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If you have more than a handful of houseplants, odds are you’ve had people ask you about them before. More specifically, you’ve probably fielded a lot of questions about how you could possibly keep all of those plants alive.
Houseplants might be more popular than ever, but that doesn’t mean that every plant owner is an expert. Knowing the ins and outs of troubleshooting houseplants when it comes to even the most common issues is often more difficult than it seems on the surface, and something people often find overwhelming. After all, every plant is different. For most new plant parents, this means that keeping plants alive sometimes turns into a matter of trial-and-error.
Whether you have a collection of plants and are just looking for a little direction or you have no idea where to start, familiarizing yourself with the signs and symptoms of a sick or dying plant is the first step to knowing exactly how to respond. As satisfying as it is to grow a healthy and vibrant plant, it’s equally frustrating to fail at fixing an ailing plant. We asked a couple of experts about some of the most common problems with plants and how to address them.
The first thing to do, says Hancock, is to check if the soil is too wet or too dry.
“Because plant roots absorb moisture from the soil and plant leaves release moisture as the plant breathes, when the plant is too dry, it may shed leaves to keep the amount of moisture it’s able to pull in balanced with the amount of moisture it lets out,” Hancock explains. “Likewise, when a plant stays too wet, the roots suffocate and start to die. With fewer roots to pull in the moisture all around them, the plant yellows and drops leaves.”
If the moisture of the soil seems just right, then Hancock says temperature could be the problem. Is your plant near a heating or air conditioning vent? Then it’s time to move it elsewhere.
If your plant has entirely-yellow leaves, it’s possible a fungus has started to grow on your plant, as Paige Harman of Westerlay Orchids explains.
“If you see fungal spores at the base of the leaf closest to the plant, you know you have a fungal issue,” says Harman. Before you start removing leaves, treat your plant with a fungicide. (Try Dr. Earth Final Stop Organic Concentrated Liquid Disease and Fungicide Control, but your local nursery may have a recommendation, too.)
Good news! The browning of plant leaves is a natural part of the plant process, says Harman. “Once a leaf is old enough and no longer productive to the plant, the entire leaf will brown and can be cut off the plant.”
Brown tips and brown spots on leaves indicate something else.
“If your leaf tips are turning brown this is an indication that the plant is not getting enough moisture from the air. The humidity is too low, misting the plants will help increase humidity.”
Another reason for brown spots could be something called leaf burn, Harman explains.
Brown spots, she says, may be burns, which happen when a plant is receiving too much direct sunlight. Try relocating the plant to a window with a little less direct sunlight.
You want to give your plant room to grow, so planting it in a pot that’s a bit bigger is a good start. If you think it might be time for a new or bigger pot, here are some signs to look for, according to Hancock.
- roots growing tightly around the inside perimeter of the pot
- plant growth slowing down
- dirt drying out quicker than usual
When you do decide to repot, opt for a pot that’s one or two sizes up from what you currently have, “or going up in diameter 2 inches at a time,” says Hancock. “If you repot a small plant in too large a pot, it may not be able to pull moisture out of the soil fast enough to prevent suffocation issues.”
If there’s a swarm of tiny flies making a home in your house plant, don’t panic. First, figure out exactly what you’re dealing with. The most common culprit of hanging around, including in houseplants, is the fungus gnat, explains Hancock.
“They’re small, fly-like insects often mistaken for fruit flies. They lay their eggs in the potting mix, which the larvae eat,” Hancock explains. “The good news is that fungus gnats don’t typically cause plants any harm. The bad news is that they’re really annoying. “
A simple solution? Just repot the plant with new soil.
Other common pests include spider mites, which are especially common in hot, dry conditions. If you’ve noticed a stippled look to a plant’s leaf, this can be a sign of the microscopic arachnids. These guys actually suck the juices from plant cells.
“They create a fine webbing that you’re most likely to see on the undersides of leaves and the junction where a leaf meets the stem. If you see spider mites, it’s best to start treating right away with a horticultural oil or miticide. Because they reproduce rapidly, weekly treatment for a month or month-and-a-half is usually necessary to eradicate the problem,” Hancock suggests.
Dusting plants is important, so if it’s not part of your plant care routine already, it’s time to start. Your plants will thank you with stronger leaves.
“As dust accumulates, it leaves a film on the leaf. This film decreases the amount of light your plant gets. The less light your plants get, the less fuel they have for lush, healthy growth,” Hancock says, adding that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how often you should dust your plants.
For smaller plants, a sink bath may do the trick. Otherwise, use a small wet washcloth to gently wipe away dust, one leaf at a time.
White stains on plant leaves can be left by mineral deposits in the water you’re using to water them, says Hancock. Luckily, though, there’s an easy fix.
Deep clean leaves by wiping them with a soft cloth dipped into a solution of 1 tablespoon white vinegar-to-1 quart of distilled water, says Hancock.
Everyone needs a little trim now and then, and plants are no different. If vines look straggly, it’s time to grab your pruning sheers or snips.
If you’re worried, do a little at a time, cutting vines where leaf growth is sparse.
“There are very few plants that will be ruined forever if you trim them back,” says Hancock. ” It’s more like a bad haircut. They may not look their best for a while, but most will grow out of it with time.”
“You’ll find differing opinions on this topic, but I’m in the camp that you don’t need to change a plant’s soil unless it’s so old and broken down that it’s too dense for the roots,” Hancock says. “Instead of changing out the soil, I’m a fan of loosening the plant’s root ball as much as you can, then mixing fresh potting soil in with the existing soil each time you repot.”
Some plants, like orchids, might be need more specific care, though, as Harman, explains.
“The bark used for orchid growing does eventually break down over time and will need replacement. This could take several years depending on the plant and how fast it is growing,” Harman says. “Same procedure as moving plants into a bigger pot. If you can no longer see the bark in the pot and roots are growing out of the pot, go ahead and transplant into a bigger pot with some fresh orchid potting mix.”