Houseplants are becoming more and more popular. Science has proven that having plants in our homes can help with our mental health, productivity, and health. It’s all pretty awesome!
However, what can you do when your new ‘plant-baby’ starts to look… well… sick? It’s a sad fact of life that if you have plants in your home, then at some point you will have to deal with a dying houseplant.
You might be desperate to have a beautiful home filled with plants but every time you proudly bring one home, it ends up dying within a few weeks or months.
Never fear! I’m here to help rehabilitate you from your former planter murderer (or mass murderer!) status!
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Causes of Dying Houseplants
It is a dirty secret of all gardeners (indoors or outdoors) that sometimes plants die! I’ve had my fair share of plants pass away… it’s sad but I make sure that I learn from my mistakes so I’m not condemned to repeat them!
I also want to offer a few words of encouragement… even if you think that you have a black-thumb and will never be able to keep a plant alive, there is hope! It’s just a matter of understanding what you plant needs. Pick low-maintenance and easy plants to start with… eventually, you can level up to the beautiful Fiddle-Leaf Fig!
There are many many reasons why a houseplant might die. However, there are some that are more common than others. We’re going to take a look at the most common reasons and I’ll give you advice on how you might be able to save your plant (or at least, not repeat the same error again!).
It’s important to remember that plants WANT to live! Like all living things, they will do their best to survive even in less-than-ideal conditions. Some plants are pickier than others, so make sure you start out with an easy plant that is suitable for your environment.
The most common reasons for an indoor plant to die or not thrive are:
Before purchase a new plant you want to make sure you research its needs, so you aren’t setting yourself up for failure!
Most plants in a store will have a handy care guide stuck to the pot or on a tag – take a look at these before buying! You can also pull out your phone and quickly Google the plant.
But even with all the research in the world, you still might experience problems once you get your plant home. Let’s take a look at the most common causes of houseplant death!
You will notice that a LOT of these problems have very common symptoms, such as wilting or yellowing leaves. It can sometimes be tough to decide what is causing the problem. In that case, you want to think about your habits and the environment. Is your plant in a darker room? Do you always forget to water your plants? Has the weather changed and it’s colder now? Sometimes you need to play detective to figure out what is wrong with your plant.
Watering is, without a doubt, the number one cause of houseplant death. However, the problem isn’t always underwatering, plants can be overwatered too.
This is where it is very important to check the needs of your plant. Some plants (like some succulents) only need a very small amount of water and can survive for weeks without water. However, other plants require almost daily watering.
You will notice below that some of the signs of over or underwatering are very similar! It’s important to think about your watering habits (do you water more than once a week?) as that will give you a clue on where to start.
All plants react differently to over or underwatering, but there are some signs that you can look out for.
Signs of Overwatering
The first give away for overwatering is a plant that is wilted but the soil is wet. Yes, plants wilt when they need water, but they will also wilt from overwatering.
When you see wilted leaves, it’s very tempting to give it even more water. But check the soil. If it is moist or you have recently watered the plant, then it’s best to wait a few days and see what happens.
The best way to check the moistness of the soil is not to just touch the surface, but stick your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle. Can you feel coolness or damp?
A chronically overwatered plant will have leaves that turn yellow and drop off. If your plant has some new growth of it AND yellow dropping leaves, then you might be overwatering it.
Similar to the wilted leaves, you want to check the soil and let it dry out before watering again.
Root rot is actually caused by a fungus that grows in damp conditions. This one is a little harder to check, but you want to check out the roots to see what they look like.
When a plant is overwatered the plant can suffer from root rot. When the soil is too wet it cuts off the air around the roots and they will basically drown and rot!
Gently pull the plant out of the pot and loosen some of the soil so you can see the roots. If they are black, slimy or soggy looking then you are overwatering!
Sometimes it’s not possible to recover from root rot, but it’s worth a try! The best thing to do is replace the soil with fresh, good quality soil (if it is a specialized plant like a succulent, orchid or bromeliad, then make sure you use the correct type of potting medium).
Gently wash the roots to remove all the old soil. Remove any black/brown or very soft/swollen roots with a pair of sharp sterilized scissors – you might have to remove quite a lot of roots. Repot the plant in fresh soil and give it a small amount of water. Wait a few days and water again if necessary.
Solutions to Overwatering
As I mentioned above you want to hold off on watering for a few days. Regularly check your soil and water when it feels dry up when you stick your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle.
