It is a common misconception among first-time houseplant owners that the worst thing they can do is forget to water their plant.
While it is true that neglecting a plant altogether will certainly kill it, what will kill it even faster is giving it too much care, or more specifically, too much water.
Overwatering, particularly during the dormant winter season, is the leading cause of houseplant death. Bear in mind that most plants would rather be watered too little than too often.
Just because a plant has been given too much water, however, does not mean it is beyond saving. If you pick up on the problem early enough, you can reverse the damage caused by overwatering and revive your plant.
How to revive an overwatered houseplant
Remove the plant from its pot and use disinfected clippers to cut off unhealthy roots. Get rid of wet, infected soil. Remove any damaged leaves and stems. Wash your pot thoroughly. Re-pot your plant in new potting soil containing one percent hydrogen peroxide and a handful of agricultural perlite.
The science of an overwatered houseplant
Understanding how, when, and how much to water your plants is one of the most important concepts to grasp as a plant parent.
Many plant owners find it confusing that many of the symptoms of overwatering are actually the same as those of underwatering.
Plants’ leaves turn yellow both when they have received too much and when they have received too little water. Plant leaves also curl down or wilt both during periods of drought and as a result of overwatering.
The reason the symptoms are so similar is because plant roots do more than absorb water. Plant roots also provide plants with oxygen and nutrients. When roots are consistently left sitting in water, they have no opportunity to reach the oxygen or nutrients they need and essentially suffocate to death.
Similarly, if a plant receives too little water, it will also starve, as its root cells will die. What causes yellowing and wilting leaves then, is not abundance or lack of water, but the fact that the plant’s roots are dying.
But it is precisely because these opposite care mistakes have the same symptoms that plant parents need to be very careful about identifying which problem their plant is experiencing.
Many people see yellow leaves, assume that their plant is unhappy because it is not getting enough water, and then proceed to do the worst possible thing for their plant by giving it even more water!
How to tell if your plant has been overwatered
If your houseplant has been overwatered, its leaves will turn yellow, wilt, and begin to fall off.
If the issue develops to a critical stage, you may notice a foul smell as the result of root rot.
There may also be mushy spots on your plant’s stems and, in the case of certain plant varieties, on its leaves. You may also see mold or a green and grey alga growing on the top of your plant’s soil.
Overwatering is most likely to happen during the dormant winter season. While it is not true that houseplants die in winter, they do go into a kind of hibernation and stop growing temporarily, which means that they do not need as much water as during the summer months.
While overwatering is not necessarily fatal for a plant, if the issue is allowed to progress to a critical stage, it will be.
An overwatered plant is a welcome host for a fungal or bacterial infection. The more quickly you identify that a plant is being overwatered, the better your chances of reviving it are.
Trimming the roots of an overwatered plant
The first thing to do once you have determined that you have been giving your houseplant too much water, is to attend to its roots.
Carefully take the plant out of its pot so that you can see the extent of the root damage. Use a pair of disinfected plant clippers to cut off any roots that look sick.
Unhealthy roots will be soft and brown. Because they are rotting, they will likely also smell bad. Cut off anything that is not firm to the touch.
After you have cut off any rotting or damaged roots, use your fingers to work the remaining soil out of the roots.
Because your plant needs to have enough roots to support its above-ground growth, you will also need to trim away some of your plant’s leaves and stems if you have significantly reduced your plant’s root system.
Begin by cutting off damaged stems and leaves before cutting off any healthy-looking growth.
Rinse your plant’s roots thoroughly so that all the infected compost is gone. Then leave your plant out on a dishtowel in bright, indirect light for two to three hours. This will allow your plant’s roots a bit of breathing room before they are put back into soil.
For clarification about what bright, indirect light is, read this essential guide to houseplant light levels.
Clean your pot using bleach-based solution. Ideally, allow it to soak for an hour in nine-parts water and one-part bleach. Then rinse it thoroughly and allow it to dry completely before using it.
Choose an ideal potting mix for your houseplant, preferably one that contains one percent hydrogen peroxide, which will help re-oxygenate your plant’s roots. For best result, mix a handful of agricultural perlite into the soil blend.
Perlite is a lightweight, white granular substance made from volcanic glass. It is highly permeable and prevents soil from becoming compact, which will help your roots access oxygen in their new soil.
Perlite is also very porous and so absorbs water quickly. This will help your overwatered roots recover because they will be less likely to be left sitting in water.
Re-potting an overwatered plant
Cover the bottom of your pot with your fresh potting mix. Then hold your plant so that it is positioned correctly and fill in the area around it with the remainder of your soil.
One good tip for helping an overwatered houseplant recover, is to water it with cold chamomile tea before placing in a location with bright, indirect light.
Why chamomile tea? Chamomile has unique antibacterial and antifungal chemicals in it. You might also sprinkle some cinnamon on the top of your soil before watering, as cinnamon also shares these qualities.
After this, water your plant only sparingly and focus on allowing your plant’s soil to dry out. Give it only enough water to prevent it from drying out completely.
Once your plant’s soil is almost entirely dry again, give it another thorough water with cold chamomile tea and again allow it to dry out. After this you can revert to a more regular watering schedule.
Remember that the better the water you give your houseplant, the happier it will be.
Marcel runs the place around here. He has a deep passion for houseplants & gardening and is constantly on the lookout for yet another special plant to add to his arsenal of houseplants, succulents & cacti.
Marcel is also the founder of Iseli International Commerce, a sole proprietorship company that publishes a variety of websites and online magazines.