Our ancestors lived surrounded by dirt, animals and fields of green. We now live in a world of square edges – cubicles, hallways, refrigerators and computer screens – not to mention pollution, stale air and dust. Indoor plants can clean the air of toxins and dust, offer a sense of well-being, and liven a space, literally, with life.
If you think you have “bad luck” with plants, the solution may be simple. Here are five most common reasons your houseplants keep dying, and each has an easy fix.
1. Not Enough Light
Direct sunlight is actually hundreds of times brighter than ambient light in an artificially-lit room, but the human eye is an amazingly adaptive, making changes in light levels seem small. You may not realize when your plant’s spot isn’t bright enough.
Plants that need more light become lanky, floppy, pale or shed leaves, and can eventually die. If it’s growing but the new growth is pale and flimsy, it’s probably not getting enough light.
>> Choose plants that are most commonly sold as leafy houseplants; most are adapted to grow slowly under a thick tropical rainforest canopy (rooted in wet tree trunks, or lying in wait for a big tree to fall so they can switch to cheetah mode and take its place). They can survive the relative darkness of a living room.
>> It’s too dark for food plants like tomatoes, carrots or basil to produce usable harvests indoors. Don’t beat yourself up for failing what’s impossible.
>> If a plant looks like it needs more light, move it to a windowsill. Keep the blinds open! A window with closed blinds is as useful as a car without wheels.
>> Skylights or South-facing windows provide the best light, followed by West-facing windows, then East-facing windows. (West-facing windows are better than East because the sky is less cloudy in the afternoon.) North-facing windows get the least light.
>> Move plants as infrequently as possible so their leaves can orient themselves towards light. If you re-locate or rotate plants, older leaves may die and the plant has to grow new ones that face the light.
>> Plants you buy seasonally, like poinsettias, amaryllises or Christmas cactuses, are sold as “throw-away” plants because most people don’t give them enough light. But they’ll thrive for years in a West or South-facing windowsill.
2. Watering the wrong way
Most “brown thumbs” call it bad luck when a healthy-looking houseplant dies so suddenly from being dry. But it’s not that they forgot to water – it’s that they water wrong.
They buy a plant looking pretty and lush, pay it lots of attention and give it a sprinkle of water every day. The plant gets lazy – it grows weak roots.
When the novelty wears off, they water the plant less. Plants adjust to the sudden drought by shedding leaves, but their caretakers assume they’re dying and throw them out. If potting soil gets bone-dry, water will pass through without soaking in, and plant-keepers see the drainage and assume the soil is saturated when the opposite is true.
>> Plants are sold in tiny pots; re-pot them in bigger ones right away. More soil holds more water and stays moist longer. Make sure the new pot has drainage holes in the bottom. (Click here if you don’t know how to re-pot a plant.)
>> Water a plant less often, but when you do, soak it thoroughly in the sink or with a pitcher. The wet-dry cycle encourages stronger roots and prevents root rot.
<< If the soil gets so dry it won’t absorb water, set the pot in the sink and put the faucet on a slow trickle for 15 minutes. After watering, the pot should feel much heavier.
>> Keep plants in a shallow tray and water until the tray fills up – which allows you to give it lots of water at once without making a mess. Over the next day or two the soil will re-absorb the water from the tray, adding to the time you can leave before watering again.
>> If you expect you’ll frequently forget to water a plant, avoid clay pots and use porcelain or plastic ones instead. Clay pots allow water to evaporate out of the sides of a pot in addition to the top, so they dry out much faster.
3. Too much fertilizer
Ecosystems recycle nutrients when dead leaves and twigs decay. A houseplant’s dead leaves are thrown away, so fertilizer replaces what’s lost – but most people give their houseplants way too much and burn the roots. Houseplants can also become over-fertilized over time as water evaporates and leaves the solids behind.
An over-fertilized plant can wilt even when it’s watered, the leaves may get soft like they’re made of cloth, or the leaf tips might turn brown.
>> Most potting soils come with plenty of organic material or added fertilizer, and won’t need additional fertilizer for a long time.
>> Carefully follow the instructions on a fertilizer package, and when in doubt use less than recommended. Make sure the fertilizer you use is marked as good for houseplants.
>> Choose solid or time-release fertilizers over liquid fertilizers; it’s less likely to burn roots.
>> You don’t have to fertilize a plant until it’s showing signs of needing it: Lack of new growth, new leaves that are pale with green veins, or new leaves that never grow to the same size as the old ones.
>> A dusty, white or tan substance can gradually accumulate in the plant’s tray – that’s excess fertilizer and salts. Even tap water can slowly add some salts to soil over the months and years. Rinse the tray off every few months; it’s usually a miracle fix for African violets that seem to be dying for no reason.
>> In general, houseplants that grow quickly and shed a lot of leaves, fruits or dead flowers need more fertilizer. Other plants need much less.
4. The air is too dry
Colorado is known for dry air. That makes sweat evaporate faster, so a hot day won’t feel as hot. For plants it has the opposite effect – low humidity increases heat stress. The air in your home is driest in the winter, and especially damaging to parlor palms, ferns and orchids, which can lose leaves or develop brown streaks in dry air.
>> Choose plants that don’t need humidity, like succulents, bulbs, or most plants with woody stems.
>> Keep humidity-loving plants in a well-lit bathroom, where the air gets steamy every time you shower. Small rooms are also less drafty.
>> Cluster houseplants together; plants raise the air humidity around them.
>> Swamp coolers and home humidifiers are as good for humidity-loving plants as they are for people.
>> The coolest room in the house is usually the most humid, as is the cooler part of a warm room – such as a windowsill in winter.
>> Finally, setting the pot in a wide tray of water and gravel can humidify the air through evaporation.
5. You think it’s dead but it’s not
Plants can re-grow after trauma, and even many tropical plants go dormant seasonally because of wet and dry seasons in their native habitats. Just because a plant looks unhealthy or loses its leaves doesn’t mean it’s dead.
>> If a plant looks dead or dying, trim off the dead parts, give it a little love and see what happens.
>> Poinsettias and amaryllises can go dormant and return on their own. Cyclamens go dormant but will come back with a vengeance after being kept in a cool garage or basement for about 6 weeks, then returned to warmth.