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Watering Houseplants Part 1: Pick Them Up

how I water houseplantsProbably the most frequently asked question I get asked when people find out about my interest in plants relates to the watering of houseplants. Specifically, people want to know what I call "the houseplant numbers"-meaning they want to know how many cups of water they should give their houseplants per week. Unfortunately houseplants don't operate on our schedules and they don't understand liquid measurements.

There are various factors that come in when watering houseplants like the lighting condition, quality of the soil and what kind of pot you choose for your houseplant. Some people will insert their fingers into the soil in an effort to gauge the moisture in the pot. Seems like it should work but what if your houseplant is in a large pot or in a very small pot? Sticking my finger into the first two inches of soil doesn't tell me much about the moisture of the soil eight inches below the tip of my finger. Some of the houseplants I grow are in pots two inches small, where do I put my finger then?

Manufacturers of gardening ephemera came to the rescue a while back and offered us moisture meters for houseplants. You insert a probe into the soil and it tells you how dry or wet the soil is below. The problem I have with moisture meters is that I find them unnecessary and not very reliable. When I first started growing houseplants I bought one and still over/under-watered my houseplants to the point that I killed many. Eventually the moisture meter broke and when I looked at the packaging to find a number to call and complain I found a warning that read; "Do not expose probe to liquids." Think about that for a second.

The trick to watering houseplants I learned while working in a bonsai nursery years ago. One day I was checking on some plants and inserting my finger into the pots to see if they needed watering when the owner told me to pick up the pot. "Is it heavy or light?"he asked as he walked out the room before I could even answer. Two days later he stopped me near the same plant and asked me to pick it up again. A little confused I picked it up again and he asked "Is it heavier or lighter than the last time?" Worried I would answer wrong I hesitantly replied "It feels lighter." "That's because it needs watering now" was all he said. The exchange was exactly like something out of The Karate Kid movies except I wasn't learning karate and the guy teaching me the lesson wasn't Asian... but... other than that it was exactly like a lesson from the movie.

Ever since then I have been picking up my houseplants and feeling how heavy or light they are. The next time you water your houseplant pick it up and feel the weight of the plant, pot and saturated soil combined. Then pick up your plant again before the next watering and observe the difference in weight. Repeat this for a couple of waterings and you'll soon be able to tell when your plant needs watering simply by picking up the pot. I've gotten so good at this that I can water in the dark without turning on the lights and the best part is that I don't have to get my fingers dirty and I don't have to keep buying moisture meters.


  1. MBT - speaking of "watering" plants. Did you know that the city of chicago is offering rain barrels for 40 bucks?? 1 per household! I'm so getting one!

  2. Gina,

    That's pretty cool. I hadn't heard of that before. Make sure to post pics.

  3. Anonymous10:32 PM

    Excellent advice. I figured this one out through trial and error with my hanging plants along the fence where the hose doesn't quite reach. I don't even bother sticking fingers into the dirt anymore, I just lift up from the bottom an inch or so. I suppose I could do it in the dark, but there are spiders out there!

    I enjoy your writing very much. There are few garden bloggers who can successfully incorporate the word ephemera into a post!

  4. What a great ideal!!! Thanks for sharing. I am sure there are others that have figured this out. I would have never thought about putting it on a blog.

  5. This is a neat idea. I have been using the once a week method and drooping leaves :) My plants would probably prefer your method :)

  6. That's an excellent advice. I'll try that one on my calamondin - the only one of my edibles which isn't in an transparent selfwatering pot. Heh, indoor gardening apparently means tossing small citrus trees around...

  7. Great information for gardeners who aren't quite sure when to water.
    All the best, BOB

  8. Hi all,

    Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you liked the post.

  9. I've never heard this before ... mostly I just wait till they droop which isn't a good thing.

  10. Kate,

    Don't feel bad because even though I know better I do the droop thing too.


    As long as they survive I think its ok.

  11. That's an ok tip if you have your plants in small (to medium) sized plastic nursery pots. Not so good if you have dozens of plants in all kinds of different pots. Some of them with gravel in them, those always fell heavy, even if they're small. Fingers in the soil is a much more reliable method in my opinion.

  12. Definitely does not work very well with ceramic or heavy pots. Or pots with an inch or two of gravel for drainage on the bottom.

    1. All of my plants are in terracotta or ceramic pots. All of them. Some have gravel on the surface or sand, either for decoration, or to keep the gnats away. And lifting the pot is the best and easiest way for me to figure out when the plant is dry. You can definitely feel the difference between a plant with saturated soil, whether it is in a ceramic or terracotta post, and one that is dry.



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