wooden skewer for testing moisture

JerryVenturaMay 3, 2011

So how long do you leave the wooden skewer in the pot to determine if that plant needs water? Do you push it in and then pull out? Leave in for 5 minutes? Leave it there all the time and pull out to look?


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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Just a quick in and out is all you need. If the wood is damp, it will feel cool. Often, if it's wet, there will be soil particles clinging to the skewer.


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 4:14PM
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jojosplants(9/ Tucson, Az.)

Hi Jerry,
I do as Al said.. and take that few minutes to look my plants over and enjoy them. :-)


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 5:10PM
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Hi Jerry,
I do as Al said too and it has been a God send:-)


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 5:14PM
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Thank you all,

I went around checking, and the plants look good but it's probably a good thing I've still been watering twice a day. It's 3:45 here and I stuck the skewer down about 7 inches, an inch of the tip was wet. Until now I've just been guessing.


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 6:52PM
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Some people place the skewers in and leave them there, pulling them out to check for moisture, and others do as mentioned above... push them in, then pull them out, without leaving them in.

The nice thing is, you can get a 100 pack of them for about a dollar at any grocery store.

The important thing is to angle them toward the center of the root/soil ball when inserting them, so you get an accurate reading of whether any moisture is really available for the roots, or not.

Some people's fingers might not be sensitive to the moisture or temperature of the skewer when it's pulled out, but if you gently press it against your cheek, you should be able to feel if it's cool and moist to the touch. Warm and dry would indicate a need to water... and cool and moist would indicate that's there's still moisture available at the root zone.

For larger pots, you can use wooden dowels of any length, most likely available at any hardware store.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 7:46PM
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Jerry, I'm so glad you asked this question.
Not understanding, I had been leaving the skewer in the medium between waterings and found mold on the it at the soil level - not desirable. I found it works much better for me to let it sit a few minutes and then check.
This is a great technique.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 8:05PM
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How big are your pots? To tell when plants need water give the pot a spin or lift it up. If it is "paper light" then time to water if there is alot of weight then let them go.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 8:33PM
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jojosplants(9/ Tucson, Az.)

I have some that are 14" and up. Don't care to be lifting them.

Skewer works perfect.


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 8:44PM
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Most of my pots are fairly large, this is one of the medium ones.

I don't think I'll be lifting any of them :-)

    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 8:51PM
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jojosplants(9/ Tucson, Az.)

Nope that's a good size one! I wouldn't either. ;-)

That's a great looking container Jerry. What is it made out of?
I love square, and wish they made Terra cotta in squares.

A lot of mine are terra cotta and very large!

Plus in my plant room when they are all packed on a shelf I run the risk of bumping and breaking plants if i'm lifting pots.

Some of my plants I know need watered just from learning their ways. The rest, the skewer is the best and easiest way to tell.

Jodi pointed out fingers are not always the best way to tell and a great point it is! They become calloused. The cheek works well, or the inside of the wrist. Moms have used that for ages to test a baby's bottle. ;-)


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 9:06PM
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I have been also dipping the wooden skewer in, letting it sit for about 1 minute, then pulling out. It's pretty obvious when you still have moisture, because like Al said, it will have particles on it, but also, it will have a dark tone to it, from the wet turface. However, I have a couple of concerns with this method, the first being the possibility of damaging roots when you keep prodding the soil. This is the reason I don't go for the middle, but stay towards the outside. Also, I worry that if you keep mashing the soil, that over time you will break up too much of the ideal sized particles into smaller particles. Maybe I'm being my usual self again, and examining EVERY aspect of what I do, and what will or could happen.

Oh, hey, JoJo, what's this about "Moms using the cheeks or wrists"....... what about us Dads?!? I've done it many of times, and it works good for testing out the temperature of bath water too, which in fact, I just did about 2 hours ago when I gave my youngest munchkin a bath. Then, she (my 3 year old daughter) proceeded to help me pot up my new portulacaria afras in some gritty mix! She asked so many questions about it, that I felt like Al answering us! She'll ask again tomorrow though......


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 9:21PM
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Hey Jojo

They do make square Terra coot pots. Here is one in which I have no idea of which plant I have feels deserves to go into it. They do with a ton though.lol

I would much rather use the wooden dowel method than lift these things up. Anyway, how can anyone get an accurate reading of moisture in their mix when pots like these weigh a ton anyway?


    Bookmark   May 3, 2011 at 9:27PM
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Yup. If you have light plastic pots they are easy to move. That is a very nice planter!

