, so check your local resources before installing any systems.

Final Thoughts

Considering watering is vital to plant health, it’s no wonder there are so many ways it can go wrong. However, if you keep track of these mistakes and avoid them where possible, your garden will certainly reward you!

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