Recognize, prevent and properly treat waterlogging

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:15 pm

Less is more: When it comes to watering your plants, you should definitely stick to this principle and keep a close eye on the moisture balance of the soil. Waterlogging often goes unnoticed for a long time and can wreak havoc. But don’t worry – prevention is quite simple and in the event that waterlogging does occur, we have summarized a few emergency measures for you here.

Waterlogging – the silent threat

The dreaded term “waterlogging” pretty much describes what it’s all about: Water accumulates in the soil and can no longer drain away. As a result, the plants standing in the affected area have permanently wet feet, which very few of them like. Waterlogging can occur both in the bed and in the tub or pot and is a serious danger not only for our protégés in the garden, but also for most houseplants.

Recognize, prevent and properly treat waterlogging
Houseplants also react to waterlogging, for example with yellow leaves.

Diagnosis – how you recognize waterlogging

Recognize, prevent and properly treat waterlogging

Plants often show symptoms that do not immediately indicate waterlogging, but rather too few nutrients. If the roots are permanently wet, growth gradually becomes stunted, the leaves droop, turn yellow and finally fall off. This tragedy is usually accompanied by a musty smell. If you provide your plants with sufficient nutrients and water them regularly, you should definitely check the moisture level in the soil. With potted plants, this is relatively easy to detect; if there is water in the saucer or planter, waterlogging will most likely be the cause of the problems.

In the field, waterlogging is not always so easy to detect. Sometimes moisture collects further down in the soil, even though the surface looks dry. You can use a moisture meter (you can find one at a hardware store) to determine quite reliably whether waterlogging is present. Alternatively, you can dig a little deeper with a small shovel or drill a hole in the ground with a rod; this will give you a look at the condition and texture of the soil. In extreme cases, water may even collect in it. Another indicator is moss: If it spreads on the lawn and the soil, you can assume that the soil is too wet. Moss feels very comfortable in a moist environment and can thrive there. Waterlogging, on the other hand, is quite obvious if, for example, after a heavy shower, the water remains on the surface for a long time and puddles form.

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Recognize, prevent and properly treat waterlogging
Raised beds, with or without borders, are a good idea if the garden soil is prone to waterlogging.

Too much water – the worst enemy of the roots.

We now know how to recognize waterlogging. But why is it actually so dangerous? Quite simply, standing water ensures that the oxygen and nutrient uptake via the roots, which is vital for plants, is blocked. This, in turn, results in a lack of nutrients and associated deficiency symptoms – a nitrogen deficiency, in particular, is quickly recognizable (from the yellow leaves). That’s not all. In the wet substrate, harmful fungi and pathogens can multiply wonderfully and, if nothing is done, cause root rot. But that’s still not enough: the microorganisms that are necessary for healthy soil and thriving plants also die in the long run when waterlogging occurs. Good reasons, therefore, to keep an eye on the moisture balance of the soil.

Causes – how does waterlogging occur?

Let us now turn to the question of how waterlogging occurs in the first place. The causes can be manifold. Outdoors, and even if your containers are not protected, persistent heavy rain can cause waterlogging. However, excessive watering, snowmelt, depressions or small valleys in the garden where water can collect, large stones or other objects that can block the drainage of water, or the condition of the soil can also be reasons. Likewise, if the soil is tamped or trampled. In short, anything that causes too much water to accumulate and not drain or percolate causes waterlogging. Heavy, loamy soils are generally a risk factor because water has difficulty, if any, making its way into deeper soil layers. A lack of drainage in the containers also promotes waterlogging.

Recognize, prevent and properly treat waterlogging
Helps prevent waterlogging: a drainage layer at the bottom of the planter, for example, pebbles.

Forewarned is forearmed – proper prevention.

The motto is: prevention is always the best solution and will save you a lot of grief and your plants possible death by drowning. Besides, it’s usually already too late when you see obvious symptoms on the above-ground parts of the plant. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent waterlogging from occurring in the first place. Above all, the correct watering behavior is very important at this point – here you can find a great article on how to do it correctly.

