How to dry soil?

Gardening can be intimidating for newbies – a daunting list of rules and regs and unpronounceable Latin names to memorise before you even get near a plant. Yet when it comes to the world of houseplants, it is almost always too much care, rather than too little, that is the problem. In fact, overwatering, particularly in the winter months and especially from eager beginners, is famously the number one killer of indoor plants.

Starved of the oxygen they need to survive, root cells begin to rot and die. Bacterial and fungal infections spread quickly, creating a telltale smell along with yellowing, wilted leaves. Paradoxically, the inability of dead or dying roots to provide the leaves with enough water causes them to look virtually identical to a plant facing drought stress, often causing people to water already waterlogged plants even more. If this has happened to you, don’t panic. Here are some simple tips for bringing overwatered houseplants back from the brink.

Flower detox: camomile tea is great for dried out plants. Photograph: Getty Images

First, remove the plant from its pot to get a good look at its roots. If they are mushy and brown instead of firm and white, and in sopping wet compost that falls away and smells of decay then remove as much of these as possible. Retain only roots that are firm and healthy, snipping off any yellowing or dying leaves while you are at it. If you end up removing a large amount of root material also snip off a similar proportion of the top growth. The plant won’t be able to draw up enough water to support these extra leaves with a compromised root system. Doing so may seem extreme, but will put less strain on an already sick plant.

Now give the patient plant a good rinse and pot it up in a new container with fresh growing mix. The original pot can be used as long as it is thoroughly scrubbed with detergent and hot water to remove traces of the infected compost. Water the plant in well with cold camomile tea and place it in a brightly lit spot but away from direct sunshine for it to recover. After this, water only very sparingly as the potting mix begins to dry out.

Why camomile tea? Well, it contains a dilute solution of natural antifungal and antibacterial chemicals produced by camomile plants to tackle bacterial and fungal infections. It is also a lot cheaper than commercial preparations and probably already sitting in your kitchen cupboard. If you don’t have any, powdered cinnamon (which has similar antimicrobial properties) sprinkled on to the roots and soil surface just before watering is traditionally used in Asia for the same purpose. Good luck!

Email James at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Botanygeek


What are the Signs of Overwatering? And do you know how to save an overwatered plant? Understand everything in this informative article.

Overwatering is the biggest reason why most of the container plants die. Beginner plant growers often do this mistake, they keep watering their plants out of love until they summon the death for them. They don’t know that watering too much is more damaging than watering too little. Your plant can come back after suffering from a long dry spell, once you water it thoroughly again. However, that’s not the case with the plant suffering from root rot. You can still save it from dying but after some efforts. First, you’ll need to be aware of the signs that you have overwatered the plant.

Also Read: Best Way to Water Seedlings

Signs of Overwatering

If you see yellowing leaves and soft and limp plant, this could be one of the signs of overwatering.

To save the plant, you’ll need to learn about the signs of overwatering. Usually, the symptoms of excess watering are similar to underwatering, but you can easily observe that you were overwatering by checking out the soil and drainage. Also, the leaves of the affected plant are soft and stems are tender. Whereas, leaves of the underwatered plants are dry and crisp to touch.

  • Leaves turning to a lighter shade of green and yellow and wilting is what happens during the initial stage. Due to this most of us think that the plant is suffering from drought stress and make the situation even worse by watering even more.
  • New shoots becoming brown, leaf drop, slow or no growth and plant becoming floppier are some of the major other symptoms that come later.
  • In some cases, the formation of mold takes place around the base of the stem, leaves, and even on the surface of the soil.
  • Prolonged exposure to soggy soil causes root rot which you can see if you work through the soil, a bit exposing the roots. Roots giving off a foul and musty odor is also a sign of root rot.

Make sure to be on a lookout for these “Signs of Overwatering” so that you can save the plant before it’s too late!

How to Save an Overwatered Plant

Almost dead bonsai plant due to overwatering. Credit: The Guardian

If you find out at the beginning stage by understanding the initial symptoms, you’ll be able to save the plant just by cutting the water. Locate the plant to a dry spot and stop watering until you see the soil is dry to touch. Also, remove a bit of top growth, flowers, and fruits (if any), this will allow the plant to focus its energy on survival.

