Container Garden Watering 101

White container with green plant

Whether caring for an outdoor container garden or houseplants, watering is one of the trickiest tasks for both novice and longtime gardeners. Overwatering can drown your plants,1 while under-watering can cause plants to wither away and die of thirst. Here's what you need to know about your potted plants and their favorite drink: H2O.

Focus On Your Plants' Water Needs, Not Timing

While you might be tempted to water your container plants on a set schedule, you'll have healthier results if you water based on need. There are several ways to tell if it's time to break out the watering can:

  • Feel the soil: Even when plant soil appears dry on the surface, it might be moist underneath. Push your finger an inch or so below the soil's surface. Cool, moist soil means the plant is hydrated; dry, loose soil indicates it's time for water.
  • Lift the container: If the planter is light enough, pick it up. Dry soil is much lighter than wet soil, so as you gain experience, you'll be able to gauge the moisture content by the weight of the container.
  • Check the leaves: If the plant's leaves are drooping, it may be overdue for water. However, wilting can also be caused by overwatering, which can lead to root rot. So check the soil before making assumptions.

Different Plants Have Different Water Requirements

Don't assume all plants have the same hydration needs. A cactus, for example, is far less thirsty than a fern. Knowing the ideal growing requirements of your plants makes it easier to keep them healthy and lush. Most indoor and outdoor plants come from the nursery with a care tag that specifies the plant's preferred growing conditions. Always follow those instructions. If your plant doesn't have that information, look it up online.

Plant Location Matters — A Lot

2 house plants by a large window

Houseplants near sunny windows need more frequent watering.

Location greatly affects a plant's need for water. A plant in full sun on your patio requires more water than the same type of plant located in a shady spot. Houseplants are also affected by location. Expect those placed on windowsills or in sunny spots on floors or tables to dry out faster than those in dimmer locations. No matter where your plants are located, always check the soil before reaching for the watering can.

Watering Through the Seasons

Plant containers in front of a house

Hosing down your outdoor planters helps to remove insect pests.

The time of year plays a big role in your container gardens' water needs. Generally speaking, plants grown inside or out require less water in the colder months.2 But in the summer, you'll need to break out the hose more often, particularly for patio containers in sunny spots. It's not unusual to water outdoor plants every day during a heat wave. Your houseplants will want more water then, too, depending on the plant and the size of the container.

Choose the Right Container

The size and material of your containers makes a big difference in how often their plants need water. In general, the larger the container, the less often you'll need to water.3 Plants in porous containers made from wood or terra cotta dry out faster than those in plastic, glazed ceramic or metal containers. Use this information to your advantage.

Choose a classic Terra Cotta Dish container to show off a collection of succulents; spark up your front patio with heat lovers, such as pentas, lavender and lantana, in a wooden Planter Box; and decorate your backyard patio with a Cascade Pickle Pot filled with a cheery mix of marigolds, alyssum and red salvia. When it comes to houseplants, you'll want containers that add to your home's decor, such as a red-hot ceramic Ripple Pot or a classically styled Tulip Pedestal.

Give a Soaking, Not a Sip

Green plant in a decorative container

Hosing down your outdoor planters helps to remove insect pests.

Whether you water your container plants with a watering can, a hose or a drip system, it's better to deliver less frequent, deeper drinks than frequent splashes of water. Shallow watering encourages shallow root growth,4 and tends to promote the buildup of soluble salts from fertilizer or the potting soil itself.5 Avoid salt damage in your plants by watering until you see seepage from the container's drainage holes 5, and prevent stains and damage to your deck or patio with a matching saucer underneath your container.

Even gardeners with the greenest of thumbs sometimes have questions about watering techniques. With knowledge and experience, you'll grow healthier houseplants and thriving blooms in outdoor containers.

Pennington® with design is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc.

(1) Kerry Meyer, "Wait, That Plant is Drowning!" Proven Winners
(2) Mary Jane Frogge, "Winter Care for Houseplants" University of Nebraska Extension
(3) "How to Grow Potted Plants" Better Homes and Gardens
(4) Kerry Meyer, "Water Your Way to Happy Plants" Proven Winners
(5) "Watering and Soluble Salts — Houseplants" University of Maryland Extension
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