Should You Be Bottom Watering Plants?

Updated: Jul. 21, 2023

How's your houseplant collection doing? If you love the plants but hate to (or forget to) water them, check out bottom watering. It's foolproof!

Houseplants can give your home fresh energy and color — if you can keep them alive. One of the trickiest things to balance is proper watering. Too much water, the leaves turn yellow. Too little, the leaves turn yellow.

Full disclosure: My houseplants tend to die due to terrible neglect or too much water. Recently, I struggled with an over-watered Swedish ivy and an African violet that’s chronically under-watered. With both, I tried out bottom-watering.

@madelinebus_ #planttok #bottomwatering #thirstyplants ♬ I WANNA SEE SOME (feat. jetsonmade) – Jack Harlow

How Bottom Watering Works

It’s really easy. Here’s all you have to do:

  • Take a container or bowl that’s larger than the pot and fill the container about halfway with water. The pot must have at least one hole in the bottom for this to work.
  • Place the container on a towel to protect the surface below, if necessary.
  • Set the potted plant in the water and wait.

You could also fill your sink or bathtub with water and set your plants in there.

The potting medium (e.g. soil) soaks up water until it’s saturated. After you remove the plant, the roots absorb the water and distribute it to the rest of the plant.

That’s the beauty of bottom watering. The plant takes in the amount of water it needs thanks to gravity and hydraulics, no more and no less.

How Long Should I Leave The Plants in the Water?

Twenty to 30 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. It depends on the size of the pot and the potting medium.

“When the top is damp, the plant is wet enough,” says Lisa Eldred Steinkopf, aka The Houseplant Guru.

“The difference between a cactus or other succulent and a fern is the time between watering, no matter which watering practice you use. Succulents want their medium to almost dry out before watering again, yet ferns never want to dry out.”

The takeaway: It doesn’t really matter if you water from the top or bottom. Just let the potting medium tell you when the plant needs water. (Not necessarily good news if you like to stick to a schedule!)

Benefits of Bottom Watering

  • You can’t overwater. There’s only so much water a plant will suck up. Once it’s saturated, it will sort of float to let you know it’s satisfied.
  • You can bottom water a houseplant, go on vacation for a week and your plant will be just fine. But that doesn’t mean you should. According to the University of Maryland Extension Service, never leave a plant in standing water for long periods of time.

Drawbacks of Bottom Watering

  • The pot must have drainage holes in the bottom for water absorption. A porous clay pot without a hole won’t work.
  • Bottom watering can be cumbersome and messy. Some people find the process fussy and tedious.
  • Steinkopf says if the plant is severely under-watered and the potting medium contains a lot of peat or is particularly spongy, the medium may retract from the edges of the pot and cause a tight, dry root ball.
  • Steinkopf couldn’t confirm or dispel the theory that bottom watering strengthens root systems, which you’ll see on social media and other places.

Pro tip: You might think that bottom watering is better for plant leaves. It’s not. “It rains where these plants grow, and they do get wet leaves naturally,” Steinkopf says. “But they don’t like cold water, and it will mar their leaves.”

The Verdict

Yes, bottom watering is a viable option for watering small houseplants like succulents, African violets and many others.

In my case, the ficus tree in the corner is too big, and I’m not willing to disturb my ancient Christmas cactus in the pretty pot with no drainage holes. Also, some hanging plants, like my Swedish ivy, make a terrible mess when removed from its hook near the window.

If you’re a houseplant enthusiast, enjoy watering experiments and rejoice in trying new methods, you absolutely should give bottom watering a shot. It takes some preparation and clean-up, but it’s automated by the plant in between.

For me, plants, like children and pets, require individual care methods and routines to keep them happy. Bottom watering for some, top watering for others. And perhaps resorting to a lovely faux orchid, because I’ve never been able to nurture a real one well enough to keep it happy.