If your plant is affected seriously, apply these measures:

  • Move the plant to a spot that is partially or completely shaded. This is not to amuse you but as your plant is already hydrated to the extreme, sudden loss of water due to evaporation will make it even more stressed.
  • Remove all the flowers and fruits and some of the top growth so that plant can focus its energy on survival. As the root system of your plant is compromised due to rot, it’ll not be able to support the growth of its extra leaves, flowers, and fruits.
  • From all the sides pat the container repeatedly so that the roots loosen up. Lift your plant up gradually holding the base of the stem.
  • Let the plant stay out for around five-six hours so that the roots become aerated and dry. If you can put it on a cooling rack, it’d even better as the air will facilitate in the drying process.
  • Carefully get rid of the soil infested with mold that is still sticking to the roots. You can do this by putting the roots under running water. Clean gently but make sure not to damage the healthy roots during this process.
  • Cut the root parts that are rotten with a sharp and sterile pruning tool. The decayed parts will smell bad and turn mushy, slimy and dark. On the other hand, a healthy root will be firm and white.
  • Once the roots are pruned, sterilize your pruning tool again.
  • Now choose a new pot with proper drainage holes or sterilize the old one and fill it with new soil.
  • Now plant the affected plant in that pot as you usually do and water it normal water or with cold chamomile tea. Chamomile tea works as a mild fungicide and prevents damping off due to its antimicrobial properties.
  • Keep the pot in a spot that is bright and receives filtered sunlight or several hours of morning sunlight until the plant is recovering.
  • Afterward, water only and only when the soil becomes dry to the touch.

Also Read: 9 Important Questions for Container Gardeners

Post-Reestablishing Care

  • When your plant is recovering, water always when the topsoil is dry. However, that doesn’t mean to let the soil to become bone dry between watering spells.
  • Avoid fertilization at all cost until the plant shows new growth. Fertilizing can burn the roots, which you wouldn’t want at this initial recovering stage of the plant.
  • Once you see the new growth, you can fertilize it again.
  • After the plant becomes normal again, you can switch back to your regular caring routine depending on the plant. Just don’t overwater this time!

Tip: The best way to avoid overwatering is to water only when the topsoil is dry. You can poke your finger one or two inches deep to feel the moisture level.

Also Read: How to Water Plants

How To Save Your Overwatered Plants

Warning signs

An article from Proven Winners demonstrates that the essential issue with overwatering has to do with the roots. The root of the plant is its life saver. Without healthy roots, the plant can’t take in supplements and develop. An excess of water will cover the roots and make it impossible for them to breathe. The water will likewise fill in as an obstruction that doesn’t allow any fertilizer to reach the root. After some time, this will prompt root spoil. The following are signs that you might be overwatering:

1. Wilting

Wilting may be something you associate with too little water (and this can certainly be a sign of that!), but the difference will be in the soil. According to an article from JAIN, if your soil is moist and yet your plant is wilted then most likely this is because it has too much water.

2. Yellow leaves

If your leaves are growing slowly and have a yellow tinge, then they are probably taking in too much water.

3. Tips of leaves turn brown

Brown leaves can be a sign of too little or too much water. An article from JAIN indicates that the way you can tell the difference is how the leaves feel. If you aren’t watering enough, then the brown leaves will feel dehydrated and crisp. If you are watering too much, then the leaves will be soft and limp.

How can you save your plant?

1. Move it to the shade

Plants in a shaded area use less water. Even if the plant is a sun plant, you should move it from sunlight until the water situation is under control. Once it is stabilized, you can move it back to the sunlight.

2. Allow the pot to drain

Make sure the pot can drain some of the water out. The idea here is to allow the water to escape as much as possible. You can create holes in the planter or repot the plant altogether. Allowing the plant to remain in standing water will significantly decrease its chances of survival.

3. Create air pockets

The plant’s roots need air. You can create air pockets by shifting the pot and tapping it on its side so that the soil ball is loosened. This will allow the roots the opportunity to receive much-needed air that was trapped by water.

4. Allow the soil to dry

Avoid watering the plant until the ground is dry to the touch. Don’t allow the plant to get too dry as that can also kill it. You can opt to mist the plant if the leaves look brittle even if the soil is still damp.

How to avoid overwatering

1. Know your plants

Make sure that you have an understanding of how much water your particular plant needs. Some plants need soil to be consistently damp while others thrive on a more sporadic watering schedule. If you don’t know, be sure to reach out to a professional who can answer your questions.

