How to Tell If You’re Overwatering Your Plants
If you feel like you’re giving your plants a little too much to drink, you’re not alone! In this easy guide, former organic farmer Logan Hailey helps you identify the key symptoms of overwatering and how to fix them!
There is such a thing as giving your plants a little too much love. Overwatering is a common mistake by gardeners of all types and levels. We have all accidentally overwatered our plants at some point, especially when we’re getting used to a new species, growing method, soil, or region.
Let’s dig into the seven key signs you’re overwatering and how to fix your irrigation methods for happier plants!
How Do You Know if a Plant is Overwatered?
An overwatered plant may appear droopy, wilted, yellow, or stunted. The stems and roots can feel soft or mushy and may give off a rotten odor. You can often see mildew, mold, or puddled water, indicating that the soil is soggy and pathogens (disease-causing organisms) may take hold.
Overwatering can also be closely associated with other problems like:
- Soil compaction: When soil is squished down without many air pockets, there is less space for water to flow through. The roots can become clogged or rotten, which causes the plant tissues to become saturated with water.
- Heavy rains or automatic irrigation: If your plants receive rain or irrigation in an uncontrolled manner, they are more susceptible to overwatering. While you cannot control the weather, you can always check the moisture level before irrigating rather than relying on automatic or timed irrigation.
- Water puddling: Due to the lack of soil infiltration and drainage, water may pool up on the surface near the base of an overwatered plant. This can also occur if you’re container-growing and leave the pot in a saucer full of water. Your plants need air to reach their roots as well as water!
- Low soil organic matter: Organic matter is the loamy carbon-rich material that makes soil fluffy, structured, and well-drained. When there isn’t enough compost, manure, or decomposed plant material, texture is compromised and may become over-saturated. This is especially a problem in heavy clay soils.
7 Signs You Are Overwatering Your Plants
Identifying overwatering can sometimes be confusing because the symptoms of too much water look very similar to underwatering. For example, wilting and yellowing are signs of underwatering, but they can also indicate your plant has too much water.
To properly diagnose the issue, use multiple identification characteristics (for example, look at the leaves, feel the roots, and touch the soil) to determine the root cause. Here are the key signs of excess moisture in your garden or pot.
1. Wilting and Drooping
If your plant leaves look sad and droopy, it doesn’t always mean they are thirsty. Drooping can also happen when plant cells become oversaturated with water, and the leaves get weighed down. This major sign of overwatering almost always coincides with soggy, excessively moist soil near the root zone. If the dirt at the base feels wet and the plant looks wilted, cut back on watering ASAP!
Overwatered plants have more difficulty transpiring (releasing water vapor through the leaf holes called stomata) because the excess moisture clogs the cells. Transpiration is sort of like “sweating” and is crucial for water uptake, temperature regulation, and gas exchange. Basically, transpiration allows plants to “breathe” and “drink,” keeping their leaf cells happy and functioning for photosynthesis. Overwatering disrupts the transpiration process because it clogs the stomata, and your plant starts to suffocate and droop.
Wilting can also occur alongside root rot. If the roots are rotten and infected, they won’t be able to uptake water, no matter how much moisture it sits in. It may seem odd that a plant wading in water could actually be thirsty, but the rotten roots make it impossible for them to absorb moisture in the surrounding soil properly.
Pay attention to the leaves’ overall feel to tell the difference. If they feel soggy or mushy, it’s probably overwatering. If they are crispy and dried out, it’s probably underwatering.
2. Yellowing Leaves
Plant leaves tend to turn yellow when under any stress. When there is too much water, decreased chlorophyll production causes reduced photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in the leaves, so when it fades, it appears yellow. As the leaves turn yellow and the roots fail to properly uptake water, there is an overall lack of energy production, making it difficult for the plant to continue producing green, healthy leaves.