Outdoors: always stay loose

Especially if you have a heavy, dense and loamy garden soil, it is very useful to work in sand or compost. In addition, it is advisable to loosen the soil regularly, for example with a digging fork. Green manure is also a great option for this. You can also place your plants on a small mound in the bed from the beginning, so that water does not collect around the root ball. If there are signs of persistent heavy rain, you can drill a few holes around the plants in the bed with a stick as a preventative measure.

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Important: You should not dig up healthy soils, this procedure is only allowed in very heavy soils. This is because the soil organisms of the upper soil layers are shifted downwards, where they unfortunately cannot survive. However, they are essential for a healthy and loose soil.

Recognize, prevent and properly treat waterlogging
In loose soil water seeps without problems, even if you water vigorously and thoroughly

In the pot: the quantity makes the poison

With your plants in the tub, prevention is basically very simple. Top priority and the most important rule: water appropriately and do not overdo it! In addition, it is good if the containers are relatively protected from rain. Regularly check the cachepots and saucers and, if necessary, pour out any standing water in them. In general, you should try to ensure that the water can always drain away well; you can achieve this, for example, by choosing containers with drainage holes in the bottom. A stone or a piece of clay over the openings will ensure that they do not become clogged. Proper drainage in the form of broken clay, crushed stone, gravel or expanded clay is also a very good way to prevent permanently wet roots. To ensure good drainage, you can also place the planters in a raised position or opt for those with so-called “pot feet”.

Recognize, prevent and properly treat waterlogging
The planters have saucers and are also elevated, which helps to avoid waterlogging

After the Flood – Remedy Waterlogging

If it does happen that your plants are exposed to waterlogging, all is not lost! In the case of visibly greater damage to the above-ground parts of the plant (i.e. when the leaves turn yellow and are shed), you unfortunately have only one option, whether for potted plants or outdoors: remove the plant from the soil and inspect the roots for root rot. The affected areas are gray, brown or even black discolored and often additionally muddy or slimy. Usually, a distinct musty odor is also noticeable. At this point, scissors are the only salvation. Cut away the rotten areas completely and rinse the remaining, healthy roots well under clean, clear water. Before replanting the plant, if cultivated in a container, replace the substrate (dispose of the old soil in the garbage can) and be sure to provide proper drainage. In the open field it is enough to remove some of the old soil and work sand or compost into the soil. Fortunately, if things aren’t quite that bad for your plants yet, there are a few less drastic measures you can take.

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Emergency trick for potted plants

If only the soil is noticeably wet, but the plant is still relatively lively, you do not have to repot directly. First remove excess water from the saucer and make sure that everything can drain away well. To get the moisture out of the substrate better, we have a great tip that you can of course also use very well with your houseplants: First, place the plant slightly elevated. Then take either a cotton cloth (e.g. a normal tea towel/old cloth scraps) or a piece of kitchen roll and roll it up so that you have a slightly longer paper/cloth snake afterwards (about 20 cm or more is great). Drill a small hole several centimeters deep into the ground with a stick. Put one end of the snake into this hole and press it lightly. Let the other end hang over the edge of the pot and put a bucket under it. In this way, you create a kind of conduit that gradually draws the water out of the substrate and lets it trickle into the bucket.

Taming water masses outdoors

In the garden, the countermeasures are relatively similar to prevention: if the water is on the ground, you must again ensure that it can drain away. The digging fork is also a good choice now to loosen the soil and pave the way to deeper layers of earth. If the plants are still relatively fit, you don’t have to dig them up. However, if it has been very wet for a long time and the water has been standing for a long time, you can make small, narrow drainage ditches between the plants or dig a hole at some distance from them where the excess water collects. You should now wait a few weeks before watering until conditions have normalized and the plants have recovered. If the rains continue for a longer period of time, you can also put a tarpaulin over the plants and areas in the bed that are particularly affected.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.