2. Water deeper, not more often

Watering deeper into the roots will ensure that the plant is receiving adequate water without having to feel like you need to water each day.

3. Add mulch

Mulch or compost can work as a drainage system for the plants.

4. Don’t be fooled by a dry surface

The surface of the soil always dries out first. To get an idea of how dry the soil really is, probe the soil and turn over a bit of it. If the underneath is still moist, then the plant does not need water.

5. Prioritize new plants

Young plants generally do require more water than established plants. However, be careful not to overcompensate just because they are the priority. However, young plants do not have a set root and will rely on surface water to thrive.


Drying Wet Soil – How To Fix Waterlogged Plant Soil

Did you know that overwatering is one of the leading causes of houseplants dying? You shouldn’t despair though. If you have waterlogged plant soil, there are a few things that you can do to save your houseplant. Let’s take a look at how to dry houseplant soil so you can save your plant.

Drying Out Overwatered Soil

Why is wet soil such an issue? If your indoor soil is too wet, this can be very problematic because it can cause root rot. Plants use their roots to take up moisture and also oxygen. If your soil is constantly wet, there won’t be enough air pockets for your plants and the roots will not be able to breathe properly. This can cause your roots to rot and, therefore, your plant will suffer.

Some symptoms of overwatered plants include dropping leaves, both new and old, at the same time. The plant’s leaves may turn yellow and also wilt. The soil may have a sour or rotten smell, indicating root rot. You can also lift the plant out of the

pot. If the roots are brown or black and soft, they most likely have rotted. Healthy roots should be white in most cases.

What are some ways of drying wet soil?

  • Increase the light that your plant is growing in. Of course, make sure that the light is appropriate for whatever plant you are growing in the first. Placing a plant in an area with more light will help speed up the time it will use water.
  • Be sure to discard of any excess water that the plant may be sitting in, whether it is in the saucer below the plant, or in the decorative pot without drainage holes that the plant is slipped into.
  • You can gently take the plant out of its original pot and place the root ball on top of a layer of newspaper. The newspaper will help to absorb excess water. You may need to change the newspapers a few times until it has removed as much of the water as possible.
  • Do NOT fertilize a plant that has been overwatered and is suffering. This will make the situation worse.

Repotting Your Plant to Help with Drying Wet Soil

You may need to repot your plant in order to solve your waterlogged plant soil issue.

First, remove as much of the waterlogged soil as possible from the roots of your plant. Then remove or cut off any roots that are brown or mushy. Be sure to use sterilized pruners or scissors in order to avoid the spread of disease.

Choose a pot that has a drainage hole. Use a fresh soil mixture to repot your plant in, but add additional coarse material such as perlite. This will create air pockets in the soil and help to provide additional oxygen to your plant’s roots.

Lastly, a good rule of thumb is to allow the surface of your houseplant to dry before thinking about watering again.

Soil is too wet / moist

First time grow. Grew seedlings in peat pots under cfls and that worked great. Transplanted the 2 best ones to larger plastic pots. I used this soil called “Long Island Compost”, but it seems like it’s holding WAY too much water. The peat pots would pretty much dry out totally every day, or every other day. In this new soil, I went almost a whole week with the moisture meter still showing it in the 3-4 range. It just does not seem to be draining, or it’s keeping the moisture too well. It has some perlite in it, but not a lot. My question is, should I yank these 2 plants out and re-mix the soil with more perlite? I feel like I should have done that in the first place. By the way, the plants look great and are growing well, but I am concerned b/c every time I water them, pretty much 90% of the water flows right through the bottom, meaning the soil is already pretty wet, and is not drying out. Maybe I am paranoid b/c the peat pot has not had enough time for the root to start growing out and absorbing the water?? There is a lot of soil relative to the size of the peat pot seedling and i only transplanted one week ago, maybe that’s it? Please help.

We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, overwatering is one that can cause yellow leaves, stunting and other plant problems. It may even call forth the deadly disease of root rot. It’s important to know the signs of overwatering, how to prevent it, and how to fix an overwatered plant if it happens.

How to Fix an Overwatered Plant: Stop watering your plant temporarily and improve drainage. Identify and treat root rot immediately. Consider changing the pot and soil to promote better drainage and faster soil drying. Provide increased ventilation and temperatures, and lower humidity.

