Gardening: Watering key to indoor plant success

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

If you were given a Christmas plant and are new to indoor gardening, you should know that proper watering is a big key to success.

The first step is to determine what the plant requires. Some prefer wet soil while others are happier if their soil stays moderately moist. If you’re unsure of a plants needs, do a Google search or consult a gardening book. One of my faves is an oldie, the 1979 edition of “Reader’s Digest: Success With Houseplants.”

Container size also matters when it comes to watering plants. Small pots hold very little potting soil and dry out quickly, so when shopping, invest in larger plants in bigger pots if you’re short on time.

Room temperature and humidity are also considerations. In winter when the furnace is running full tilt and rooms become hot and dry, plants dry out more quickly. My friend, the “Houseplant Guru” Lisa Steinkopf, says a good rule of thumb of when to water most plants is when the soil is dry to the depth of an inch – that’s about to the first knuckle on your pointer finger.

For larger pots and those who don’t care to stick their fingers in dirt, I suggest investing in a moisture meter. Available at garden centers and big box stores in the indoor plant section, these handy tools allow you to measure the moisture content of a plant in the root zone by simply inserting a probe in the soil.

When watering plants, technique also plays a part. Lisa recommends adding water until it flows out of the holes in the bottom of the pot. But don’t let plants sit in water for more than a half-hour. Lisa uses a turkey baster to remove standing water from large saucers. For more of Lisa’s tips on watering go to her website:, and enter “watering plants” in the search box.

Water quality is important to some plants. Room temperature is preferred and letting water sit for four or more hours before using it will allow chlorine to evaporate.

Succulents and Tillandsias (also called air plants), treasured for their looks as well as ease of care, are all the rage today. While I’ve often read misting Tillandsias is sufficient to keep them alive, in low humidity situations like our centrally heated houses in winter, a weekly half-hour soak in a bowl of clear water is also recommended. Succulents are a plant you can water once a week, but if you forget, they are forgiving.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question, go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.