As more foliage turns yellow, it becomes harder to recover. Plant health can quickly spiral downwards if you don’t catch it in time and remedy the issue. Sometimes, you just need to let the soil dry out. Other times, you need to transplant or re-pot in better-drained soil. In some cases, the roots may be so rotten, or the leaves so damaged that your plant will be unsalvageable.
Yellowing is often a common symptom of diseases as well. However, pathogens like blight or leaf spot often appear in splotches or lesions. The best way to identify if the yellowing comes from watering is to observe the pattern of color change.
Overwatered plant yellowing usually…
- Starts with lower (oldest leaves)
- Turns the whole leaf pale green, then yellow, then brown
- Does not happen in spots or patches like infections
3. Slow, Stunted Growth
Growing to vibrant health is difficult when you’re drowning in water! An overwatered plant will grow noticeably slower than usual. It can look dwarfed and miniature or even mangled and sickly.
Young transplants in waterlogged soil may never “take off” and get established. Older plants may stop producing flowers or fruit. This is a common cause for reduced late-season yields in plants like tomatoes, squash, or strawberries. Excessive irrigation or rains cause the plant to slow production or stop growing altogether.
Stunted growth is mainly caused by:
- Root Damage: Excessive moisture in the root zone causes root rot and other diseases. Pathogenic bacteria and fungi can clog up the root tissue, leading to mushy, soggy roots that no longer function properly. Think of plant roots like a paper straw. When the straw is continuously submerged in water for long periods, it eventually turns to mush and disintegrates. The damaged “straws” (roots) cannot be salvaged.
- Nutrient Deficiency: To continue the above analogy, when a plant’s “straws” are soggy and drowning in water, they can’t suck up the nutrients they need. The channels of absorption have been closed or clogged. Therefore, the plant can’t access soil nutrients. Without the minerals and nutrients required for growth, it will become stunted. It barely has the energy to survive, so it cannot spare any extra nutrients for growing new shoots, leaves, roots, stems, or flowers.
- Stress Response: Waterlogged soil causes major stress on plants. Imagine swimming in the ocean all day long without being able to get out! Your muscles would get tired, your skin would shrivel up, and you would start to feel very weak. The only thing you can focus on is surviving and getting out of the water. Things work the same way for plants. The exhaustion of stress means the plant cannot focus on expanding or growing because it must channel its energy into survival.
4. Soft and Mushy Stems or Roots
The most obvious difference between overwatering and underwatering is the flexibility of the stems and roots. An under-watered plant will become brittle, dry, and crispy. However, an under-watered plant will feel soft, mushy, and super pliable. Mushiness and a floppy appearance are major signs that your plant has way more water than it needs.
The main reason why stems become mushy is due to root damage. The cells of the roots become overburdened with moisture and the lack of oxygen availability. As a result, the roots cannot supply the stem with the necessary water and nutrients. The imbalance of minerals and moisture leads to weakened stem tissues that can cause the plant to flop over.
Mushy roots are a little more difficult to identify, but they are often – quite literally – the root of all your overwatering problems! The obvious theme here is that overwatering causes suffocated roots, which leads to all the other above-ground symptoms.
If you’re unsure about root rot, remove some soil and examine a small section of the roots. Lifting the plant out of the pot is fairly easy in a container. In the ground, you may have to carefully dig around, but take care not to disturb the roots fully.
5. Rotten Odor
A bad smell from the base of your plant is a bad sign that you are giving it too much water. This symptom is most obvious in houseplants. A nasty rotten odor comes from the root zone when you stick your nose close to the pot. Out in the garden, you can often smell the same intense odor, but you have to get your nose closer to the dirt.
The smell most commonly resembles that of rotten eggs. The overwhelm of water, combined with other tissues like soil compaction, poor drainage, and pathogens, causes the plant roots to literally decay in place. This happens because there is virtually no oxygen in the root zone, allowing anaerobic microorganisms to flourish and outcompete the “good guy” microbes.