The Dangers Of Overwatering

Overwatering is the number one cause of death for container plants. Some specimens will shrug off desert conditions, poor soil, low light, and trampled neglect only to call it quits after an overdose of water. It doesn’t seem fair.

Watering is how beginners show their love, and it’s wrong? The contradiction is confusing until you understand what’s going on.

Overwatering is harmful to a plant in two ways:

Overwatering Drowns The Roots

One of the primary root functions is gas exchange: they need to draw oxygen from their soil. A flooded mix drowns the roots and suffocates the plant.

Overwatering Sets Up Infection

By blocking oxygen from the root zone, overwatering creates the anaerobic environment in which disease pathogens grow and thrive.

Correct watering in well-draining soil leaves the mix damp enough for plants to obtain moisture and nutrients while providing sufficient aeration for the root system to breathe.

Short-term soaking (5-10 minutes) doesn’t harm the plant as long as the soil is immediately and thoroughly drained.

Check whether your plant needs water before lifting the watering can

How To Tell If Your Plant Is Overwatered?

An overwatered plant can look like an underwatered one, and it’s very important to know the difference. One more false move with your watering can could spell disaster.

Check the soil and review the plant’s recent watering schedule. Always make sure the soil has properly dried before rewatering.

Besides soggy soil, here are symptoms of an overwatered plant:

  • Wilting. This is a common sign of underwatering, but plants that have their nutrient flow shut down by overwatering can wilt, too.
  • Soft or puffy leaves and stems. The foliage of an underwatered plant becomes dry and crispy.
  • Leaves turning a lighter green color.
  • Yellowing or brown foliage.
  • The dropping of both old and new leaves.
  • Brown spots on leaves and leaf tips.
  • Leaf edema. This looks like blisters and is caused by excess water in plant cells. It can lead to pitting.
  • Slow growth and stunting.
  • Fungus or mold growing on leaves, soil, and stems.
  • The presence of powdery mildew, soil gnats, or other moisture-loving pests.

Overwatering: Causes And Prevention

No one wants to drown their plants. It’s much better to prevent overwatering than have to fix an overwatered plant in the first place. Understanding the reasons for overwatering helps you take steps to prevent it.

Watering Too Often

This is the most obvious reason for overwatering. It can take experience to realize that too much water is worse than too little and that it’s not the solution to every plant malady.

Overwatering is not just a beginner’s mistake. It can easily happen when caring for a group of houseplants together. Plants have individual water needs: what makes your Peace Lily happy will drown a succulent. You can’t water by preset schedule, either. The rule is to always check the soil before rewatering.

Poorly Draining Soil

The main contributor to overwatering is poor drainage. This causes water to pool around the roots. It’s not necessarily the quantity of water a plant receives; it’s how long the soil stays excessively wet.

Note that a well-draining mix with a lot of organic material can become compacted over time as the additives decompose. Inert, non-decaying media like pumice, perlite, or coarse sand are a more stable choice if you don’t replace the soil often.

Learn everything you need to know about choosing houseplant soil in this article.

Plant Type

Different species vary in how much water they need, so you have to learn the needs of your individual plants. If you put all your houseplants on the same watering schedule you’ll risk overwatering some of them. Each plant should be individually monitored.

Incidentally, the difference between plants is usually not in how they are watered: saturating the soil is usually correct. The important difference is in their ideal soil composition and how dry the mix should get between sessions.

For example, a cactus’ soil should be as deeply soaked when watered as a thirsty fern; the difference is that a succulent’s soil should very drain quickly and be allowed to become much drier between rewettings.


Water evaporates more quickly in warmer conditions and vice versa. If you water on a schedule based on warm temperatures, you can easily overdo it in cooler weather.

Container Size

Larger pots take in more water and are slower to dry out. One common scenario for overwatering is to continue the same frequency after repotting into a larger container. Soil that took a week to dry in a small pot takes longer to reach that point in a larger container.

Pot Material

A terracotta pot is the most forgiving container for watering: the material is porous enough to allow moisture to escape and the soil to breath. A glazed or plastic container effectively seals moisture inside and slows down evaporation.

Always make sure your plant is in a pot with at least one drainage hole. Repot if necessary. If you’re worried about runoff or just want a more decorative look, put the pot with drainage holes on pebbles inside a larger sealed container.

