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Water Your Way to Happy Plants

Proper watering of the plants in your pots is crucial to having the plants perform their best. Once you get a little bit of experience, understanding when and how much to water becomes almost second nature. However, when you are first starting out, figuring out how to make those plants happy can be pure frustration. This article will go over basic watering for container plants.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer

Proper watering of the plants in your containers is crucial to having them perform their best.  Once you get a little bit of experience, understanding when and how much to water becomes almost second nature.  However, when you are first starting out, figuring out how to make those plants happy can be pure frustration.  The most common cause of early plant death is generally considered to be over-watering.  Luckily for us, ninety percent of the plants out there will be happy if you follow these simple guidelines. 

 

 

If you are planting in a pot, make sure there is at least one drainage hole in the bottom of the pot (red pot in photo at left).  Proper drainage is essential to happy roots, and happy roots are essential for happy plants.  Pots that do not have proper drainage are very easy to over-water (celedon container in photo at left). 

Rather than watering on a set schedule, check first to see if your plants need water.  If your plant is in a pot, check the surface of the soil in the pot either by looking at it or touching it with your finger.  Wet soil will be dark in color while dry soil will be lighter in color.  For peat based soil mixes (the most common type), this means dark brown to black is wet, while ‘paper bag’ brown is dry.  If the surface of the soil is dry to the touch (or looks dry) water your plants.  You may need to check your plants twice a day to see if they need water.  Remember just because one pot needs water that doesn’t mean they all do.  Differences in pot and plant sizes will impact how quickly a pot dries out.

When you water be sure to moisten the entire root zone.  In other words, water until water comes out of the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot .  It may take as much as ¾ or a gallon of water to thoroughly water a 10 to 12 inch container.  More plants are killed with a ‘cup of kindness’ rather than a good long drink of water.  Plants that frequently receive a cup of water, seldom develop roots in the bottom 2/3’s of the container.  When that daily cup of water is not available, the plant wilts and easily could be lost due to dehydration. 

Making sure the whole root zone is watered is important for two reasons.  First it will encourage roots to grow all the way to the bottom of the pot, which means happier plants.  Second, you won’t have to water as often if you water thoroughly.

Do not allow the pot to sit in water.  Pots sitting in water will keep the soil in the pot too wet, allow excess water to drain away.

It is best not to water at night.  If you water your plants too late in the day the foliage will tend to stay wet all night.  Wet foliage at night makes a great breeding ground for disease.  If your plant isn’t wilting and it’s after 6:30 at night you should be able to wait until morning to water.  If the plant has wilted, go ahead and water that evening, its need for water outweighs the chances of catching a disease.

 Here is your crib sheet: 

  1. Be sure your pot has drainage holes
  2. Water only when the top of the soil is dry
  3. Water until water comes out of the drainage holes
  4. Don’t allow your pot to sit in standing water

A few more tips on containers.  Early in spring when your plants are smaller and the temperatures are lower you may only have to water every 3 or 4 days.  As the plants get larger and the mercury creeps higher be prepared to water every day, with small pots or water “pigs” you might even have to water twice a day.  You will also need to water more quickly if it is a windy day.  Wind will cause pots to dry out more quickly, especially hanging baskets.

If you want to water less often use larger pots.  Larger pots hold more soil volume.  More soil volume means more water held in the pot.  More water in the pot means watering less often. 

There are additives that can be added to the soil to help it retain more moisture.  These can be helpful in long dry summers.  If you do incorporate these additives be careful that you don’t over-water in spring when the pots are drying out less quickly, something I learned the hard way.

If you have dried your pot down to the point that the plant is wilting it may take more than standard watering practices to get the plant hydrated again.  Commercial potting mixes can become almost water repellent if they get too dry.  If you water your plant and it seems like all of the water is running down between the sides of the pot and soil ball, you may need to take steps to re-hydrate the soil.  Fill a tub with water and soak your pot in the water until the soil has expanded and is no longer pulled away from the edge of the pot.  Resume normal watering practices. 