If multiple people in your household water plants, then make sure that you aren’t watering the plants more than needed. Develop a routine to check your plants once a week (or as often as they need watering depending on the plant).
You can repot your plant in fresh soil if it is showing signs of root rot, but if the roots are healthy then you don’t need to do this.
Most importantly you want to make sure that your pot has drainage holes in the bottom so that the water can escape from the pot and your plant isn’t sitting in water.
Signs of Underwatering
If your plant’s leaves become floppy and wilted that can be a sign of underwatering (but it is also a sign of overwatering!). Generally, the leaves will wilt and then become crisp and brittle.
Stick your finger into the soil of the plant up to the second knuckle. Does it feel dry or cool and damp? If it is dry, then it is most likely an underwatering problem.
The solution to this problem is easy… just add water! However, remember that some plants, like succulents and cacti, don’t like wet soil.
If your plant isn’t getting enough water, then it’s not going to grow as fast. You might be giving it enough water to survive, but not thrive. New growth might be smaller or shrivel up and die.
Try giving your plant just a little more water and see what happens.
Brown Leaves or Leaf Tips
If you are not watering your houseplant enough the tips of the leaves will start turning yellow, and then brown. Eventually, the whole leaf will turn brown and drop off.
Brown leaf tips are a sign of other problems, like too much light or chemicals in the water (like tap water with added fluoride or chlorine). so look for other signs of underwatering too.
The brown leaf tips wouldn’t ever turn green again, but the new growth will be healthier. If you really don’t like the brown tips, then you can use a pair of sharp sterilized scissors to trim the brown part off.
Solutions to Underwatering
Well, obviously you need to water more often! Most plants will recover relatively quickly once you start giving them more water.
If you are prone to forget about watering your plants, then try to make it a habit. I do most of my watering every Saturday morning. However I do have some plants that require daily watering (yes… I’m talking about you, my picky vander orchids and venus flytraps!), so I do those every morning while my coffee is brewing!
Make sure your plants are somewhere that you see them frequently so that you remember. If they are hidden away in a spare bedroom, then you are unlikely to notice when they need more water.
Set a reminder on your phone if you have a really tough time remembering!
Signs of Not Enough Light
A lot of problems that plants experience are due to too little light. Plants grow outside… obviously… in nature and even if they are in a shady location they are probably getting more light than they do in your home.
If your home or office is on the darker side, then you need to make sure you pick a plant that will do well in those conditions. There are some shade-loving plants that are perfect for darker rooms, but even those would thrive better with a little more light.
One of the easiest signs of too little light in houseplants is when the leaves start to turn yellow.
If we go back to our high school days, we will remember that plants get their green color from chlorophyll which they use to produce energy from sunlight. If a plant isn’t getting the amount of light it needs, then the chlorophyll won’t be working at its peak and the leaves will start to lose its green color.
If the lighting does not improve, the leaves will continue to become even more yellow and eventually drop off.
Because the leaves aren’t getting enough light, the plant can’t photosynthesize enough energy. So the plant won’t be able to grow as quickly or as full.
So if your houseplant is looking a little weedy, thin or just not full and lush… then it probably needs more light!
Plants want to survive! If there is not enough light they will do their best to find more, by growing towards any light source they do have.
If you notice your plant leaning towards the light, or the spaces between the leaves increasing (stretching out), then your poor plant is desperately trying to reach more light.
If there is a brighter light on one side of a plant (like on a windowsill), the plant might lean towards the light, even if it is getting enough light. In that case, you want to regularly rotate your plant, so all sides of it can benefit from the natural daylight.
Solutions for Not Enough Light
The simplest solution is to move your plant to somewhere with more light. But watch out for the risk to TOO MUCH light! Direct sunlight (especially through windows) can burn the leaves. That’s why it’s so important to research your plant and find out what kind of light it prefers.
You could try moving your plant to a westerly or southern-facing window. Or just moving the plant closer to a window might help.
If your home is particularly dark (like mine!) then you might have to consider grow lights.
Grow lights are much easier (and cheaper!) to use than they used to be. You can even get grow light bulbs that would fit into your normal lamp.
Below are a selection of grow light solutions that I like (these are great for winter months when there just isn’t enough light!).
Signs of Too Much Light
On the opposite end of the spectrum, our houseplants can die from too much light.
If your plant is near a south or west-facing window, then this could be a problem for some types of plants. Other types of plants will love all that light!
