Are your plants looking sad and you can’t figure out why? They’re in a bright enough window, with plenty of clearance from too-hot radiators and too-cold air conditioners; they’ve been pruned the perfect amount to encourage growth but not stress out; and you’ve even made sure to fertilize them during the peak growing season. Not to mention: You know you just watered them. So what gives?
Here’s the thing: Plants don’t only need water. Plants also need healthy, well-aerated soil to thrive. When it’s been a while between waterings, your soil can become “hydrophobic,” meaning the particles in your soil are literally repelling the water instead of allowing the soil to soak it up. That’s why your plant could seem sad and under-watered even though you just watered it yesterday. Don’t worry — there are fixes, and we can help!
When soil dries out the particles can start to block out water. This can happen very easily with peat-based soils because peat is great for holding moisture but difficult to rewet once it dries out completely. This is a great reason to look for peat-free soils if you tend to be a forgetful waterer!
Another common cause of hydrophobia is compacted soil. This can happen to houseplants when the compostable parts of the potting mix have completely broken down and there’s less oxygen in the soil. Once this happens, your best bet is to repot with a good mix of compost and perlite for aeration. But first…
If you’re watering your plant every week but the soil still is dry and feels rock solid, you likely have hydrophobic soil. You might notice the water glide over the surface of the dirt, down the side of the pot and out the drainage hole. Sometimes this can indicate your plant needs repotting. But if you know there’s plenty of root space in the pot, and your soil is dry as a bone, it could simply mean your soil has started to repel the water.
You can confirm that your soil is hydrophobic by dropping just a little water on the topsoil of your plant. If it sits on top of the soil without soaking in, or runs down the side of the pot, you know for sure that it’s repelling the water.
Great news! It’s easy to fix this problem. You have a couple options, here.
Option 1: Simply soak your plant in a bowl of water and pour some water on the top. After a while — think 20 to 30 minutes — the soil should begin soaking the water up from the top and bottom.
Option 2: If you tried the soaking method and it didn’t work, take your plant out of the pot and then soak it in water. Try poking a few holes in the soil with chopsticks or a fork. This should help aerate the soil and allow the water to be absorbed.
Option 3: If you’ve done all of this and the soil is still fighting the water, it’s time to get as much of this water-repellant soil off your plant’s roots and perform a full repot. Make sure to use plenty of perlite and peat-free compost to increase air in your soil, which will help prevent future issues.
The best way to prevent this from happening is to keep your plants on a consistent watering schedule so the soil never gets dry enough to repel water. But, of course, nobody’s perfect — and many people have a busy week or two where their plants are the last thing on their minds. Know that if this happens, your plant can still be saved. Be sure to bookmark this article for future use — just in case!