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How to Restore Waterlogged Pot Plants

Published by at 4:57 pm under Problem Solving

Are your pot plants waterlogged? There are many ways this can happen, but you CAN avoid losing your precious plants!

There ARE easy, low-cost solutions to save your plants from drowning, disease and  contamination

There are solutions to save your plants from drowning, disease and contamination

In eastern Australia and particularly Queensland, a large number of home owners suffer inundation by flood waters, as a result of extreme weather events, every year.  You may live in a heavy rainfall area and have the same problem. Prolonged heavy rainfall and flooding can cause havoc for us in our gardens. Poor drainage and overwatering can also contribute to this problem.

What are the Solutions?

  • How do you restore and clean up plants that may have been contaminated by flood waters?
  • How do you revive plants that have been affected by heavy rainfall?
  • Or soil that is just badly waterlogged?

I’ve had to have my own strategies for coping with subtropical weather events, so here are some steps and techniques to follow. 

How to Treat Pot Plants Inundated by Flood Water

  • Firstly, hose off the plant foliage to remove any sludge or chemical residues – use higher pressure for strong shrubs and potted trees and lower water pressure for delicate plants.
  • If the pot has accumulated sludge from the flood waters on top of the soil or mulch, remove it (make sure you use gloves for protection in case of bacteria, chemicals or toxin residues) and bag this up to go in the bin.  You don’t want this contaminating other parts of your garden or coming in contact with humans or animals.

 

Wall mounted trellis & edibles in pots

Regularly empty pot plants with saucers to drain away any stagnant water. This will help prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

 

  • Next, scrub the outside of the pot and rim with warm soapy water.  Use a safe biodegradable or environmentally friendly soap not one with chemicals because if the pot surface is porous, it will absorb these and they may end up in the soil.
  • It is likely the beneficial microorganisms and soil life that were living in your pot and keeping your plant healthy have drowned or at best case, their numbers have greatly reduced.  If this is the case, the potting mix or soil may smell ‘sour’ or anaerobic.  Oxygen normally fills the gaps in between the soil crumb structure and all organisms and plants need air to live.  When plant roots start to decay, you may notice this unpleasant smell.

 

Clues your soil or potting mix need help

 

Your pot plants will show tell tale signs there is a problem with the soil or potting mix.

Your pot plants will show tell tale signs there is a problem with the soil or potting mix.

 

  1. Your plants are wilting, dropping leaves or looking decidedly ‘unwell’ all of a sudden.
  2. Your plants are being attacked by pests or disease.
  3. Worms are coming up to the surface in great numbers (they are trying to save themselves from drowning)!
  4. Sometimes you might notice a scum or residue on the surface of the soil.

 

Here are some options to restore your soil and plant health:

 

  • If you don’t want to re-pot the plant and the soil is still smelly, then to sweeten it you can add a sprinkling of garden or agricultural lime which should help remove the odour. If however, you have a plant that prefers an acidic soil, then avoid this treatment.
  • If you are prepared to re-pot your plants, then you can re-use some of the potting mix but add some other ‘ingredients’ to build up the health and restore aeration.
    Add vermiculite to compost and worm castings

    Add vermiculite to compost and worm castings and re-pot

    Make sure you use gloves and a mask when mixing up the soil and add equal parts of fresh compost, worm castings and if possible, vermiculite to retain minerals and aerate the potting mix.  Grade 3 Vermiculite (a puffed natural mineral called mica) available at garden centres and nurseries is a good size and helps aerate plant roots. Alternatively use a coarse washed river sand available at landscapers for very low cost.

  • Remove any dead or dying shoots or foliage at this time with clean secateurs.  Pay attention to tool hygiene and ensure you wash your tools in warm soapy water if they have been used on sick plants.
  • If you are not re-potting, you can add beneficial microorganisms back into the soil by gently forking in some fresh compost and/or worm castings into the top layer of the pot without disturbing the roots of the plant.  Then ‘feed’ them with a drink of diluted molasses and seaweed or kelp.  Molasses is a thick black liquid that is basically a simple sugar that beneficial soil bacteria go crazy over at their ‘dinner table.’  It is usually sold cheaply at health food and garden produce stores and is a great investment in soil and plant health.  A capful in a watering can is all that is needed.  Follow the directions for the dilution of the seaweed fertiliser.  Once the microbes have some food, they will have enough energy to start to multiply and get to work in your pot, restoring the pH balance and health.  Repeat this treatment every 2 weeks until the plant recovers and soil health is restored.
  • Use a moisture meter to measure how much water is still in your soil.
    Moisture meters help you know when your plant needs watering

    Moisture meters help you know when your plant needs watering and when to leave it alone!