If soaking your pot or basket in a tub of water is impractical you can also rehydrate by watering repeatedly.  To do this water the plant liberally, it will probably seem like most of the water is running around the soil rather than soaking into the soil.  Wait 30 minutes to an hour and then water again, it should seem like more water is soaking into the soil.  Wait another 30 minutes to an hour and water one last time, by the third watering the soil should be hydrated and taking up water like normal again.  This method works because the first watering starts to moisten the soil surface even though not much water soaks in.  The following waterings then get the water to penetrate the soil ball and moisten the entire basket.  Waiting between each watering allows the water you have already added time to soak into the soil and helps to make the soil less water repellent.

Most plants will do best when fertilized using a water soluble fertilizer every 7 to 10 days or a controlled-release fertilizer once a season.

For most plants the watering guidelines described above are perfect.  There will always be those plants that prefer to be kept drier than this (cacti, some succulents, etc…) or wetter than this (Juncus (Rushes), Papyrus, Acorus, Elephant Ears (Alocasia, Colocasia) etc…) but for the most part these guidelines will fit the bill.

For more information on general watering practices read "Watering Container Plants."

 

For information on what to do if you have overwatered your plant read "Wait That Plant is Drowning!"

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 02/05/2017 - 2:14pm

The root ball on my miracle fruit tree got way too wet; to the point of leaf tips turning brown and leaves falling off. I repotted it and replaced the loose soil with peat Moss but the firm root ball is having a time trying to dry out. Will separating the root ball help or damage the 2' tree further?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 02/07/2017 - 5:26pm

HI there -
OK so Miracle Fruit in the winter can be problematic because it really hates being indoors. If your plant got to wet, and now leaf tips are browning, leaves are falling off most likely your best bet is to water (when you do) with a basic garden fungicide to help keep root rots at bay.
Re-potting is likely NOT something you want to do because the plant is already stressed and re-potting just adds another very stressful event on top of the over-watering. But now that you have re-potted it - the best thing to do is let is dry out naturally and begin to recover. Any further un-potting and working on the roots is likely only going to make matters a bit worse.
It is not too late to mix a fungicide into your water to help with disease. Look for organic alternatives if that is your preference. For the future, it is usually best to do any re-potting in summer when the plants are actively growing and happily outdoors, that way by the time winter comes they are already happily established in their new pots and healthier to make it through the long winter.

What can help the most:
Make sure your plant is getting LOTS of sunlight, it not only helps dry out the soil but also gives the plant much needed energy to help in it's recovery. IF you can't boost the sunlight, look into the LED grow lights and run them for 6-8 hours a day. They are very economic for energy use and again give the plant an energy boost.
Check to see you do not have insect problems. Spider Mites can also be a big issue indoors, look for tiny spider webs where the leaf joins the stem, or underneath the leaf. There are insecticides just for spider mites or if you do discover a problem - ask your local garden center or on-line miracle fruit experts for a good treatment. There is actually a large on line group of enthusiasts for this plant and their experiences will likely be very helpful to you.

I hope this helps and that your miracle fruit is soon making sour things sweet again!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 09/04/2016 - 10:50am

I planted a Denver Daisy perennial about a month ago. It was doing really well but now it is showing signs of overwatering with yellowing on the leaves and some are brown. Can this plant be saved?

Barb Balgoyen's picture
Barb Balgoyen Fri, 09/09/2016 - 1:26pm

If you allow these to dry out you may see new growth coming up from the base of the plants yet this season. With out seeing a picture I'm not sure how far gone your plant is. These plants will get fungal diseases from the hot and humid weather along with an over watering issue.

Is it possible for you to send us an image?

Thank you for your inquiry!

