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Plant Care: Watering Plants and Plant Containers

ALOHA, you took the plunge, and that’s great. But now you may be left with questions and a plant that’s looking at you with that thirsty look to help provide its care (unless you have a cactus because they don’t need us, haha just kidding). Let’s begin where most problems and questions revolve, proper watering of plants and plant containers, or just plain ‘o water care.

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We hear and read a lot of inquiries and questions surrounding proper watering and plant hydration, and even though every question may be presented differently, they all are somewhat the same. “How do I water my plant; when do I need to give my plant water; how much water and how often; why is my plant wilting; how do I fix overly flooded media; why is my plant drying out?” These are just a few of these questions, so before you get stuck in another whirlwind of plant care stress, let us help you nurture your plants with our article on proper plant watering.

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 a frustration. The most common cause of early plant death is generally considered to be over-watering; however, under-watering does contribute its fair share too. Luckily for us, plant enthusiasts, 90% of the plants out there will be happy if you follow this article to learn more about your plants and guidelines to keep your happy plants.

Table of Contents

  • Why is proper watering important?
  • What are the symptoms of water deficiency?
  • Preparing your pots and containers?
  • How do I know when my plants are thirsty?
  • Should i check my water’s pH?
  • How much water is enough?
  • When is it best to water?
  • How do I rehydrate my overly dry soilless media or soil?
  • What’s another easy way to check my media or soil’s hydration?

Why is proper watering important?

Water plays a crucial role in the life of a plant, unless it’s a zombie plant, in which case, just eat it haha. Photosynthesis (the fancy word describing plants using light energy (i.e., the sun)  to produce sugar and energy for the plant to develop and metabolic activities) requires carbon dioxide from the environmental air (or atmosphere) and water. Every time your plant goes to make chemical energy for itself, there is a constant battle with water loss and the threat of dehydration. For every 1 gram of organic matter made by the plant (i.e., stem, shoots, leaves, roots, flowers, and fruit/vegetable), approximately 500 grams of water is absorbed by the roots, transported through the “internal straw” (or xylem) through its body, and eventually lost to the atmosphere. There is a change though, and 1 gram of CO2 (carbon dioxide) is absorbed by the leaf. The slightest imbalance of water and its flow can cause water deficiencies and the malfunctioning of a multitude of cellular processes.

Of all the resources a plant needs to grow and function, water is the most abundant and, at the same time, the most limiting. The reason it is frequently a limiting resource for plants is that they use and require huge amounts. This “thirst” is directly related to the uptake of CO2 for photosynthesis. Most (~97%) of water absorbed by the plant’s roots is carried through the plant and evaporates through the leaf surface, known as transpiration. Only a small amount (~2%) remains in the plant to supply growth and (~1%) is used for photosynthesis and other metabolic processes. A typical exchange rate for a healthy plant is 500 water molecules lost for every 1 carbon dioxide molecule gained. 

Now, we could lose you on explaining how water flows, and how solubility affects this transport, but to sum it up as fast as possible: When water moves from the media through the plant to the atmosphere, it travels through various mediums (e.g., cell walls, cytoplasm, membrane, air spaces), and each medium requires there own mechanisms of water transport, like diffusion, bulk flow, or a combination of these mechanisms. It’s a sort of push and pulls effect that occurs as water moves through the plant and transpires, or evaporates, from the leaves, while being sucked through the media into the roots. 

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What are the symptoms of water deficiency?

The water deficiency symptom of wilting is due to internal turgor pressure inside the cells of such tissues decreasing and is unable to offer cellular expansion. This is just your plant’s way of looking visibly wilted and droopy from either water loss or the inability to absorb water into the root tips. 

Preparing your pots and containers?

If you are planting in a pot, make sure there is at least 1 drainage hole in the bottom of the container, we believe it works best to have 3 or more drainage holes, but a single large hole (about the diameter of a nickel to a quarter depending on size) should suffice. Proper drainage is essential for happy roots and plants, but containers without proper drainage will tend to cause a higher chance of over-watering issues.

How do I know when my plants are thirsty?

It is very difficult to water on a set schedule, as environmental atmosphere conditions as light, heat, humidity, air, etc. can affect a plant’s general water uptake. Rather than watering on set days, check your container’s media to determine if water is needed. First, start by checking the surface of your media to determine if it is dry. Looking at it can be good, but it may be best to touch it with your finger and feel around for any signs of moisture on the immediate surface or directly underneath. You can check underneath by just digging a small hole in your media using your fingertip, and checking for moisture. Dry media is typically lighter in color, while wet media tends to have a darker coloration. For coco- and peat-based media mixes (the most common type), this means dark brown to black is wet, while ‘paper bag’ brown is dry. 