A terracotta pot, appropriately sized to the plant, using well draining potting material helps prevent overwatering.


If you move a potted plant outdoors, be aware that wind will make the soil dry out more quickly. Conversely, if you base a watering schedule on blustery conditions, it’s easy to overwater when the wind dies down.


Many plants go into regular cycles of dormancy when they don’t need as much water. This usually—but not always—conforms to a cool-weather slowdown. Learn about your plant’s cycles and be ready to cut back when it shows signs of going dormant.


Moisture in the air slows down soil evaporation and throws a variable into watering frequency. Whether the air’s moisture comes from water-filled trays, drip caches, humidifiers, or just shower steam in a bathroom, high humidity and zealous watering can be a dangerous combination.

Is It Possible To Fix An Overwatered Plant And How Long Does It Take?

Most plants can overcome overwatering damage and return to health, but a full recovery depends on three things:

Plant Resilience

A hardy plant can bounce back from soggy conditions a more delicate specimen will succumb to. Most houseplants can make a full recovery, but some won’t ever be the same.

Amount Of Damage

The amount of damage and speed of detection is crucial to determining whether you can fix an overwatered plant. A plant may languish if the soil stayed too wet for a long period, or you may need to cut away so much infected material that it will take a long time to regrow.

Treatment And Aftercare

Taking the proper steps to fix an overwatered plant without delay and giving the plant good care afterwards greatly increases the outlook for a full recovery.

The speed of recovery also varies by species. Faster-growing plants will naturally rebound more quickly than slow-growers. Some shrub-like plants may take years to assume their former dimensions, whereas an energetic tropical may replace its growth over a single warm season.

How To Fix An Overwatered Plant

If you suspect you’ve over-served your green friend, the first thing to do is stop watering.

As a rule, you should let the topsoil dry between soakings. The guideline for many plants is to allow the top two inches of soil to dry out first. Letting the top half of the pot become dry is better for most succulents. Even the majority of moisture-loving plants don’t want sodden soil and benefit from a (short) spell of dry topsoil to discourage gnats and fungal issues.

One convenient method to determine whether it’s time to rewater is to pick up the pot and feel if it’s heavy with moisture. With a little practice, you can quickly tell if the plant needs water. A more direct approach is to insert your finger, a chopstick, or moisture meter into the soil. I cover more ways to tell if your plant needs watered in this article.

Remember not to overdo the drying-out period – that will only add to the plant’s stress.

Treating Mild Or Suspected Overwatering

If you notice the soil is too soggy or otherwise conclude you’ve overwatered before seeing visible signs of damage, you may be in luck. Simply letting the soil dry out appropriately could be enough to avoid trouble.

Here are steps to fix the situation:

  • If there’s standing water on the soil, tilt the pot to drain it away.
  • Make sure the pot is elevated so it can drain fully.
  • Empty the cache tray if there’s any water inside, and recheck in case it refills.
  • Give the plant good light to stimulate it to use more moisture – though not greater than it’s normal preferred exposure. Note: If a plant is showing signs of distress, it’s better to take it out of bright light, so use your discretion.
  • Hold the fertilizer until normal conditions return. The plant could be stressed even if it hasn’t given visible signs, and fertilizer might complicate it’s recovery.
  • Provide more warmth to the area to increase evaporation. Just a few degrees is enough: don’t overheat the plant.
  • Increase air circulation to speed soil drying. You don’t want to put the plant in a draft, but it might be helpful to give it more airspace or hang it in an airy room.
  • Lower the ambient humidity. If you’re using water trays or a humidifier, consider stopping until the plant is out of the danger zone. You can move the wet plant to a drier area if it’s with others you don’t wish to disturb.

It’s very easy to overwater plants in large containers, so take extra precautions, and if in doubt, wait before watering.

Treating A Plant With Signs Of Overwatering Stress

If your plant is showing leaf yellowing, brown tips, or other signs of stress related to overwatering, it means the situation has progressed. After ruling out root rot, which requires more invasive action, there are a few extra steps that can help fix the problem.

This may seem unintuitive, but move the plant out of strong light. Don’t put it in the dark, just out of direct sun or very bright light. Intense light can further stress the plant. The leaves of an overwatered plant often struggle for water and are vulnerable to drying in bright conditions.