To get rid of the nasty smell, start with these steps:
- Let the soil thoroughly dry out
- Gently loosen the dirt near the root zone with your fingers or a fork
- Transplant to better-drained soil and amend with compost, peat moss, or perlite
- Remove any dead or decaying plant matter from the surface
- In extreme cases, uproot the plant and prune off infected root parts
If the odor is extremely strong, it’s probably a sign of root rot disease and is no longer salvageable. Pull it out, throw the plant in the trash (not your compost bin!), and start over with fresh soil and a new transplant.
6. Standing or Puddled Water
If water is pooled up around the base of your plants, you are most certainly overwatering. Most garden plants are not aquatic or wetland species. Vegetables, fruits, and ornamental plants typically do not tolerate standing water for very long. Some gardeners say, “They don’t like wet feet,” meaning that these species dislike soggy soils and succumb to rot or other issues when exposed to stagnant accumulations of water.
When you see a pool of water around the base of your plants for more than 8 hours, you can almost guarantee they are being overwatered, and other symptoms will soon appear.
Puddles of water are a major sign that the soil lacks adequate drainage. The water is hitting the surface and not penetrating, causing it to sit stagnant in a little pool. Alternatively, the air spaces between soil particles may already be oversaturated, leaving new water without anywhere else to go.
Whether you received excessive rain or you accidentally left your sprinklers on for too long, you need to take immediate steps to remove and prevent standing water:
- Create a little channel to drain the water away from your plant
- Carefully rake or shovel to loosen and move the dirt around the base
- Let the plant thoroughly dry out (if it’s raining, try to cover if possible)
- If in a pot, lift it up to unclog the drainage holes
- Improve soil drainage with perlite, sand, peat moss, coco coir, shredded bark, and/or compost
- Reduce soil compaction and loosen lower layers with a broad fork or digging fork
- Transplant to a better-drained location
These are all great “quick fixes,” but the best long-term solution is to grow in a raised bed. If your native soil is very heavy clay or has a lot of compaction, standing water is likely to be an ongoing problem. Instead, plant in a raised metal garden bed or create mounded “lasagna garden” beds to elevate plants off the ground and promote drainage away from the root zone.
7. Mold, Mildew, or Algae
Anywhere there is excess water, there is usually going to be mold. White powdery or fluffy growths on your plant are a sure sign of overwatering and lack of airflow. Mildew, mold, and other fungal diseases tend to take hold in areas with excess moisture and stagnant water.
Some mildew, like damping off disease, colonizes the stem and base of young seedlings. If seedlings flop over or seem “girdled” at their base, you are probably overwatering them.
In older plants, you may find mildew and mold anywhere, but it is especially important to check the lower stems and leaves.
Slimy green algae on the dirt’s surface is another major sign of too much water. Algal growth is commonly associated with compaction and poor drainage, and because the water is resting above ground level, it can attract marine algal species that can only thrive in heavily moist or humid areas. The algae can compete with your plants and hold in even more moisture, but fortunately, it is easy to scrape away by hand or with a rake.
If you give your plant too much water and it shows any of these signs, don’t panic! This issue is very easy to resolve and prevent in the future.
1. Always check soil moisture before watering
The number one mistake gardeners make with irrigation is watering without checking the soil. Some people try to water on a schedule (e.g., “once a week”), but this is not a reliable means of caring for plants because conditions like temperature, humidity, wind, and sunlight are always changing.
Watering on a set schedule or using an irrigation timer is also problematic because you can pour a bunch of water in a pot or forget about a soaker hose and not discover the issue until hours later.
Instead, you must stick your finger in the dirt! Your hands are the best garden tools. You can feel it when it is dry, moist, or overly wet. Put your finger 2-3 inches deep into the soil and notice how it comes out:
- If your skin comes out clean or chalky, it is probably far too dry.
- If your skin has a little soil stuck to it but doesn’t feel overly wet, the moisture is probably OK.
- If your skin comes out like you just dipped it in brownie batter, it is way too wet, and you are overwatering.
