Watering indoor plants

Alas, my poor peperomia, you were watered to death.

I’m a little embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to figure this out, and I’m not at all convinced that I DO have it figured out. I think the two questions all new plant keepers want answered are when to water, and how much?

I’m pretty sure all of us go through a phase of being either a neurotic over-waterer or a negligent under-waterer. That magical Goldilocks zone is reserved for long-time plant keepers – you know, the ones who’ve given their plants names and sing to them on weekends.

Unfortunately, I’m of the neurotic over-watering variety, much to my poor peperomia’s constant distress.

I really believed that keeping plants was like keeping pets, feed/water them on a schedule, give them some light, sit back and enjoy.

But no, it turns out different plants like different degrees of light, some prefer it warm, some prefer it cool, others need humidity. Some don’t mind hanging, others shit themselves, shrivel up and promptly die from agoraphobia or some shit.

And do those little labels on the pots offer even an inkling of insight? Nope! Hell, sometimes they don’t even show the same plant species in the picture.

If ever there was an awesome situation for making use of QR codes, it’s on pot plants labels!

So, I started out with a schedule the same as when I first started keeping fish. Given fish (and plants) aren’t all up in my business the way my cats and dog are at feeding times, I figured I would eventually forget to feed my fish (or water my plants). With my ADHD brain, I keep a daily to-do list and made sure I scheduled watering my plants. (I’ve long since stopped keeping fish because cleaning aquariums is actually ickier than picking up a dog turd or sifting through a litter tray!)

Naturally, pretty much all my new plants started dying because they didn’t appreciate the schedule I’d set for them. (Also an infestation of fucking fungus gnats, but that’s a whole other post.)

Whenever I’d explain to someone that my plants are dying or describe symptoms, I’d always get the ‘you’re over/under watering them’ lecture, but not much in the way of actual actionable advice. I do know, now, for absolutely certain, that watering all my plants every other day until water literally drains out the bottom of the pot is not how it’s done.

Other not-at-all useful advice has been to wait for the dirt to dry out, but I’m pretty sure at least half of my plants require constantly ‘moist’ soil. (Again, no great explanation for what ‘moist’ is, but I now know – again, for absolutely certain – it’s at least a little drier than saturated.)

Then there are the veritable plant whisperers who’d pick up a pot and tell me to feel when the plant needs water.

It was at about this point I was resigned to having to buy a tonne of clever technical doo-dads to monitor my plants and alert me to their pending demise.  Unfortunately, I really couldn’t afford an individual baby monitor for all my hundred-odd plants. (Yes, I have ADHD, I go a ‘little overly’ with my obsessions, okay?)

Now, although I’ve had the ‘touchy-feely’ folks telling me to handle the pot and just feel when water is needed, it actually wasn’t until a chat this past weekend with Thichakorn Rattanakay of Passionary Plants that I think I finally – FINALLY – get what this means.

So, if you’ve ever been utterly exasperated by this infuriatingly vague advice in the past or wondered if you’ve somehow missed out on some special plant empath gene, let me try to enlighten you. Bearing in mind that I’m still learning my way through this minefield of fuckups and may actually be dead wrong. I’m sure someone will tell me if that’s the case.

When to water indoor plants

It goes a little something like this: a plant that doesn’t need water has dense soil. A plant that needs water has ‘loose’ soil. Dry soil certainly makes it feel lighter, but when you lift the pot you’ll also – or you should also – feel a lack of density. If you’ve ever handled pumice before, and compared its weight to a rock of the same size, it’s a lot like that. So, after you’ve watered, feel the weight of the pot and make a mental note of how ‘dense’ it feels with the water sticking the soil together. It’s the difference between holding a bucket of mud and a bucket of dry dirt. If you’re still concerned you don’t have a good feel for it, get two empty pots and fill them with the same amount of dry dirt or dry potting mix. Water one of them, then hold them up and feel the difference.

I  know long-time plant keepers are probably laughing at how dumb we newbs are, but this shit needs to be explained for the sake of our plants!

I’m still figuring out the ‘how much’ part of watering, but I think my plants are already a lot happier. Well, I’ve only lost a peperomia this week, but after over-watering it for months, and now knowing what I know, I’m surprised it survived as long as it did.

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