Plants create energy out of sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water, and our houseplants really only need us to actively give them one of those things. Still, we are sometimes too busy attending to our human needs and wants to give them some fresh H2O. We go on vacation, become busy, get sick, and forget or postpone our watering duties.
Fortunately, plants are fairly forgiving about their watering schedule. The worst mistake you can make while hydrating a plant is to leave it soaking in a pot without drainage, which can cause root rot and death within two weeks. So really, don’t worry if you’re a little lax with your watering—most plants can withstand the occasional drought. Especially if you take steps to make each pour as effective and long-lasting as possible.
Feel the soil to check moisture
When you water a plant, do so thoroughly. Afterward, your houseplant’s soil should have the moisture levels of a wrung-out sponge, says Katie Wagner, extension associate professor of horticulture at Utah State University. “The very best check is putting your fingers in the soil to see if you feel that nice, even moisture,” says Wagner. The dirt should not be dripping with water, but you should be able to feel that it’s wet. Houseplant soil, like a sponge, should be full of air pockets for the roots to breathe, Wagner adds.
Increase the humidity around your houseplant
Our houses and apartments are inevitably drier than the environments our plants evolved in. We have heaters, air conditioners, and generally dislike it when our books grow mold. Most plants don’t efficiently take in water through their leaves, so increasing the humidity won’t affect the amount of water the plant takes in. But warm, dry conditions cause plants to release water through their leaves more quickly, meaning they’ll need a drink more frequently.
Fortunately, there are many ways to increase the humidity around a plant. You can enclose the plant in glass or clear plastic, which is the only way I can keep my carnivorous plants alive. You can put a plate of water or humidifier near the plant (do not place the plant itself in the water, as this could cause root rot).
Keep your home cool while you’re away
Plants generally like to be warm. However, if you’re leaving for a long journey, letting your plants be a little colder than they usually would be and moving them out of the sun might be a good idea. That might help stretch your last watering a little bit further, according to Wagner.
Use ice or a glass bulb to water gradually
Many grocery-store orchids come with care instructions that advise giving them a piece of ice instead of liquid water. However, this guidance is controversial. Wagner says you should make sure there’s some soil between the ice and your plant’s roots, but that you’ll probably be fine with this prolonged watering strategy. Hillary Jufer, horticultural program manager at Cornell Cooperative Extension, notes, “Where ice touches plant material, it can lead to tissue damage and rot.”
You can also use a glass bulb, or even a glass soft drink bottle, to give your plants the same type of gradual water supply. Just fill the bulb or bottle with water and leave it in the soil. The water will flow out slowly over time.
Cover the soil
Wagner started putting packaging paper around the bases of her plants to keep her cats from scratching the stems. Since then, she’s found this feline defense strategy also helps the plants’ soil stay moist for longer. “It’s almost like a mulch layer,” she says.
Embrace the chore
Many care-taking delays can’t be helped. But if you can take the time, plant maintenance—or “horticultural therapy”—is good for your mental health. Tending to my plants helped me recover from a tough layoff and adjust to the solitude of freelancing in 2018, for example. If you are careful, your houseplants will offer oxygen and companionship when you are able to get back to them.