    These are usually available at garden centres and hardware stores for around $15. They are a valuable diagnostic tool.  If the soil moisture measures above 80%, it is still too wet, so let it dry out before adding any more water.  The ideal moisture level is between 40% and 70%, which allows some oxygen to stay in the soil.

  • Finally, check the drainage holes at the base of the pot.
    Plastic pot with adequate drainage holes

    A plastic pot like this has adequate drainage holes but some pots only have one at the base and may be blocked

    Make sure these are free of roots or blockages so water can drain away freely.  If your pots get waterlogged frequently, consider drilling more holes in the pot or transplanting into a more suitable container.  Adding gravel to the pot saucer will also help drainage. Or put the pot up on feet or a portable trolley to enable water to drain freely.

    Portable pots with good drainage

    Give your plants the best chance for water to drain away freely – portable trolleys are versatile and allow you to rotate pots for drainage

 

Anaerobic Soil

  • A waterlogged soil is not a healthy environment for plants to live – much like we would not be comfortable living under water all the time.  We need to come up for air and the plant roots need oxygen too.
  • Saturated soils with poor drainage can quickly become anaerobic, making the plant susceptible to diseases like root rot.
  • When plant roots sit in excess water for too long, they start to rot or decay. As the roots deteriorate, they can’t take up water, so the plant wilts.

Overwatering

 

  • Resist the urge to water your plant – it can actually make things worse!  Waterlogging and compaction can create ideal conditions for diseases such as phytopthora and other fungal attacks.
  • If the pot or container feels heavy and the plant is still wilting, the excess water may not be getting away fast enough.  If you have already drilled enough holes, you may need to actually remove your plant from the pot to save it.  Spread out a number of sheets of newspaper in a tray.  Lay the pot on its side and gently slide out the plant’s root ball.
    Lay waterlogged potted plants gently on their side

    Lay waterlogged potted plants gently on their side before removing the plant for re-potting

     

  • Allow the root ball to dry on the newspapers for about 12 hours, then using clean sharp scissors, trim off any dark-coloured (brown rather than white) or slimy roots.  When you are finished, re-pot the plant in a clean container with some fresh potting mix as already outlined.
  • Whilst most books and websites on container gardening recommend the addition of coarse material such gravel, sand, pebbles, pottery shards or polystyrene pieces to the bottom of pots to improve drainage, scientific research studies have consistently demonstrated quite the opposite is true.  According to one scientist, Dr Chalker-Scott, Extension Horticulturalist and Associate Professor at the Washington State University:

 

“Nearly 100 years ago, soil scientists demonstrated that water does not move easily from layers of finer textured materials to layers of more coarse textured.  Since then, similar studies have produced the same results.  The coarser the underlying material, the more difficult it is for the water to move across the interface.  Gravitational water will not move from a fine soil texture into a coarser material until the finer soil is saturated.  Since the stated goal for using coarse material in the bottoms of containers is to “keep soil from getting water logged,” it is ironic that adding this material will induce the very state it is intended to prevent.”

 

  • Pot plants that have been inundated with water will also have likely leached out much of the plant food or fertiliser that was in the pot previously.  You will need to replace this food source with some more organic fertiliser to ensure your plant has the energy it needs to regain its health.
  • If you notice discoloured or yellowing leaves, this is often a sign your plant is crying out to be fed. This is because it is missing essential minerals in its ‘diet!’  A slow release, powdered or pelleted organic fertiliser and compost can help restore the nutrients.
  • If the ‘plant patient’ is really suffering, a foliar spray (on both the top and underside of the leaves early in the morning with kelp/seaweed), will give it a quick ‘pick me up.’  Use a spray bottle for this – see Frugal Gardening: 5 Thrifty Recycling Ideas on how to get one for free.

 

Discoloured leaves can indicate a mineral deficiency

Discoloured leaves can indicate a mineral deficiency

 

  • To minimise future waterlogging from heavy rains and storms, consider moving your pots to a  more protected position. Under an eave on a verandah or balcony is ideal.

 

Pot plants on a stand, protected from too much rain

If your pot plants are exposed to the weather, consider moving them to a more sheltered position

 

  • Add a layer of mulch to the top of your pots which also stops valuable potting mix from splashing out of the pot and provides a buffer between the soil and the water.