Best regards,

Barb Balgoyen
Walters Gardens, Inc.
Proud Supplier of Proven Winners Perennials

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 06/24/2016 - 7:26am

I have two Superbells hanging baskets with a coco liner and I water almost everyday and when I do the dirt and water comes pouring out of the sides. Am I doing something wrong? My flowers seem to be dying, and I am always pruning, I've tried Miracle Grow Bloom Booster Flower Food and I don't notice any difference.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Fri, 06/24/2016 - 10:37am

While Coco Fiber and Moss lined basket care is in general the same as it is for all hanging baksets when it comes to watering Coco fiber and moss baskets are more challenging.  So, why are they different?  With a plastic, wood or ceramic basket water evaporates through the plant and through the top of the soil only - water doesn't evaporate through tthe sides of the basketand water applied to the baskets is funneled through the soil to the bottom of the baket since it cannot pass through the sides of the basket either.

Coco Fiber and Moss baskets, on the other hand, are porous, which means that water will evaporate through the sides of the baskets, which causes them to dry more quickly.  Which in turn means you need to water more often.  Coco Fiber and Moss baskets are also more challenging to water since water, as you know, will pour out of the sides of the basket, which makes soaking the whole root zone more difficult  So when yous ee waater coming out of the sides, you aren't doing anything wrong that is just what happens with that type of basket.  It DOES make really soaking the whole root zone much more difficult since water can escape throught the sides.  

I think your plants are struggling because even though you are watering regularly and fertilizing, they still aren't really staying damp enough.  If you have noticed the plants wilting on a regular basis I think water stress is most likely your issues.  

This article on Coco-Fiber and Moss Baskets might be helpful for you:  https://www.provenwinners.com/learn/success-moss-and-coco-fiber-baskets

 

 

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/27/2016 - 8:58am

i do have one or two decorative planters without drainage and plants have done ok - flowers and vegetables. If there is no drainage, are there other rules of green thumb? Also I have a very windy, very sunny balcony - what type of flowers can withstand that? Thanks!

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Tue, 05/31/2016 - 11:06am

If your plants in pots without drainage are doing great, then keep doing what you are doing.  The drainage holes are important because they keep the soil from staying water logged.  You can, of course, grow plants in pots without drainage holes but watering becomes much more difficult since you have to be really careful not to over-water and it is difficult to know when and how much to water.

 

As for your windy and sunny balcomny - I would look at plants that do well in Kansas.  Kansas has a tendencey to be very windy, so plants that are well suited for Kansas should also do well on your sunny, window balcony.  Kansas State University has a list called Prairie Stars that includes plants that performed well in their trials.  Here is a link to the full list:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9XmY8hbLOU&list=PLOCd6lFGB16yvgRndSiVBN3K2W5Iu7lo4&index=20.

I would look at Supertunia petunias, Luscious Lantana, Diamond Frost and Diamond Delight Euphorbia and Blue My mind Evolvulus as a place to begin.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 04/13/2015 - 8:23am

Is well water good or bad for container plants or any kind of plants and flowers. How about letting the water touch the leaves, are there pros or cons to that as well?

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Mon, 04/13/2015 - 3:21pm

If your well water is drinkable, then it should be perfectly fine for your plants.  If your well water isn't drinkable it might still be perfectly fine for your plants.  What impacts whether or not water is good for your plants is much less about it being well water and much more about the mineral content as well as any contaminents it might have.  Getting a water test done is the only way to really know what the trace elements are in your water.

It is usually best to keep water off the foliage of plants if the foliage won't have time to dry prior to darkness.  If you water early enough in the day for the water on the foliage to dry before nightfall, then it usually isn't a problem for plants.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 06/05/2014 - 6:43am

I find that adding a layer of mulch on the top of my containers really helps prevent them from drying out. It also provides warmth in the spring, shades roots in the heat of summer, and deflects heavy rainfall, keeping the soil from splattering out of the container. It can also discourage squirrels and children from digging in your pots. Plant your container as usual and top it with a layer of mulch, just as you would if the plant were in the ground. It's easy and your plants will thank you!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/20/2016 - 7:39am