The biggest problem with too much light isn’t the light itself, but normally the excess heat. You’ve probably sat near a sunny window and felt really hot… your plants are experiencing that too!
Yep, once again we have wilted leaves as a symptom!
If you are watering your plant correctly but still notice wilting leaves then it could be a problem with too much light… or more precisely, too much heat from the sun.
If your houseplant’s leaves are wilted then consider moving them away from the window. You might notice that the leaves recover a little in the evening and early morning, but then wilt again during the hottest part of the day.
Brown Spots Or Tips
If your leaves have brown marks on them or the tips are turning brown, then this could be a sign that the leaves are getting scorched.
It will appear on the leaves that are facing the window and closes to it.
Unfortunately, the leaves won’t recover and turn green again, but if you move the plant away from the direct sunlight, it will stop future growth from getting burned too.
Solutions to Too Much Light
The first thing you want to do is move the plant further away from the window. Don’t move it too far though, it will still need sunlight!
Try moving the plant to a different window that is facing a different direction. South and westerly windows are the most problematic, so try an east-facing window instead.
If moving the plant is not an option, then you could try putting up a sheer curtain to protect your plants from the harshest sunlight.
A lot of problems occur when the leaves or flowers are in direct contact with the windowpane, so make sure that they aren’t touching the window.
Humidity is about how ‘damp’ the air is in our homes. Some places have naturally more humid air than others.
For instance, the humidity rarely drops below 50% in Florida (it’s closer to 70-80% most of the time!). But in Arizona, it’s going to be much, much less!
If their air is too dry, then your plants are going to be losing precious water through their leaves. Whereas, too much humidity causes the opposite problem.
The humidity inside our homes is generally a lot less than outside due to air conditioning and heating. Both of these zap moisture out of the air.
Signs of Too Much Humid
Mold on Leaves or Soil
If you notice that mold is growing on the leaves of your plants or on the soil, then that is a sign that they are too moist.
Mold likes to grow in warm, damp places. So the more moisture present on or around your plant, the more likely you will get a mold issue.
Leaves or Stems are Rotting
This is a pretty extreme case, but you might notice that the leaves or stems of your plant are turning black and slimy. This is a sign that they have just too much water and they are rotting.
It takes a while for plants to reach this point, so you probably won’t experience this.
Solutions for Too High Humidity
Most plants will tolerant higher humidity levels better than they will too low humidity levels. However, it can stress your plant.
You want to make sure that you are watering a lot less often. In a humid atmosphere, the soil takes a lot longer to dry out and you will experience symptoms of overwatering.
Some plants like succulents, cacti, etc. are used to pretty dry conditions, so they are just not suitable to grow when the humidity is higher. However, as I mentioned above, our homes generally have lower humidity, so as long as they are getting enough light, then they should do just fine!
If your home is just too humid (older homes or you live in the tropics), then consider investing in a dehumidifier for the room where you grow your plants.
Signs of Not Enough Humidity
Yep, once again wilted leaves are a symptom!
When humidity leaves are low, your plant will lose moisture through its leaves (and the soil will dry out faster), so you plant will show signs of lack of water.
The leaves also might curl or start to turn brown.
If you notice that your soil is drying out quickly, then that is another sign of low humidity. This means that you will probably find yourself watering much more often.
Solutions for Low Humidity
One way to solve this problem is to look at the types of plants that you are buying. Look for plants with thick or waxy leaves, as they hold onto their moisture a lot better. Also, you will want to avoid tropical plants (like orchids) that are used to humid conditions.
One of the quickest, but probably least effective solutions is to mist your plants. This instantly raises the humidity, but unfortunately, the effects are short-lived. However, some plants just need a daily misting and that will be enough for them.
Alternatively, you could try using a humidifier in your home. But these can be expensive and require regular cleaning.
Another solution is to make your own humidity tray. It’s very easy and your plants will thank you!
All you need to do is get a shallow tray, fill it with pebbles and pour water in it. Then stand your plants on top of the pebbles and make sure you keep the tray topped up with water.
If you have very picky plants that need high humidity (like a Venus Flytrap), then you might be better off looking at a terrarium. It’s basically a glass box, so it will keep the moist air inside!
So there you have it! The four most common causes of houseplant death!
There are many other problems that might afflict your plants, such as poor soil, overfertilizing or pests and diseases, but the ones listed above are definitely the most common!