  • Remove some foliage from the top of the plant, along with any buds, flowers, and fruit. This conserves energy for the plant’s recovery.
  • Avoid fertilization until the plant shows new growth.
  • Aerate heavy, soggy soil by carefully poking a few holes with a chopstick or pencil. This opens more air space to speed drying, but don’t overdo it and damage the roots.
  • Wick the soil. If the potting mix is very wet, take it out of its container in one piece and place it on a layer of newspaper or other dry, absorbent material. This will gently pull water from the root ball; replace the material as needed.
  • It may be tempting, but don’t try to squeeze water from the soil ball. Squeezing can damage the delicate roots – the last thing the poor plant needs. You can leave the root ball out of its pot for several hours if necessary, but don’t let it dry out completely.
  • Increase air flow by putting the exposed soil ball on a rack to dry out. A fan can be helpful. Don’t blow a heavy draft directly on the plant, just use it to increase the room’s air flow.
  • A dehumidifier can be effective. Use a Peltier model, not a desiccating type. Set the potted plant nearby and keep it under observation: you don’t want the soil to become bone dry!
  • Refresh the soil. If your overwatering issue is related to lack of drainage, you can amend the soil with aerating materials like perlite, pumice, and coarse sand.

Gently remove the plant and wipe away any old soil that contains few roots. Avoid damaging the already stressed root system: don’t just shake the dirt off. Plant the root ball in the new mix. You can also stir dry amendments into the topsoil.

Once the plant has recovered, do a full repotting into a better-draining mix.

My Rex Begonia ‘Inca Flame’ had to be pruned dramatically after it developed fungal disease of the foliage due to overwatering. Fingers crossed for recovery.

Nature’s Nightmare: Root Rot

If you’re wondering if it’s worthwhile the bother to fix an overwatered plant, root rot is here to scare you. It can quickly render your beloved plant into a pile of stinky mush. If you don’t address this condition in time you won’t have a plant to worry about.

With prompt treatment, however, many plants can recover, and we’ll highlight the steps to diagnose and (hopefully) cure the disease.

For more information, please check out my article about how to identify, fix and prevent root rot.

Does My Plant Have Root Rot?

The diseases that cause decay and root rot are everywhere. The question is whether you’ve provided the wet, anaerobic conditions they grow in for long enough that your plant is infected.

The way to check is to gently take the plant from its pot and look at the roots. Healthy roots are white and firm; infected roots are brown or black, mushy, and have a foul odor of decay.

The disease kills from the roots up: if the disease has progressed you may also see puffy, swollen stems. If it’s advanced to the terminal phase, the stem can come off in your hand. In that case, discard it safely.

Letting the soil dry out is probably not enough: you need to trim away the dead and dying parts, and repot in fresh, dry soil. These drastic actions are the best chance your plant has to survive.

An Overview Of Treating Root Rot

  • Wipe or wash off any moldy soil you see, taking care not to break healthy roots.
  • Cut away decaying brown or black roots, leaving only the healthy white portions. Also trim any yellowing or damaged leaves.
  • Cut off top growth in proportion to the amount of roots you had to remove – the remaining roots won’t be able to service the entire plant.
  • Sterilize your cutting tools before and after. Also, sterilize the old container before reuse by soaking in nine parts water to one part household bleach for at least 10 minutes. Wash afterwards with dish detergent.
  • Rinse infected soil off the roots and repot in a new or sterilized container with fresh, dry soil. Some growers mix cinnamon into the soil as a gentle anti-fungicide.

  • Water and drain well, and place the pot in a bright spot with suitable light. You may wish to add chamomile tea to the water: some consider it to be a natural weapon against fungal infections.
  • Resume watering carefully. Remember that the plant will need less water than before, since it has fewer roots.

Here’s what to do when potted plant soil dries out

Leimone Waite Master gardeners Published 8:00 AM EDT Apr 19, 2019 This mint plant’s soil became dry and hard. Potting soil can be difficult to re-hydrate because of peat moss in the soil. Jessica Skropanic

Q: During this wet weather I had plants sitting on my porch that I let dry out, forgetting that they were not getting water like the rest of my yard. When I go to water the pot, the water just runs out but does not get the soil very wet. Is there an easy way to get the soil wet again? Should I use a soil wetting agent?

A: This is a common problem with potting soils when they dry out because most of them contain peat moss. This is an important ingredient because it decomposes slowly, is lightweight and retains water/is hydrophilic.