    Mulch straw - add to pots to act as a buffer to rain

    There are a wide variety of mulches you can add to pots to buffer the effects of the weather

 

Work with nature!

  • If you live in a high rainfall area and your plants are constantly getting swamped, consider working with nature – not fighting it!  Start again with water loving plants that thrive in wet conditions – you’ll have less work to do in the garden as a result and have more success.
  • If your garden has escaped being flood, storm or rain affected, now may be the time to take a few cuttings and share them around with neighbours, schools or community gardens that suffered damage.  No doubt they will be warmly appreciated.
  • Starting over from scratch can be very disheartening – but when seeds are replanted and others offer help, the task doesn’t seem as daunting.
  • Gardens have an amazing capacity to heal the spirit – they provide a haven, hope and watching nature regrow and renew itself, often helps humans do the same.  It is well summed up in this quote:

“The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.” – Hanna Rion

Has your garden suffered damage?  Do you have a problem you need help with?  Share your thoughts here.

For more problem solving tips, find out how to re-use old potting mix rather than throwing it away or make your own with my easy DIY potting mix recipe.

 

© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2010-2013 – http://www.themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “How to Restore Waterlogged Pot Plants”

  1. Rosemary Callaghanon 09 Feb 2011 at 10:48 am

    Hello, love your blog….it’s the best.

    Please could you answer a question for me. I think it was my mother that told me to put banana skins on to staghorns, elkhorns etc and that it would be nutrition for them and help them to grow.

    Is this true?

    Thanks so much.

    Ros

  2. The Micro Gardeneron 09 Feb 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Hi Rosemary

    Re: Banana Peels and Staghorns

    Thanks for raising this question. Feeding banana peels to staghorns and other ferns is not an old wives tale – there is are valid reasons why many people use this DIY fertiliser!

    Staghorn and elkhorn ferns are epiphytic perennials or “air” plants. Because they don’t make contact with the soil, they get their nutrition substantially from the air! Quite an amazing concept! Bananas contain a relatively high level of potassium that helps displace sodium that can be harmful to salt-sensitive staghorns and they have many other benefits too.

    Bananas are rich in minerals including:

    • Potassium – helps promote general plant vigour; helps build up resistance to pest & disease; necessary in fruit development; is involved in regulating around 50 enzymes in a plant and relates to the turgor (or uprightness of stems and the thickness of cell walls) i.e. plant strength! Extremely important for staghorns which literally hang onto tree trunks in nature.
    • Phosphorus – strongly influences fruiting and flowering, essential for good root and shoot growth, pollination and is very important in seed germination/viability.
    • Calcium – the most important mineral in the soil and known as the ‘Trucker of all minerals,’ is the ‘ingredient’ of cell walls concerned with root development and growing stem points and helps ‘open up’ soil to allow more oxygen.

    With such important roles to play, these macronutrients are vital for plant health and wellbeing but there are many others that are needed too so a balanced slow release granular organic fertiliser with other trace elements will supplement those not present in bananas. These types of fertilisers are usually in a fine powdered form that quickly dissolve and become plant available. Sprinkle into the foliage basin in the middle of the fern. Seaweed or kelp liquid organic fertilisers also supply your plants with loads of macronutrients and kelp also helps build pest and disease resistance. A regular monthly foliar spray on the upper and lower side of the leaves early morning will keep your staghorn in good health. So back to the bananas!

    There are several methods to use bananas as a food supplement:

    • Banana Water: Soak a fresh banana peel in water for a day or two – then use the water with the leached nutrients in it to water the staghorn. Don’t let the peel go to waste though! Chop up the peel and add to your compost, worm farm or dig it into the soil around other plants to build up the organic matter and attract worms.
    • Chopped Dried Banana: If your staghorn is indoors or close to the house and you are worried about the banana peel attracting fruit flies, then you can dry out the chopped banana pieces in a slow oven and then use them or put them out in the sun under a strainer to dry out for a day or two. Scatter dried banana pieces in the centre of the plant and water them in. You can also mix them into the moss if you are replanting or starting out with a new staghorn fern. Each time you water or it rains, they will provide slow release nutrition.
    • Banana Peel on Trunk or Backboard: Put a whole banana peel between the staghorn and the backboard or tree trunk it is supported on. By placing it in this position, the banana peel will gradually decay and slowly release nutrients when the plant is watered or it rains.

