We know the feeling! Everyone, from beginner plant parents to horticultural aficionados go through it, and no matter how experienced you get, there will STILL be times when it happens.
Your plant will be perfectly happy & ready to win the Flaunt Your Leaf beauty pageant, when suddenly it starts looking all decrepit and you don’t know what you’ve done wrong!
Firstly, don’t beat yourself up.
Some plants are just meant to die. It sounds harsh, but there’s a point where you have to let go. This is where the learning happens. In the plant world you never stop learning and discovering. That’s the joy!
Secondly, assess the plant’s surroundings.
Plants thrive in conditions that resemble the environment from which they originate.
For example, Snake Plants originate from dry bushveld savannah across Africa. If yours died and was in a steamy moist bathroom, or sitting under a dripping tap – well there’s your answer.
Similarly, ferns which mostly grow on cool forest floors where there’s lots of moisture and rich organic matter, won’t enjoy being planted in sandy soil, in bright sunlight and dry air (keep this for the snake plant).
You get the drift…
Sometimes we deliberately break the rules, because we really want that specific Lipstick Plant in that specific dark and dingy corner, even though we know Lipstick Plants want bright light. Trust me, it doesn't usually end well.
But what if your plant is in the right environment but there’s something else wrong?
It’s a process of elimination. Here’s our handy plant survival checklist
1. Overwatering or underwatering
Most importantly! Overwatering refers to watering frequency, not how much water is given to the plant at a time. All plants, when watered, should be given enough water to reach the roots and drain out the bottom drainage holes. A tablespoon, or cup of water is not enough. Water deeply, but less often.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between an overwatered plant and an underwatered plant because the symptoms look the same. Overwatering actually reduces the plant’s ability to absorb water when the soil becomes so dense & wet that the roots rot & start suffocating, meaning they can’t take up moisture or nutrients (Read more about watering here).
Usually, large, spreading brown or black blotches on the leaf, or completely yellow leaves, are a sign of too much water. Whereas plants with too little water will have droopy leaves. The best way to check is to touch the soil and dig down a little bit. How does the soil feel? Like sandpaper or a wet mop?
Overwatered Fiddle Leaf
Overwatered Money Tree, completely yellow leaves at the bottom.
80% of the time, it's the wet mop scenario. The biggest cause of plant death is overwatering or the plant sitting in a pool of water in the planter.
Underwatered Fiddle Leaf. Thirsty plants have droopy leaves.
Generally houseplants fall into two categories
- Those that like to dry out between waterings
- Those that like their soil to stay evenly moist
Firstly, check what category your plant falls in on the plant care section on its product page.
In the first category (likes to dry out between watering), the top surface of the soil should only feel moist immediately after watering. Otherwise it should feel dry to the touch. In fact the soil should be dry when you dip your finger in it about 3-4cm down. Only when its dry down there, should you water again.
In the second category (likes to remain moist), the surface of the soil should remain moist, but you still don’t want the soil to be damp. If you had to take a handful of the soil and squeeze it in your hand, you shouldn’t be able to squeeze water out of it like a sponge. It’s safer to let just the tippy top layer of soil go dry before watering again. If the surface is still wet, don’t water.
If you’re not sure, rather err on the side of underwatering. It’s much easier to recover a plant from underwatering and usually the droopy leaves perk up in no time.
What to do with a dehydrated plant?
If you get to the point where the soil is really dry like a desert and can’t absorb water, you may need to dunk the entire pot in a bath of water for a few minutes to rehydrate it.
What to do with an overwatered plant?
Leave it somewhere airy to dry. If the plant continues to deteriorate you may have to re-pot into fresh soil that’s not waterlogged. Check the roots and cut off any that are black and mouldy.
If you notice little brown or yellow spots on the leaf, well those are plant freckles. Plants get them too when they spend too much time in the sun! Too much sun can also discolour leaves, almost bleaching or bronzing them, making them brittle.
On the other hand, if your plant is not producing new leaves, dropping lots of leaves and is looking weak, thin or sickly, it’s probably getting too little light & warmth.
Brown crispy leaf edges or tips means too little humidity. Here’s how you can raise humidity levels. If your plant is a Fern, Calathea or Anthurium, high humidity is essential.
Crispy Bamboo Palm Tips
Brown edges of Homalomena
4. Is it time to re-pot?
Your plant may be getting tired and unable to produce new growth because it’s been in the same soil & pot for too long. Over time, the plant will absorb all the nutrients available in the potting soil, until the nutrients are depleted. Fertiliser is only a short-term solution. If your plant has been in the same soil/pot for 18 months or more, it’s time.
Re-potting doesn’t necessarily mean going a pot size up, unless the roots are growing out the bottom of the container. It just means removing your plant from the soil it’s in, emptying the old soil out of the grow pot, shaking some excess soil off the plant root ball, and planting it back with fresh soil. Sometimes just a top up of fresh potting mix also helps.
Note: Re-potting should only be done in Spring to early Autumn. Don’t do this in winter when the plant is dormant.
Check for pests on your plant. Over time these nasty buggers can cause severe damage.
The main ones to look out for are:
- Mealy bugs (white furry things especially on Bamboo Palms!)
- Aphids (a collection of green or black flea-like bugs)
- Spider mites (invisible to the eye, but leave a furry looking web over the leaves causing tiny faded spots or stipplings on the leaf as the mites suck the plant cells). Sometimes you can see the mites, they look like reddish-brown mini ticks. Urgh!
Stippling from spider mites
Most indoor plant pests can be controlled by physically removing them with a cloth or cotton wool, or spraying them off with a jet of water. A mixture of 1tsp mint oil to 1litre of water can be used as a preventative spray, or even a dilution of mild soapy water – just don’t use sunlight liquid it will kill your plant.
You can also use an organic insecticide containing neem oil, like Biogrow Bioneem (soon to be stocked on our site).
However, a healthy happy plant in the right conditions should not be susceptible to pests in the first place. Consider pests a symptom not a cause. There’s probably something else at play.
We've got you covered!
If you're struggling to figure out what's going on with your plant, we offer FREE post-purchase access to personalised plant advice. Just pop us an email & pics with your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org