You could get a moisture reader.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2011 at 12:08AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Master Gardener, the skewer method is recommended for mixes composed of larger particulate.
Moisture meters that register electrical conductivity aren't effective with a course-textured mix.

On-Topic: I do both - leave in, and use as needed.


    Bookmark   May 4, 2011 at 12:26AM
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Lifting pots to determine weight, as a method of telling when it's time to water, is only useful if you can actually lift the pot. There are other variables that can interfere, as well. Not all pots, plants, or mediums are of equal weight, and there's really no accurate way to measure moisture content within the root/soil ball using this method. Just because a pot weighs less today than it did yesterday does not mean it needs more moisture added... some soils will retain moisture at the very center and still feel light when we lift that pot.

Using a finger to test for moisture is not accurate, either. Human fingers are not long enough to reach down into the center of most pots, therefore, we cannot actually determine how much moisture by touch the lower portion of the soil ball contains. Just because the top couple of inches are dry to the touch, does not mean the rest of the root/soil ball is dry. The human sense of touch doesn't usually detect any moisture in vapor form, either... so there's a good possibility that there's still moisture left when many people think they feel dry medium.

In my own experience, moisture meters aren't very accurate, either. They detect water by measuring electrical conductivity, or something to that effect... I'm not an expert on electricity... but I have found that most meters on the market are way less than accurate. (Perhaps someone with more knowledge can explain moisture meters and how they work.)

Wooden skewers are, to date, the most accurate method I've found for testing moisture levels within the root/soil ball of my containerized plantings. It works every time!

    Bookmark   May 4, 2011 at 10:08AM
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jojosplants(9/ Tucson, Az.)

Hi Joe!
I guess you got me on that one! LOL! Yes, I should have given fathers credit too! ;-)

So A Happy Mother's day to you, and all the other dad's out there that help with the munchkins! ;-)


    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 2:44PM
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The moisture meters are affected by ferts in the soil (back to EC topic). But in general with plants in typical bagged based soil I've found they work "OK" if you have nothing else. IMO for beginners with fresh plants, they are an important first step.

However, IME the meters become completely unreliable when the rootage starts to occupy the majority of the container root zone. As the media to root ratio is reduced and the soil is replaced by so much fine rootage, they start acting real weird shooting around wildly. And yeah, the meters don't work for the gritty mix; it's like you're measuring air space.

I've struggled a bit with wooden skewers as I seem to be tearing fine rootage a lot. I can feel the roots tearing, sometimes on the "way back". Especially so if I happen to only have bamboo skewers to use (they start 'slivering' and catching the roots on the way up).

But sometimes I can't tell if I'm hitting a piece of bark on the way down (and should just wiggle or push harder) or if it's really a thicker portion of root that I'm now digging into.

I still frequently use the skewer method for my gritty mix containers but I certainly haven't found it easy every time I use them. Anyway, just my experience maybe you can offer me some better guidance.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 9:24PM
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No you wont damage roots. If anything you are helping them.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2011 at 12:13AM
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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

So kinda like checking your oil in your car?

I have a RapidTest moisture meter, but even in soggy MG soil it NEVER registers above about 1.2, even right after watering. I even STUCK IT IN A GLASS OF WATER and got 2.1 once. It usually works pretty well in-ground in actual soil, but not in well-drained container mediums (or not-so-well-drained).

Do you do each plant, or, if you have 4 of the same plant, same size, same medium, same container, just go with the flow if the one tested needs water?

This post was edited by hairmetal4ever on Fri, Jan 24, 14 at 14:30

    Bookmark   January 24, 2014 at 2:26PM
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Oxboy555(Las Vegas)

I can anecdotally tell you that if I make one big batch of 5-1-1, then make two pots out of the same batch, those two mixes will have *slightly* different qualities after a few months. It's very strange -- like each plant develops its own mix "personality"; one will dry faster or one will have a drier top but damper feet. One might drain better, that kind of thing. In the end, since the skewers are so cheap and easy, there's no reason to assume all your mixes are uniform. Often a dry looking surface will still have quite a bit of moisture down below.

If you have tons and tons of pots, it may be more practical to skewer only your chosen "indicator" plants.

Sidenote --

I've been reading lately how some plants can actually modify the pH and soil characteristics -- sometimes to their detriment! For example, dianthus seedlings can lower the surrounding soil pH when this type of plant actually favors the higher pH range. Crazy stuff.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2014 at 3:00PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

You can also invest a few bucks on a moisture meter.
Alternatively, last fall I bough a combination moisture-light -pH meter (under $15). The moisture meter part alone is worth the money.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 4:39AM
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