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Watering Houseplants from the Bottom or Top – Which is Better?

If you have thriving houseplants, you’ve been likely looking after them with care and attention. Part of that care is watering them correctly, whether that means watering from the bottom or the top.

While some plants don’t care if you water them from the top or from the bottom, other plants do better with one method over the other.

To help you understand how these two methods are different and how they benefit your houseplants, I’m going to cover the pros and cons of each watering method and give examples of plants that prefer one method over the other.

How to Water Plants from the Top?

When watering plants from the top, there are a few things to consider:

– Ideally, you should water plants at the soil level and not from above to avoid getting water on the leaves.

While it’s good to occasionally wash off dirt and dust from the leaves of plants, for the most part, leaves should stay dry.

Moist leaves can be a breeding ground for fungal diseases, and you want to avoid that. The leaves of some plants are even prone to rotting if they’re regularly watered from above.

– Apply enough water until you see some of it trickling out of the drain holes at the bottom of the pot.

Drain holes should be a feature on any potted plant, regardless of what material the pot is made of.

If you have decorative pots that don’t come with draining holes, you should double pot houseplants.  That is, have your plant in a regular plastic pot that’s fitted with draining holes, and then placed in a decorative pot.

Unless you’re growing succulents or cacti that need little water, most plants will enjoy a deep watering so that you’re not just watering the surface of the soil.

A deep soaking also has the benefit of washing out excess mineral salts that can be left behind by fertilizers and which can damage roots and the foliage of plants.

– If your pot has a saucer or it’s placed in a decorative pot without drainage holes, make sure to empty these

You don’t want the roots to sit in excess water, so empty the saucer after water pools in the bottom.

If water that’s already drained is reabsorbed, the mineral deposits I mentioned would just get reabsorbed too, causing issues yet again.

The best way to water plants from above is to use a watering can that features a long, narrow spot, which allows you to water only the soil of the plant.

This is especially useful for foliage plants where it would be difficult to water them without getting water on the leaves or the crown.

Frequently getting water on the leaves and crown can cause fungal leaf disease and rotting and a well-designed watering can will help avoid that.

Pros & Cons of Top Watering

Watering plants from the top has several benefits, so it’s not accidental that most of us have been using this method without even questioning it.

Here are the pros of top watering:

  • Allows a thorough soaking of the soil, which means that all parts of the root system get water
  • It washes away excess mineral deposits caused by fertilizing
  • It’s convenient and quick
  • It can help wash away some pests, their eggs or larvae

Of course, there are also shortcoming to this method, especially when top watering is not carried out properly:

  • Soil can become compacted
  • Getting water on the leaves can encourage fungus and rotting
  • It’s easy to overwater plants with this method

With a bit of attention, you can significantly reduce the cons of watering plants from the top.

Gently churning up some of the potting mix or using a potting mix that isn’t as prone to compaction will go a long way in reducing compaction issues.

As for not getting water on the leaves, you can use a watering can with a narrow spout to keep water only on the soil.

To avoid overwatering, which is a common issue with top watering, you must always check the soil for its moisture level.

Most plants will not mind having a bit of their potting medium go dry before they need water again. Plants that enjoy constantly moist soil should be potted in a potting medium that allows water to drain quickly.

How to Water Plants from the Bottom?

The bottom watering method relies on the ability of the soil and the plant’s root system to soak up water as needed.

There are a couple of ways to approach this method, but all your pots must have draining holes at the bottom and preferably a saucer too.

Here’s how to bottom water:

  • Fill the saucer with water and wait for the water to get soaked up
  • Fill a tray with water and place your pots on it to soak up water as they need

If the water is quickly absorbed, refill the saucer or tray until your plants no longer soak up water or until your moisture probe signals the soil is moist enough.

I’ve also seen recommendations to soak your plants in the bathtub, but before you jump on the idea, let me just stop you there and remind you how much mess that would leave in your bathtub.

Soaking in a saucer, tray or other recipient works great, you don’t need to go for something as big as your tub.

Pros & Cons of Bottom Watering

While not as common as top watering, bottom watering has some great benefits including:

  • It’s more difficult to overwater plants this way
  • Compaction issues are less likely
  • Fungal issues caused by moisture on leaves are avoided
  • It can deter some pests that thrive in moist soil
  • Encourages better root development

As for the disadvantages of this method, there are a few of those too:

  • With bottom watering, mineral deposits can easily build up
  • It’s less convenient, especially when it comes to large plants
  • It’s time consuming & potentially messy, especially if you’re bottom watering in a tray (you’re bound to get water on the floor when moving plants back to their location).

That said, bottom watering is crucial for some plants, so you shouldn’t dismiss it just because it’s a less convenient way to hydrate your plants.

Top vs Bottom Watering

Now that you see the implications of both watering methods, which one should you pick?

Should you water your houseplants from the bottom or the top? Should you mix up the two methods? Or should you check what your plants prefer?

Possibly the two biggest benefits of top watering are the convenience and that water can wash away mineral build-ups from the soil.

Top watering takes little time and even though there’s a risk of damage to leaves, this risk can be significantly reduced by watering with a watering can that’s designed to keep water off the foliage.

Bottom watering keeps moisture off the leaves, helps with root development, you’re less likely to overwater, and it doesn’t cause as much compaction as top watering does.

My advice is to go by the preferences of the plant. Plants that enjoy top watering, should be watered from the top, and occasionally from the bottom.

Plants that enjoy bottom watering, should be watered from the bottom, either exclusively or for most times you’re watering them.

The African violet plant should be watered from the bottom as the leaves of the plant are very sensitive and can quickly rot if the plant is watered from above.

Virtually any medium-sized houseplants will benefit from bottom watering including tropical plants, ferns, or succulents. Succulents can be helped to promote better root development if bottom watered.

However, some plants enjoy their leaves and aerial roots misted, so watering from top can be beneficial for them. Plants like this include ferns, orchids, and the Swiss cheese plant.

Some plants like bromeliads have leaves that form the shape of a cup, which acts as a water reservoir, so watering these plants from above is essential to keep them well hydrated.

Air plants, on the other hand, should be watered by soaking them in a tray filled with water.

As you can see, different plants have evolved to take up moisture in different ways and we must also pay attention to these needs when deciding which watering method to apply.

One thing is for sure, combining the two methods can help you draw the most benefits for your houseplants.

Wrap Up

Convenience dictates that we should water houseplant from above, yet bottom watering has many benefits that could help you overcome fungal leaf diseases, deter some pests and help the plant grow stronger roots.

If you’re likely to overwater your plants with the top watering method, you may try bottom watering for a while just to see if your plants do any better. You can mix and match watering methods to get the best out of both worlds.

There are pros and cons of each watering method, but ultimately your houseplant’s preferences will help you decide which method to use.

Updated: April 16, 2021

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