    Here are some helpful tips for using bananas in general as free organic fertiliser:

    • If you have bananas you won’t use up (whole or just the skins), don’t waste them – freeze them! When you have time to work on your garden, defrost the banana, chop it up into smaller pieces to increase the surface area for faster breakdown and dig into the soil around the base of your plants.
    • Alternatively, store peels in a self-seal bag in the fridge until you are ready to use them. Ideally, sprinkle some bokashi grains onto the chopped up peels so the breakdown process is already getting started.
    • Spray the chopped up banana and/or peel with diluted seaweed or kelp – this provides additional ‘food’ for the microbes that will help break down the fruit faster so the nutrients can be absorbed by the plant as well as adding valuable nutrients.
    • Use with other homemade fertilisers such as crushed eggshells and coffee grounds for greater effect.
    • Use bananas (whole/peels) as a soil amendment. They are a rich source of organic matter so they add valuable minerals and the decaying organic material attracts beneficial microorganisms (microbes) and earthworms which help create air pockets in the soil and add their free fertiliser (worm castings).

    Hope this answered your question and helps you get the most out of your plants and bananas!

    Come back soon for an upcoming article on ‘Frugal Gardening – Make Your Own Free Fertilisers’ with specific ‘how to’ information on using every day materials to feed your plants.

    Happy gardening!
    Anne

  3. Rosemary Callaghanon 10 Feb 2011 at 6:10 am

    Thank you Anne – what an amazingly full on response! I have learned so much from you answering my question on bananas! They are truly a wonderful adjunct to frugal gardening too.

    I am going out into the garden now armed with my banana peels and seaweed solution to not only look after my staghorns but my other plants as well.

    If you have any extra information on how I should plant out two pots of a lovely purple hydrangea I would love to have some help there too. No hurry though!

    Thanks so much again

    Rosemary

  4. The Micro Gardeneron 10 Feb 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Hi Rosemary

    Hydrangeas are such a popular plant in so many gardens, I have answered this question in a new post called How to Grow Hydrangeas. Hope you get lots of flowers and enjoyment from your new plants. Let me know how you go!

    Cheers,
    Anne

  5. […] waterlogged plants; […]

  6. maria cotteron 20 Feb 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Dear Anne,
    I love passing time (it’s meditating to me) reading your articles. But this time I have a problem and am in a state of the unknown.
    I have a magnolia that is in a pot and was doing wonderfully well. Then I was watering it and so was my husband and it became waterlogged. I to be honest noticed from the leaves because the tip of it is covered with cacti and I did not see the water in the pot.

    I lifted the pot but the tree has the leaves that turned brown. Do you think I can save it?
    I read your article but still I am not sure what to do.
    I would be grateful if you have time to help me. I just look at it not knowing what to do.

    It’s in a big pot made out of terracotta.
    Thank you
    Anne.

  7. The Micro Gardeneron 20 Feb 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Hi Maria
    Sorry to hear of your magnolia woes. I’m not sure how long your plant has been like this and without a photo it makes diagnosing a little difficult as I’m not sure what you mean by ‘cacti’ on the leaves.

    In any case, I am guessing but it sounds like you could possibly have an issue with drainage in that pot if the water is not running freely out. A very common problem is the roots become matted in the hole in the bottom of the pot and block water from draining out. Terracotta pots tend to only have one hole and I’ve had to get my husband to drill extras in ours around the sides to let the water out so this very situation doesn’t occur with my own potted trees.

    This is my first suggestion – let the water out. Tip the pot upside down if it’s not too large (use a blanket on the ground so it cushions the side of the pot) or rest it on its side and let the water drain as much as you can. If the soil is smelly then it has probably become anaerobic which means the good soil bacteria and microbes have likely drowned due to no air pockets left in the soil.

    You may need to remove the magnolia from the pot, trim the roots back and with a spray bottle, add a strong solution of seaweed – spray the root ball and leaves and prune the tree back while it is under stress. Give the root ball time to dry out and repot into a WELL DRAINED container with fresh compost and potting mix as soon as possible.

    If you can email me a photo that would be great otherwise this may help remedy the situation. Good luck!

