Don’t fret, we’ve all been there. An overwatered plant might be a rite of passage for beginner gardeners. It takes a while to get it right, and some plants are fussier than others!
The root cause usually boils down to two things: either too frequent watering or poor soil drainage.
If you need help rescuing your overwatered plant, this guide is for you. Here, we’ll cover:
- what happens when your plant is overwatered
- signs of overwatering,
- steps to rescue your overwatered plant!
What happens when your plant is overwatered?
The primary reason overwatering is detrimental to your beloved plant is not too much water per se. It’s that water cuts off the air supply to your plant’s root system.
Roots growing in waterlogged soil suffocate due to a lack of oxygen. Over several days, oxygen-deprived roots start to decay and die away. Unable to function, your plant is no longer supplied with the water and nutrients usually drawn by healthy roots.
The longer roots are waterlogged, the more extensive the problem.
Another impact of unhealthy roots is becoming susceptible to attack by certain fungi, such as the Phytophthora spp. This fungi loves moisture and will often be found in waterlogged soils. It attacks soggy roots, causing your plant even more grief!
When talking about overwatered plants, the term “root rot” is often thrown around. It is an umbrella term referring to unhealthy roots that are decaying or dying. As explained above, this can be due to:
- roots unable to get enough oxygen, or
- the presence of moisture-loving fungi attacking the vulnerable roots of your overwatered plant.
In either case, if left untreated, overwatering may result in plant death. But it doesn’t have to if you act quickly enough!
Signs of an overwatered plant
There are several common signs of overwatering.
- Wilted leaves;
- Yellowing, brown and soft leaves;
- Stunted growth;
- Soft mushy stems;
- Leaf edema – this looks like pimples on your plant’s leaves;
- The presence of mold growing on the soil’s surface.
in addition to;
- soil that is wet to the touch, and remains consistently moist.
Most of these signs may also be symptoms of other issues. Yellow leaves, as an example, is a sign that your plant is under stress. It can be due to overwatering or other issues like under-fertilisation.
Therefore it’s not possible to conclude that your plant is overwatered just from the presence of one of these signs. However, if you see such signs alongside consistently wet soil, it’s a good indication you’ve got an overwatered plant on your hands.
How to save your overwatered plant
Now, if your plant is overwatered but not visibly dying, then you might not need to do anything other than allow your plant’s soil to dry out completely. Adjust your watering schedule accordingly, and withhold fertilising as your plant is under stress.
To speed up the process, you can relocate your plant to a spot that has more light. This allows a higher rate of water evaporation. However, you need to be very careful that the light it receives is still at a suitable level for your plant; if not, it will cause your plant more stress!
In the same vein, you can also use a small rotating fan to increase the evaporation rate. Again, use your discretion and don’t create a draft!
Allowing your plant to dry out gives it some time and space to recover from its overwatered state. If your plant was only mildly overwatered, solving the problem may be as simple as this!
Keep monitoring your plant to see if it is recovering. If it is not, or if the damage is more extensive, you must take further steps below.
1. Examine the extent of the damage
Gently remove your plant from its pot and examine its root system. Healthy roots are firm and white. On the other hand, unhealthy, decaying roots are visibly brown or black.
If the roots have a rancid odour, this is a sure sign that root rot is widespread.
2. Snip off damaged roots and foliage
Damaged roots cannot be healed, so they must be pruned off.
- Use clean and sterilised gardening shears to snip off any and all discoloured roots. This may mean cutting off large portions of the root system. If damage is extensive, your plant may not be able to be salvaged. In this case, you may choose to propagate your plant to start afresh. Skip to the propagation section.
- Also be sure to cut off any damaged foliage. Like the roots, brown or yellowed leaves can’t recovered. It’s better to prune these away so your plant focus its energies on new growth.
- Clean and sterilise your gardening shears before and after pruning away root rot. This prevents further contamination and spread.
3a. Repot your plant in fresh soil
The third step is to repot your plant in fresh soil. Here are three key things to check before repotting:
- Check that you’ve removed all mucky old soil from your plant. If you have a plant with an extensive root system, you may find stubborn bits of compacted soil stuck in its roots. You’ll need to work with your fingers to tease all the old soil out.
- Check if you are using suitable potting soil. Soil additives such as perlite and orchid bark are helpful to increase air circulation. For specific potting mix “recipes”, consult our plant guides. Dense soils retain too much moisture and do not allow roots to breathe. This means that even if you are not watering too frequently, roots may still be waterlogged as too much water is retained.
- Make sure the pot you are using is suitable. This means that it:
- Has a drainage hole. This allows excess water to escape rather than pool at the bottom of the pot.
- Is an appropriate size relative to your plant’s rootball. A too-large pot leads to waterlogged soils as they naturally take longer to dry out. Also, if you’ve prune away large portions of damaged roots, you may need to repot in a smaller container.
- Preferably, use pots made from terracotta. This material is porous, allowing water to evaporate away, and for the soil to breathe. On the other hand, plastic containers seal in the soil, so they slow down evaporation and reduce air circulation.
After repotting, let the soil dry out before re-watering. Be careful when you start watering again. If you have removed large portions of damaged roots, your plant’s rootball is smaller and will need less frequent watering.
3b. Alternatively, Repot in LECA
Alternatively, you may choose to repot your plant in LECA to reduce the risk of overwatering significantly. LECA is a medium that creates a “false bottom” for plants, so roots never sit in a pool of water. It also allows your plant to control the rate of water absorption, rather than letting you decide!
We’ve found LECA to be a convenient option for most houseplants. To find out more about LECA, you can read our guide here.
This is an optional step. If you are not sure your plant will survive, you may choose to propagate your plant. Even severely overwatered plants can be salvaged in this fashion.
For most houseplants, including ever-popular Hoyas, Monsteras, Philodendrons, Pothos and Aglaonemas, propagation via stem cuttings is easiest. Identify a part with several nodes, cut below the node, and repot in a fresh potting mix.
For a detailed step-by-step guide, check out our plant guides.
Thankfully, overwatering your plant does not necessarily lead to plant death. Depending on the extent of the damage, you can either leave it to dry out or snip off damaged roots and repot it into fresh soil. In extreme cases, you may choose to propagate your plant to start over.
Of course, prevention is always better than cure. To understand how best to water your plants, read our watering guide here!
Deborah is a plant enthusiast and founder of Gardening Collective.