The plant that you just brought home from the nursery is already showing signs of distress. You’ve seen this pattern before: it starts off getting brown tips, then slowly droops and shrivels until you finally resign to trashing it.
We’ve all been there. Even the most seasoned plant expert has killed at least one plant in their lifetime. The important thing is to not beat yourself up over it. Each dead plant brings you closer to tending to healthy, green plants.
There’s a good case for trying to learn how to keep plants alive. First of all, plants aren’t cheap. Plants can run you from $5 to upwards of $50. Second of all, having healthy and thriving plants in your house can help you breathe cleaner air, reduce stress, and enjoy an overall greener home.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to reduce your houseplant death rate. By following these guidelines, you’ll soon have perky, green plants and won’t feel bad for going out to buy another.
The main reasons your plants keep dying
Why can’t I keep my plants alive? There are several reasons why you may be killing your plants. Being aware of these seven deadly sins of plant care can help you avoid them like the plague.
Overwatering is the most common cause of plant deaths. Sometimes it’s tempting to water your plants all the time, but that can lead to problems like root rot and limp leaves.
Sometimes you leave a plant on a shelf and forget about it for a couple weeks, only to come back to it and find it dried and shriveled.
Improper light conditions
Plants need a balance of water and sunlight in order to photosynthesize. Houseplants vary in their light needs - some are fine in low light, others need bright indirect light. Knowing which light level your plant needs is key to its survival and growth.
Most houseplants are native to tropical areas. That means they all require a certain level of humidity.
Sensitivity to tap water
While exposure to tap water alone is unlikely to kill a plant, it can factor into its health. Plants that are particularly sensitive to tap water are calathea and maranta.
Lack of fertilization
Plants need food just like us. Fertilization is a key element to keeping plants healthy and growing.
Almost all plants can be susceptible to pests like gnats, mealy bugs, and spider mites.
How to keep your plants happy
Keeping your plants alive can take trial and error, and may leave some casualties along the way. Here are ways you can avoid killing your houseplants.
Research your plant and its needs
Where does your plant come from? Knowing about your plant’s native environment can give you a better idea of the conditions it needs to thrive. Does it grow at the bottom of a jungle floor? Make sure it gets enough humidity, filtered light, and regular waterings. Does it come from dry desert areas? Water sparingly and make sure it gets enough sunlight.
Check soil before watering
Your plant may not keep a regular watering schedule. Depending on a variety of factors like the time of year and exposure to sunlight, your plant may need more water some months than others. Before watering, always check your houseplant’s soil for dryness. Do this by sticking your finger into the soil past the second knuckle. If it comes out dry, it’s time for watering. If your finger has soil stuck to it, wait a few days and check again before watering.
Make travel arrangements
There’s nothing worse than coming home from a vacation to find your houseplants droopy and dried up. Before you travel, try to arrange for someone to come in and water them while you’re gone. Alternatively, you can invest in a self-watering planter that will let your plant drink what it needs while you’re away.
Make sure to repot
If you’ve kept a plant long enough for it to outgrow its pot, consider that an achievement!
Houseplants typically need to be repotted every 12 to 18 months, depending on how quickly they’re growing. Spring is the best time to repot your plant, because summer is when it’ll likely grow the most.
Some signs that your houseplant needs repotting are:
- The plant’s roots are pushing it up, out of the planter
- The plant’s roots are growing through the drainage holes
- The plant is growing slower than normal (outside of winter, when slow growth is normal)
- The above-soil part of the plant takes up more than three times the pot diameter
- The plant dries out more quickly than usual, requiring more frequent waterings
- Salt and mineral buildup on the plant, which shows up as white flaky material
When repotting your plant, choose a pot a size above what your plant is currently in (so if it’s currently in a 4” pot, move up to 6”). While you may be tempted to repot it in a much bigger pot so it has room to grow, a too-big pot can actually lead to too much water and ultimately drown the plant.
Make sure to fertilize
The best way to fertilize your indoor plant is by diluting liquid fertilizer into water and applying it with a watering can. You can either fertilize every time or every other time you water your plant. Always look into your own plant’s fertilizing needs. When in doubt, under-fertilizing is better than overdoing it, because of the potential to scorch your plant’s leaves.
Fertilizing should be done less frequently in the dormant winter months, and picked up in the spring when plants are getting more sunlight and therefore are growing more.
Clean the leaves
Houseplants clean the air around us, helping to pick up contaminants and dust particles. They collect these particles on their leaves, which is why sometimes you’ll see that your leaves look dusty. Dirty leaves can inhibit your plant from taking in sunlight and breathing, which can lead to stunted growth and even death.
At least once a week, take a moist towel to your plants’ leaves and clean them one by one. Make sure to do this delicately, to avoid damaging the leaves.
Inspect for pests
Always inspect plants for pets when you first bring them home. Make sure to check the soil and the undersides of leaves. When you first bring a plant home, quarantine it from the rest of your plants to prevent spreading pests.
Take a deep breath and start fresh
No one is a plant expert from the get-go, and it can take a couple dead plants before you grow your thriving indoor garden. Don’t get discouraged when your plants take a turn for the worse; follow these plant parent rules to keep your houseplants happy and thriving.