If you’ve been raising container plants for a long time, like we have at Organic Gurlz Gardens, they become comfortable old friends, and it becomes easy to read their needs. But newer plants, especially varieties with which we are not familiar, present more challenge. And, as we’ve learned time and again, even old friends change. Despite our best efforts and vigilance, a plant ceases to thrive, and may even fail. Insufficient and excessive watering are the most common reasons a plant might fail despite what seems ideal conditions and care.
As you undoubtedly know, water serves as an important transport medium, allowing nutrients to travel from the soil to the plant cells. Too little water, and a plant doesn’t just dehydrate, it starves. But too much water in the soil layer forces air from the root zone, reducing the plant’s oxygen supply, thus suffocating it. Frequent watering with small amounts of water can lead to waterlogging. This forces air from the soil and provides ideal conditions for the growth of fungi and bacteria. These organisms attack the plant roots causing rot and eventually plant death.
So, when it comes to watering your container plants, how much is too little or too much? Unfortunately, there is no simple rule dictating how often container plants should be watered. Some plants, adapted to bog or swamp life, enjoy soaking wet conditions – cypress or umbrella plants, for example. Many tropical plants with thin, delicate leaves, such as the hibiscus, will not thrive in dry soil. Other plants – the succulent family, for example – have long adapted to extended periods of dryness between heavy watering. These plants are guaranteed to fail under wet conditions. Additionally, both soil medium and pot type influence how efficiently a container holds moisture.
Here are some conditions you may wish to consider, when watering your plants:
What type of soil is used in the container?
Different types of plants will require different types of soil. As a general rule, for indoor plants, it is best to use a lightweight potting medium, while most outdoor plants prefer garden soil. However, some more exotic plants may require a more specialized soil medium. For example: orchids, African violets, and various cacti. Peat, a natural product of bogs, is generally an ingredient of potting mixtures. A word of caution about peat-based potting mixes: peat is added for its water-retention ability. However, once allowed to dry, peat is very difficult to rehydrate.
How well does the container hold moisture?
Plants can be grown in almost any type of container, but some containers are better suited for plant life than others. Clay pots are porous and tend to draw moisture from the soil, so plants in clay pots will more easily dehydrate. But if the container is enameled, or if it is metal, glass, plastic, or some other non-porous material, the container will not leach moisture. Because these pots conserve water, you must be careful not to over water.
If your planter does not have drainage holes in the bottom, be sure to provide for a drainage layer of stones or other non-degradable material in which excess water can collect away from the root zone and can be gradually reabsorbed. Plants grown in closed containers may not need watering as frequently.
What are the signs of signs of dehydration and over watering?
Stem and leaf wilt signal dehydration, but you should avoid waiting for this sign. In addition, the soil mixture may pull away from the side of the pot. At this stage a plant is stressed, and repeated treatment of this sort is ill advised. Other signs of dehydration to look for include: leaf growth is slow; leaves become translucent; leaves or flowers drop prematurely; leaf edges become brown and dried; or lower leaves curl and yellow.
A late and obvious sign of overwatering is growth of fungi or mold on the soil surface. Other signs of overwatering to look for include: young and old leaves fall at the same time; root rot – mushy, brown possibly odorous roots are seen in pot bottom; standing water noted in container underliner; flowers become moldy; leaves develop brown soft rotten patches and fail to grow.
Evaluate soil moisture.
Learn to spot check a plant’s moisture level. If your plant is small, make a habit of picking up the plant before and after watering noting its weight change after watering. With practice, this method of checking soil moisture, together with other signs of plant vigor/weakness may help you assess a plant’s watering needs.
Similarly, a finger submerged an inch or so into the container soil should reveal a general sense of soil moisture. Or better yet, use a moisture meter. This is a foolproof, inexpensive device available at most nurseries. It will measure the soil as “wet”, “moist” or “dry”. For large container plants, a meter is almost essential.
Change your watering routine when your plant changes.
Plants need more water when: they are actively growing, and have young leaves or flower buds, or they have been newly propagated; they are located in warm rooms with direct sunlight; they are growing in relatively small pots or if the root mass has filled the pot, or they growing in dry air (i.e. forced air furnace heating, dry climate) or growing in a clay pot.
Plants need less water when: they are resting following flowering or fruiting; they are grown in a cool room; they have been re-potted and the roots are re-penetrating the soil; they are grown in high humidity, because the leaves obtain moisture from the air as well as from the soil; they are grown in plastic, metal or glazed ceramic container; or they are growing in a water retentive mixture, especially a soil based mixture.
Never water routinely every so many days. Water when a plant needs it. Learn about your plant’s need for water. Consider seasons and stages of growth. Observe your plant, and read its body language. Pay special attention to the first signs of yellow, browning or dropped leaves, and wrinkled or shrunken leaves or stems. These could be indicators that the plant is either over-watered or dehydrated. Check the plant bed (meaning the soil) and the saucer under the pot – if there is standing water in the pot saucer, the plant is over watered.
Research and know the water requirements. Then, adjust watering according to the recommended general guidelines. We at Organic Gurlz Gardens of Fort Wayne, Indiana, highly recommend you always take the time to research your plants’ needs, or submit your inquiries to Garden Gurlz Gardens, where a Master Gardener will respond to your inquiries. Simply go to: OrganicGurlzGardens.com
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