However, when peat moss dries out it’s very difficult to re-wet. When this happens, we call the soil hydrophobic, meaning it repels water.

It’s easy to spot a hydrophobic soil: The water drains out the bottom of a pot quickly but doesn’t wet the soil. This is because the water runs between the side of the pot and the hydrophobic soil. This results in only a small portion of the soil becoming wet, leaving the rest of the soil and the roots dry, leading to the plant wilting or dying from lack of water.

Revive dried out soil in potted plants. Jessica Skropanic

Here are a few watering techniques for hydrophobic soil:

  1. If you can lift the pot, submerge the whole pot in a bucket of water. Initially there may be so much air in the soil that the pot floats and you will need to hold it down. Air bubbles will form as air escapes from the soil and is displaced by water. Once the bubbling stops, remove the pot from the bucket of water.
  2. Set the pot in a shallow container of water, allowing the soil to absorb the water slowly. It may take an hour or more to thoroughly re-wet the soil. Be careful not to leave pots soaking in standing water for more than a couple of hours.
  3. For large containers that can’t be lifted easily, place a hose in the pot with just a trickle of water. This allows the water to enter the soil slowly enough it has time to be absorbed instead of running off.

During the summer, hard-packed clay soils, soils that were burned and some crusted garden soils can resist wetting, allowing water run-off instead of absorbing it. To re-wet, repeatedly sprinkle the surface lightly, making sure there’s no run-off. Eventually the soil will become moist enough to break up. You may also need to break up the surface of the soil if it’s hydrophobic due to exposure to fire.

The application of mulch, such as wood chips, and/or compost to the soil surface can help hold moisture in the soil and prevent these dry soil conditions from occurring. Organic matter in the soil helps to soak up and hold moisture. It’s also critical for micro-organisms.

If you decide to use wetting agents or soil surfactants you can purchase them pre-made or make your own using a liquid dish soap. But soil surfactants or wetting agents are not a long-term solution. They’ll need to be reapplied and are harmful to the microorganisms in the soil.


  • Know which fire-resistant plants are best for your garden
  • Know when to bring your veggies outside
  • Plan a more sustainable garden

The Shasta Master Gardeners Program can be reached by phone at 242-2219 or email [email protected] The gardener office is staffed by volunteers trained by the University of California to answer gardeners’ questions using information based on scientific research.

Published 8:00 AM EDT Apr 19, 2019

How to Keep Container Plants From Drying Out


Summer in Southern California is challenging when it comes to container plants. Depending on the plant and type of pot used, many can require watering up to two times per day.

And, in today’s busy world, not many people have time for that. Plus, we’re more sensitive to wasting water because of the California drought.

But container plants are a fantastic way to add color to outdoor living spaces and paver patios as well as grow plants if your space is limited. Thank goodness there are a number of things you can do to to help your pots retain moisture.

Add an Olla

Ollas are unglazed clay pots with a round base that can be buried underneath the soil with the bottleneck opening positioned above ground so that it can be refilled. It is actually one of the most ancient methods of irrigation known to man dating back over 4000 years.

Water seeps from the olla into the soil via a suction effect that occurs when the soil is dry. Roots tend to also grow around ollas and pull water from the pot when needed. You can purchase them in a variety of sizes and hide them fairly well in busy container plantings. Just be sure to cap the top of the olla with a rock or cork to prevent mosquitos from breeding and unnecessary evaporation.

Use Drip Irrigation

Run a drip line to your container pots to automate watering. If you have the luxury of renovating your outdoor living space, think about where your container plants will go and have a main line installed nearby or even right under your container plants. This makes it easily to conceal irrigation before your hardscape goes in.

Water in the Morning

Plant roots are more willing to absorb water in the morning after nightfall cools the environment around them. While this means that you could in theory water before bed time, it’s not advised because trapped moisture that can’t evaporate well at night and is more likely to cause mildew and other issues.

Create a Wick

Grab some yarn or other absorbent wicking string or rope. Fill a bucket with water and place it next to the container plant. Place one end of the wick all the way at the bottom of the bucket (so that it wicks up all of the water) and the other about 3″ deep in the soil of the container that needs watering. As the soil dries, the wick should provide water.

However, do test your set-up to make sure it works prior to placing it in full action. Some say cut-up old T-shirts work well for this instead of string, too.