Always check before you add more water. This trick alone is enough to prevent 99% of overwatering issues. When you feel what’s going on in your plant’s root zone, you can easily gauge what it needs.
Plus, it’s good for your skin to touch the earth. Getting dirty is an important part of gardening!
In extreme root rot and waterlogged soil cases, transplanting is the best option. Whether you are growing in a container or in the ground, you should take care to gently move your plant into soil with better drainage so you don’t have future moisture issues.
When transplanting a potted plant, grasp it at the base and gently turn the container on its side. Pull the plant out and examine the roots. If they are rotten, mushy, or smelly, assess whether or not you can prune off the infected parts. If so, thoroughly sanitize your pruners afterward.
Then, transplant into extra well-drained potting soil in a container with a large drainage hole at the bottom. Don’t water for a few days and see how it adjusts.
Transplanting an outdoor crop or ornamental is a bit more time-consuming but follows the same principles. Moving the plant is often the only reliable option when it is stuck in heavy clay soil or standing water.
Use a shovel to dig a circle about 6-12” from the base (depending on its size). Generally, the root ball of a plant is about the same diameter as the size of its canopy. For example, if you were moving a medium rhododendron shrub with foliage about 2 feet wide, dig the hole in a 2-foot radius around the base of the shrub. But if you are transplanting an overwatered kale plant, you only need to dig about 6” around the base.
Gently lift the plant and inspect the roots. Prune away any rotten or damaged parts and place it in a wheelbarrow or container to transport it to its new location. Before replanting, take care to prepare an extra well-drained bed. You may want to use a raised bed or mound if your native soil is heavy or poorly drained.
Dig a hole about 1.5 times the size of the root ball, and use your shovel to loosen the dirt around the hole’s edges thoroughly. This lets the roots easily penetrate their new home. Place the plant in its new location and gently backfill so the ground level is at the same place as before. Avoid pressing down or compacting the dirt around the base. Let it rest for a few days, and then begin a new watering regime to help it get established.
3. Improve soil drainage
Poor soil drainage goes hand-in-hand with overwatering. No matter how perfect you are timing your irrigation, if moisture can’t flow through, you can wind up with overwatering symptoms like yellowing, root rot, and puddled water.
Air Spaces Between Soil Particles
Soil has a complex structure of many sizes of particles (sand, silt, and clay) and all the air spaces between them. The drainage depends on the size and quantity of air spaces where water can penetrate and move through.
Sand is the largest soil particle, which is why beach sand drains moisture quickly. You can imagine sand particles like bowling balls stacked on top of each other. There is lots of space for water to flow through between those bowling balls.
Silt is medium-sized, sort of like golf balls stacked together. There is still space for water to flow, but not quite as quickly. But clay is like dense stacks of paper. There is much less airspace between each particle, so soils with high clay content tend to get waterlogged really easily.
Add Organic Matter
No matter what combination of soil particles you have, adding organic matter is the quickest cure for poorly drained soil. This will create a loamier texture that helps moisture move through more quickly.
The best amendments for improving drainage include:
- Peat moss
- Coco coir
- Horticultural sand
- Fine pea gravel (for ornamentals and Mediterranean herbs)
Growing in raised beds is another amazing way to improve soil drainage for the long haul. The raised growing area uses gravity to flow water through the soil profile and prevent plants from sitting in waterlogged conditions.
This gives you a much greater buffer against overwatering. Still, you need to check your raised bed soil every time before you water.
4. Water in the morning
One final watering hack to prevent oversoaking: water in the morning! If you irrigate in the morning, the soil has time to dry out in the warmth and sunshine of the day. The water is less likely to sit on the soil surface because evaporation constantly occurs as UV rays hit your garden beds.
It’s easy to overwater. We all want our plants to thrive; sometimes, we give them too much of a good thing. Get to know your soil and ensure good drainage is in place before planting. Avoid overwatering problems by sticking your finger in the soil to be sure your plant actually needs water!