Gardening Watering

A Plant That Tells You When to Water

Impatiens flower

I have found an excellent supplementary use for impatiens (Impatiens walleriana). They react quickly to lack of water, showing signs of distress before other plants, yet recover perfectly as soon as they are watered adequately. So, they’ve become my # 1 indicator as to whether it’s time to water … and it works wonderfully!

It’s an excellent trick for a novice gardener who has a hard time telling whether it’s time to water.

Christian Bergeron

Response: This is an excellent tip. Thanks so much for sharing it! And I’d like to add my own grain of salt.

The coleus wilts quickly, yet recovers well and makes a great watering-indicator plant. Photo: Rolando Garcia, ratioscientiae.weebly

I also use what I call a watering-indicator plant and have for over 40 years: the coleus (Coleus scutellarioides). Its likewise very quick to wilt, yet recovers perfectly when you water it thoroughly. 

I use it not only outdoors in my in-ground and container gardens, but also indoors. Typically, I put one coleus in every room where I grow houseplants, since watering needs vary from room to room. When I see the coleus start to wilt (and it’s such a colorful plant, you really can’t miss it), I know it’s time to do a general watering.

Not All Plants Are Good Watering Indicators

Wilting peace lily.
The peace lily (Spathiphyllum) makes a poor watering-indicator plant: it loses leaves when you let it wilt. The more often it dries out, the worse it looks. Photo: Scot Nelson, Flickr

Do note that not all plants recover fully when you let them wilt, so you shouldn’t normally use “wilting” as a sign of when to water. For most plants, you should make sure they get a thorough soaking before they wilt. Only certain plants will stand up to wilting again and again … and even then, only if you water before the wilting goes too far.

The tried-and-true method of judging watering needs remains to sink a finger into the soil: if it feels dry, it’s time to water. If it feels moist, there is no need yet. Read The Golden Rule of Watering for more information.

Your Suggestions!

I suspect plenty of readers also have plants they use to let them know it’s time to water. Don’t hesitate to share your suggestion(s) of watering-indicator plants under Leave a Reply below!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “A Plant That Tells You When to Water

  1. My go-to method for determining if something needs watering is to lift the pot. I can tell by the weight if it’s in need of a drink.

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