Mulch the Top

Use rocks or bark as mulch on the top of your containers. This will help keep them from drying out as well as prevent weeds from forming that can steal moisture from your plants.

Choose Pots Wisely

Small pots need extra care because of their tendency to dry out faster. Larger pots need more soil which allows the pot to retain more moisture. In hot climates, glazed clay pots retain heat that transfers to the soil. Dark colored pots also retain more heat than light-colored ones. Heat accelerates moisture evaporation.

Water Deeply

Merely wetting the top layer of soil in a container pot is more wasteful than it is helpful. Not only does the top layer dry out quickly, but the roots which is where water is required are usually much deeper in the pot. Soak the entire pot each time you irrigate until water runs out the bottom (this actually doesn’t usually take much water in smaller pots). Make sure pots have drainage holes so excess water can escape in order to avoid a root rot problem.

Consider Plastic Pots

While they aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as terracotta or clay, plastic pots retain moisture better than the other two options. What many gardeners do is keep plants in the plastic nursery pots and slide them inside more attractive pots. Keep in mind that plants meant to grow much larger in side will be constrained using this method but seasonal flowers won’t mind.

Line Pots with Plastic Bags

And, speaking of plastic, some gardeners line attractive pots with plastic bags (be sure to puncture drainage holes) to prevent evaporation. This is done prior to the insertion of soil or plants, of course.

The Plastic Bottle Trick

A popular way to prolong the need to manually water plants is by repurposing a plastic bottle. There are a few things to know here, however. First, the soil in the container planting must be thoroughly wet prior to inserting the bottle, otherwise this set-up won’t work. It is recommended that puncture holes in the lid, screw it back on to the bottle and then up-end it into the container. This will help prevent dirt from entering the bottle and clogging it. Mesh can work, too.

Use Sponges

Place a household sponge at the bottom of a pot to help soak up water. This isn’t going to be very helpful for large containers but you might want to consider it for smaller plantings.

Dehydrated Container Help

If a container planting is so dry that the soil hardens, clumps and separates from the sides of the pot, break it up with a shovel. Otherwise, water will run off the hard surface and head straight to the bottom of the pot. If the container is small enough to be submerged in a bucket of room temperature water, do so until the soil is completely soaked… usually this is when bubbles stop forming in the water as any air gaps are filled with water. Then, life the pot and allow it to drain properly. If the plants are merely wilted (and not on their last leaves, literally), they should recover.

Beware of Water Crystals

Hydrogels or water retaining crystals are marketed as being able to retain water and release it over time so that container plants need less watering. Most of these crystals contain polyacrylamide and there is some debate as to whether or not it’s a carcinogen. A study by the University of California, Davis suggests that hydrogels do not decrease overall water needs of a plant so they are really only helpful to for delaying watering. They are not advised for edible gardens.

Your Turn…

How do you keep container plants from drying out?

Photo credits: Flickr/daryl_mitchell, Flickr/walkingthepeak

Indoor Plants, Soil not drying, Mould and Fungus Gnats

Hi Everyone, I really need some help, I have 15 indoor plants all in different areas of the house ranging from the hallway, kitchen, lounge, bathroom and main bedroom, the rooms vary from facing north / north east and south / south east, I mostly have different varieties of Calatheas, Dracaenas, some Calla lilies and a rubber plant. Most were pot bound when I purchased them (apart from the Dracaenas) so I moved them to the next size up, e.g. the Calatheas were in 17 cm plastic pots so I put them into 20 cm plastic pots, the Calla lilies were in 12cm pots so I put them into 15cm pots etc. All pots have plenty of drainage holes and sit in saucers, I used Verve multi-purpose compost, thoroughly watered them and the excess water that ran it the saucers was emptied straight away, this was about 3-4 weeks ago and the soil is still damp on all of them, they are getting white mould on the top of the soil and I am seeing fungus gnats, any ideas why the soil isn’t drying? What I can do to help? How to eliminate the mould, gnats and larvae? I have an indoor plant in work that was potted the same way and watered 2 weeks ago and the top layer of soil is dry. My plants are positioned so they are not in direct sunlight or they only get a little for a short period of time. I don’t understand why the soil is not drying at home, this is happening in all of the areas my indoor plants are situated not just one place. Any help/advise would be greatly appreciated.

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