  8. maria cotteron 20 Feb 2012 at 11:18 pm

    DEAR ANNE,
    I WILL SEND YOU A PHOTO. ITS 12.15 IN THE MORNING AND AM STILL GOING THROUGH YOUR GARDENING LIBRARY (I CALL IT) YES I ALREADY ASKED MY HUSBAND TO DRILL THE HOLES.
    I CANNOT SMELL ANY BAD SMELLS .
    I WILL TAKE A PHOTO TOMORROW AND SEND IT TO YOU – IN THE MORNING
    REGARDS AND THANK YOU
    EVER GRATEFUL

    MARIA COTTER

  9. maria cotteron 28 Feb 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Dear Anne,
    GOING BACK TO THE START OF THE PROBLEM. I HAVE DONE THE FOLLOWING SO FAR:

    – I HAD HOLES DRILLED IN THE POT.
    – I DO NOT SMELL AT ALL ANY BAD SMELLS AND I HAVE CHECKED THE MOISTURE OF THE POT AND IT IS STILL WET.
    – I DID NOT PULL IT OUT OF THE POT BECAUSE IT’S SO BIG. But if your advice is, so I will see if I can round up some man to help me.

    Awaiting your reply and thank you .
    Maria

  10. The Micro Gardeneron 28 Feb 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Hi Maria
    With the emails and photo you sent me, I know you’ve had a hard time with this waterlogged pot plant! It’s made more difficult because it weighs so much and is so valuable and you don’t want to lose it. Did you try foliar spraying it with seaweed as I suggested?
    My main concern remains the same – if the pot is still wet then even though it has holes drilled, you may need to check the roots are not blocking the water from escaping. It MUST drain freely or you have no chance of remediating the plant and soil.
    You can kill a plant with TOO MUCH water – drowning a plant is one of the most common mistakes gardeners can make. If a plant is wilting it’s often assumed a plant needs water but the reverse can also be true. A plant can wilt if it’s had TOO MUCH water. Continuing to add moisture only makes matters worse because all the oxygen in the air pockets in the potting mix become saturated and the plant root hairs can’t breathe – much like us gasping for air under water! We wouldn’t last long if we couldn’t get air into our lungs and a plant’s ‘lungs’ are its roots.
    If the pot is out in the open and it is continuing to rain on it you will need to take protective action to prevent this somehow until the moisture levels reduce, however if it’s on your balcony or under cover then you can control the moisture it gets.
    The whole plant seems to be very brown so to make it easier to remove it, perhaps you could consider pruning it back tightly. This will reduce stress and if you can get it out of the pot, use this as an opportunity to add fresh potting mix with plenty of compost and microorganisms in it to help the plant recover quickly. You can also spray the root ball with a strong solution of seaweed to act as a ‘Rescue Remedy’ tonic.
    Hope this helps.

  11. juris graudinson 09 Aug 2012 at 1:11 am

    I have, and now feel as though I will have had, a wollemi pine in a pot. The plant is showing signs of unhappiness-wilting. Should I hose off the soil and repot it as soon as possible? The plant was a gift from a relative now deceased and I would be distraught at losing it.

  12. The Micro Gardeneron 09 Aug 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Hi Juris – thanks for your question. Don’t despair just yet! Wollemi pines are quite hardy plants. There’s a good website on caring for Wollemi pines in pots @ http://www.wollemipine.com/care_information.php#potplant. Hope this helps! Let me know if you have further questions.
    Cheers, Anne

  13. How to Plant out a Herb Garden |on 14 Aug 2012 at 9:07 pm

    […] arrangements’ (those that died of thirst or sunburn)? Or herbs that rotted and drowned due to waterlogged roots?  Whether you’re planting out a herb spiral, a pot or garden bed, I hope you enjoy my 5 Step […]

  14. Laurenon 14 Oct 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Hi! I recently bought a potted parsley plant, and placed it on my porch in sunlight. Unfortunately, we had a rough storm this morning, and my parsley plant was trampled by water. The shoots with leaves no longer stand straight up, but flop over the side of the pot. I very much want to be able to save it if possible- do you have any recommendations? I can provide pictures as well!

    Thank you for any insight!

  15. Anne Gibsonon 14 Oct 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Hi Lauren

    Heavy rain can damage plants – sometimes bruising the cell walls if they really get a pelting downpour, but don’t worry. Your parsley WILL bounce back. It’s an extremely resilient herb! Hail does more damage than rain and can smash leaves to pieces in minutes. If I know a potentially damaging storm is coming, I keep an eye on the weather online and move my potted plants under cover. The rain with all its wonderful minerals will likely do your parsley more good than bad, despite it looking like its taken a beating! A light foliar spray of liquid seaweed/kelp on both sides of the leaves will help it recover more quickly. It’s likely by tomorrow, nature will have taken over and the plant will look much better all on its own. Pop it back into the sun to dry out a little too. If any leaves or stems are broken, just snip them off to encourage new growth. Hope this helps!

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