Overwatering: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Overwatering Featured Image

Like people, plants have love languages. Some like to be misted and doted on. Some like regular haircuts and words of affirmation. And some want to be watered once a month and then left alone. As responsible plant-lovers, it’s not always easy to take their cues, and sometimes we wind up giving them too much of a good thing.

Begonia Maculata

Plants need water to live, but overwatering is among the primary causes of death for potted plants. Here are some helpful ways to prevent overwatering, identify the symptoms and treat plants that have been overwatered.

The Dangers of Overwatering

The primary danger of overwatering is drowning your plant. Plants absorb oxygen primarily through their roots, which they can’t do if they’re chronically submerged in water.

Overly wet soil also creates an anaerobic (or oxygen-scarce) environment, in which diseases and pathogens thrive. This can lead to a variety of infections and health risks, including the infamous root rot.

Signs of Overwatering

When a plant is being overwatered, it may show the following symptoms:

  • Wilting or drooping
  • Leaves fading to lighter green or yellow
  • Brown spots on foliage
  • Dropping leaves
  • Slowed or stunted growth
  • Visible fungus, mildew, or mold
  • Presence of moisture-loving pests, such as fungus gnats


How to Prevent Overwatering

Preventing overwatering is always better than treating it. While the majority of plants can survive overwatering and make a full recovery, there are some that won’t, and others (pardon the drama) that just won’t ever be the same.

  1. Don’t water too often. One of the dangers that come with caring for a variety of different plants in the same space is that you water all your plants at the same time, regardless of species and plant preference. This might be okay for some of your tropical plants but could spell disaster for their moisture-adverse counterparts. Always water according to your specific plant’s needs. 
  2. Always check the soil before watering, regardless of your watering schedule. If your plant’s topsoil is wet at all, you don’t need to water your plant. The easiest way to make sure your plants need water is to stick your finger two inches into the soil. If you feel moisture, there should be no need to water. 
  3. Pay attention to the drainage. A well-draining pot is a good start, but using the right soil is also beneficial. Some potting mixes include amendments that will help your soil drain more evenly and quickly, while others focus on water retention. Pay specific attention to the soil you use for plants that need excessive moisture (like ferns and orchids) and plants that need especially arid environments (such as succulents and cacti). 
  4. Other factors: Pot size and temperature will both play a role in how quickly water evaporates from the soil. Also consider what your pot is made of, as breathable materials such as terra cotta trap less moisture than glazed or plastic pots. 
philodendron florida beauty variegata

How to Treat Overwatering 

If you realize that you’ve been overwatering your plants, there are several things you can do to keep them healthy. 

  • Stop watering until you know your soil is dried out again. Put a hold on fertilizer, as well. 
  • If there is visible water on top of the soil or in the tray underneath, promptly pour it out. 
  • Increase the temperature of the room by as little as two degrees to speed up the evaporation process. 
  • Increase air circulation with an indirect air current, such as a fan. 
  • Aerate the soil with a chopstick or your fingers, making sure that there are still pockets of air that the roots can access. 
  • Remove some foliage. Overwatering makes it hard for plants to move resources to their leaves, meaning that less foliage equals less work for your plant and more energy for recovery. 
  • If the soil is excessively damp, you may feel the need to remove it from the pot completely. Lay the root clump on an absorptive material, such as a paper towel, but be careful not to squeeze it, as you could damage the roots. If the situation demands, you can even let the root ball sit out until it dries. After this, a soil refresh is recommended. 

The Tampon Trick: Here’s a fun one that’s been making the rounds in the plant community! Originally invented to treat bullet wounds, tampons are highly absorptive, and an incredible way to help dry out an over-watered plant without the invasiveness. Insert the tampons into the saturated soil about two inches apart, and you should quickly see them swell as they draw the water out of the soil. Just another reason why they should be accessible and free to women everywhere.

monstera thai constellation

Identifying Root Rot 

“Root rot” is a blanket term that encompasses a variety of bacterial and fungal infections that can wreak havoc on your plants. There is Fusarium root rot, a soil fungus that specifically targets injured plants, and Pythium root rot, a bacterial parasite that feeds on organic plant matter, and is more commonly found in the anaerobic environments of overwatered soil. Most forms of root rot are transferred from plant to plant by fungus gnats. 

But root rot can also be caused by overwatering and doesn’t necessarily denote the presence of fungi or bacteria. Over-saturation can cause the plant cells to decay, and the rot can easily spread to healthy roots even after the soil has dried out again. Signs of root rot include: 

  • Discoloration or yellowing of leaves 
  • Roots may become soft and squidgy 
  • Roots may turn brown or black 
  • Stunted growth


Treating Root Rot 

The sooner you identify root rot in your plant, the greater the chance that it will recover. To treat root rot, you’ll need a pair of sharp scissors or shears, fungicide from your local garden center, a new potting mix, and a sanitizing agent such as bleach. 

  1. First, remove the plant from the pot and free the root ball from the soil. Rinse with room-temperature water to make sure that all of the infected soil is removed. 
  2. Use a pair of sterilized scissors or shears to trim away all signs of rot. Infected roots are usually mushy and discolored and should be easy to identify.
  3. Pay attention to how much of the root clump you trim, and then cut back a proportionate amount of the plant’s foliage. (If you cut 1/4 of the roots, cut 1/4 of the foliage.) This keeps the freshly trimmed roots from being overworked and increases your plant’s recovery time.
  4. Throw away the original soil and wash the pot out with bleach, ensuring that no harmful bacteria survive.
  5. Following the instructions on the packaging, you’ll want to dip your plant’s trimmed roots in the fungicide to prevent any reinfection of the newly exposed areas.
  6. Then repot, and watch carefully for signs of improvement! 
Haworthia “Cooperi”

Soft Rot & Succulent Care 

An alternative to root rot, soft rot, or Erwinia Soft Rot, affects succulents by turning the interior of the plant into a mushy liquid that the pests then feed on. It’s about as nasty as it sounds, and heartbreakingly, it usually can’t be treated, though it can be prevented.

If your succulent bends a leaf or falls over, bacteria can target the wound area. If this happens, immediately treat any wounds with fungicide. Be sure to keep your succulents somewhere with low humidity, and let the soil dry out completely between each watering to reduce the risk of contracting an infection.

We hope that this article has made you feel more confident in identifying, preventing, and treating overwatering! Reach out if you have any questions, and please share your plant-loving journey with us @houseofplantlovers. 

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