Plants

Houseplants keep dying? Here’s why overwatering could be the problem

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Lauren Geall
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A woman watering her plants

Overwatering is one of the most common problems that your plants are likely to face during winter – here’s how to avoid it.

As Kermit the Frog once said, it isn’t easy being green.

No matter how many guides we read, plant Instagram accounts we follow and experts we consult, chances are we’ll all end up killing a houseplant or two at some point.

But learning from our mistakes is important – and there are a few simple things we can do to reduce the risk of our leafy friends facing an untimely death.

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One of the biggest problems that your plants are likely to face at this time of year is overwatering. Although it may come from a place of love, giving our plants too much water can lead to a myriad of problems, including death. 

It’s especially common at this time of year because people assume that plants need more water because the indoor environment is drier, but they actually need less. This is because plants tend to enter a dormant state or experience a slower rate of growth in the winter, meaning they need less water to stay hydrated.

A woman watering her plant
Overwatering is one of the most common problems plants face in winter.

With this in mind, it’s important that potential plant owners are aware of how much water they need to give their greenery during winter, and what they can do to avoid overwatering over the next couple of months.

To find out more about overwatering – including the signs to look out for – we spoke to Saskia Tompsett, founder of the online plant shop Canopy Plants. Here’s what she had to say. 

Signs of overwatering

A woman watering her plants
The signs of overwatering including rotten stems and brown patches on leaves.

“Killing with kindness is the number one plant parent issue we see,” she explains. “Though your plant can’t talk to you it can certainly show signs that you are overwatering it – here’s five to look out for.”

1. Brown and yellow leaves: Although brown and yellow leaves are also a sign of underwatering, those caused by overwatering will be soft and wilted, not crispy.

2. Rotted stems: In cacti and succulents, overwatering can lead stems to rot and collapse. They’ll also start to smell a bit, too!

3. Shedding leaves: Both old and new leaves falling from your plant is a tell-tale sign of overwatering.

4. Mould: If the plants soil remains damp for too long bacteria can grow, causing mould to grow on the surface. This mould can also spread to your plants if you’re not careful.

5. Brown patches on leaves: If your plant’s leaves develop brown spots with yellow rings around them, this could be a sign that your plant has a bacteria from overwatering. 

Why overwatering kills plants

“Overwatering can kill your plants in a number of ways, the most common of which is root rot,” Tompsett explains.

“Root rot happens when the soil becomes waterlogged and your plant’s root system can no longer aerate, which starves your plant of oxygen.”

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She continues: “Overwatering will also stunt your plants growth, and if you have really overwatered it, your green pal can develop something called Edema. This is when your plant is receiving way more water than it needs or can use and the plant fills its cells with water which creates pressure, causing the cells to explode.”

How to avoid overwatering

Cacti and succulents
Drought-tolerant plants such as cacti and succulents may require little to no watering in winter.

Although lots of plants can be saved once they begin to show signs of overwatering (usually by moving them to a different pot with lots of drainage holes or cutting down on watering for a while), the most effective way to save a plant from overwatering is to put measures in place to stop it happening in the first place.

“It’s important to understand that different plants have different needs, and these needs vary throughout the year,” Tompsett says. “While your calathea may want watering once a week, your cactus certainly won’t.”

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To avoid overwatering, Tompsett recommends using a bottom-watering technique to ensure your plant is watered evenly and only takes up the water it really needs. To do this, simply place your plant pot (it’ll need to be one with a drainage hole) in a container filled with water and leave it there for 10 to 15 minutes. After the plant has had its fill, simply remove it from the container and throw away the excess water. 

Making sure your plant is able to drain properly is also crucial in avoiding overwatering. Tompsett explains: “Making sure your soil is a peat free, well-draining houseplant mix is a good place to start, but we would recommend checking the soil requirements of your plant and adjusting the mix depending on your plant’s needs.”

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Finally, you’ll want to make sure you know when to water your plants in the first place – drought-tolerant plants such as cacti and succulents may not need watering at all, whereas others will benefit from a semi-regular watering schedule.

“Don’t be scared to touch the soil,” Tompsett says. “If it feels damp, you probably don’t need to water it yet – especially when the plant is growing less.”

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s junior digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.