And, if it feels and looks dry, then water it. It’s a good rule to check your plant’s water needs and media twice a day, depending on environmental conditions (e.g., light, heat, rain, humidity) or water-irrigation or ebb-flow systems. Every plant is different, depending on its container size or plant size/ maturity, so when you check your media, one plant may need water while another may not, and this is perfectly fine. Don’t feel forced to give everyone water, as plants are like people and everyone’s needs are different. 

Should I check my water’s pH?

When you do water, it is essential to pH your water to the desired pH (acidic loving plants like low pH and basic or alkaline loving plants like high pH). Once your pH water is ready ensure to water your entire media, not to be confused with over-watering. If water is not properly checked for pH this may lead to issues of nutrient lock-up or even root shock that can lead to pH-stress symptoms and eventually plant death, if their roots are not in the right environment. 

How much water is enough?

You want to ensure there is sufficient water in the plant’s root zone, known as the rhizome, and essentially ‘offering a reason for your plant’s roots to want to stretch out. As you water, you should be able to see excess water draining from the container through the drainage holes. Once you see this water starting to drain, check the bottom of the container to ensure your media is wet. You can do this the same way as checking your top layer, either visually or by touch. It may take as much as ¾- 1 gallon of water to thoroughly water a 10-12 inch container. When you water with less water, you are essentially bound or dwarfing root growth because your root systems will not move within the air spaces of the media to optimally uptake water and ions (nutrients). Watering only the top ⅓ of your container’s media will, unfortunately, result in your roots slow or no growth causing in development of root systems in the bottom ⅔ of container space, and essentially wasting surface area and adding to unnecessary plant stress. 

Above we explained the two main reasons to ensure your root zone is properly watered. First, stimulate your roots and root hairs to further explore your media, ensuring healthy root development and growth. Second, you won’t have to go through the dreaded watering as often, ensuring your plants don’t dehydrate and give that wilting look. 

With drainage holes being half the battle, it’s good to remember not to leave your plant’s containers sitting in water. Allowing your plants to sit in water will cause your media to become too saturated, and your plant’s roots will not have available air spaces to inhabit and causing poor drainage.

When is it best to water?

As we briefly mentioned above about transpiration occurring from the leaves, you want to ensure to water during your plants light-hour photo-periods. Watering late in the day or at night, or in dark hours, your foliage will tend to stay wet all night, as moisture buildup will occur on the leaves. This type of event is an unfortunate precursor to unfavorable conditions and eventual stress caused by pests and pathogens. If it’s after your light hours, but your media is dry and your plant does not show signs of wilting, then it will be okay for you to wait until the next day to water. If the plant has wilted though, then it is okay to water in the evening, as any water loss will not cause an increase in leaf moisture buildup from transpiration and essentially will outweigh any negatives of pest or pathogen issues. 

In addition, if you are growing small or immature young plants outdoors in fall or early spring, the general average temperature should be fairly cooler, and you should be able to go about 3-4 days between waterings. However, as your plant matures and grows larger, in late spring and summer you should be able to go about 1-2 days (every day or every other day) between waterings. In windier environments or days, you will want to water your containers more often as the wind, just like excess heat, will cause media evaporation and contribute to water loss. 

How do I rehydrate my overly dry soilless media or soil?

If you have over-dried your media, and your plants are wilting, it may take more advanced watering practices. This is due to the various media types and media mixes where water may become slightly impermeable, or unable to penetrate the interior spaces of the media, and may take more water to properly saturate the media. One method is to continuously water repeatedly or every 30 minutes to an hour, allowing the media to continue draining until it begins to expand from water retention. By the second to third watering, your media should be back properly hydrated. Another simple rehydration trick is to fill another container with water and place your plant’s container into that water to soften the media and expand it; once it’s expanded and saturated, then simply remove it from the water and allow it to drain. Additional watering may be necessary after this step, but it may reduce your overall water loss contributed to runoff from the water only draining from the sides between the container and the media ball, or clump. After this event, you should be able to resume normal watering practices, and utilize re-hydration procedures only when symptoms appear. 

What’s another easy way to check my media or soil’s hydration?

It’s highly recommended to place a wooden skewer or wood chopstick into the media. This will help you to properly monitor media hydration and help as an extra guide to knowing when to water. 

Mahalo…

We hope this article will help you to keep your plants happy because as we say “Happy plants, happy growers”.For most plants the information and watering guidelines described above are perfect. There will always be those plants that prefer to be kept drier (e.g., cacti, some succulents, etc.) or wetter (Juncus (Rushes), Papyrus, Acorus, Kalo (Taro), Elephant Ears (Alocasia, Colocasia), etc.), but for the most part, this will help best to guide you. 

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