That is a great idea. I never thought of that! I will be adding some to all of my planter's and pots. Thanks for the great idea.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 10/18/2015 - 9:14am

Really you have given a good idea.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 05/18/2014 - 10:24am

We have three plastic pots setting on the front porch of our house. When we water them, reddish/brown water runs out of the pots and attains the cement. The pots have drainage hole and set on plastic trays. Why is this happening?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 03/27/2015 - 9:07am

this may not help you now but when potting a plant put a coffee filter over the drain hole and it will help somewhat with the color of water but will really help with soil not draining out of the hole (you can also use something similar to a landscape fabric for soil drainage.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 07/28/2014 - 10:41am

something is blocking the drainage holes replant to make sure plastic isn't blocking the drainage.....

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 06/08/2013 - 9:29am

I live in S.E. Texas near Houston. By summer it's90's temp.& humidity.To keep my Proven Winner Super Petunias perfect,
I use a wand with multiple spout options to include a misting option.I use the soft spray option in the morning thoroughly soaking the center of the plant basket being careful not to water the hanging flowers.
In the afternoon 5 pm/6pm if the plants's foliage looks stressed and it normally does , I use the same wand on thr mist selection
to mist the foliage carefully on a low pressure basis.. If you can do morning sun / afternoon shade , your plants can look good
all summer even Iim the temp. Gets to the century mark and we expect that next week on June 15th. JH.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 06/21/2013 - 9:20pm

I also live in S. E. Texas near Houston.
I just wanted to add to your wonderful comment JH, that misting helps wash off any dirt or debris that the wind blew during the day. Also, (I can't believe I'm saying this), the moisture from the misting helps other humid loving plants as the mist flies through the air.
The wind has been very consistent this season, drying out plants quicker than normal.
orchidgazer

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 05/28/2013 - 7:19am

We're having an excessive amount of rain. How will this affect my hanging baskets?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 07/11/2013 - 8:26pm

As long as the hanging baskets have good drainage, they should do fine. I planted my two baskets that hang on either side of my arbor using the coconut fiber baskets filled with potting soil. They have done fine being watered daily. I also feed them using a water soluble plant food every two or three weeks.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 05/15/2013 - 8:18pm

i have clear plastic bowls on the bottom of my potted plants. i change the water if it sits too long and turns green.

i also have a climbing rose bank that i planted where pavers stones covered the ground for a couple years so the soil might be somewhat dead. is it ok to pour the green water where the rose is to bring back life and nutrients into the soil?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 05/02/2013 - 10:34am

I have a few questions. Last night I brought in our potted flowers cause it was mid to high 30's but I don't know when or at what temperature do I take the back outside. They are still inside cause temperatures are still in the low 40'. When do I take them back out for some sun??

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 06/21/2013 - 5:49pm

I went through the same with a rather pricy Proven Winners large bowl. I simply moved the bowl inside overnight, and moved it back outside the next morning. Just a few days, I kept it inside all day, also. When it was just going to be cool (upper 40s - low 50s) during the day, I put the bowl up against the house, on the south side, on my back porch. It worked - it still looks wonderful!

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Mon, 05/13/2013 - 12:49pm

Hi there -
When protecting your plants in spring before planting them, almost all the Proven Winners plants will be fine as long as temperatures don't drop below 36-38F, a lot of time those cool temperatures act as an adjusting period for plants and help them make a smooth transition into your garden.

All plants would rather be outside getting sun than inside in the shade, so move them out as soon as you can and if weather gets below 36F at night still take them out for the daytime, leaving them indoors is a bad thing as they starve without the sun!

Best of Luck!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 04/20/2012 - 12:51pm

Love, love, love that you have articulated this all so well. I have hijacked your insight to share with the world!! So many times, we all start off with such beautiful baskets at the start of the season and August hits and, poof, "What Happened"! This will really help many think about what steps they can take to extend the life of those beauties for at least an additional month!
Thanks so much!

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