In my 20s, I kept two small plants in my office…barely. After a few months the leaves wilted and browned and I was about to dye my thumbs black. But then I took a new job across the country and when my former boss offered to take my plants I agreed, figuring there was nothing he could do to nurse those leaves back to life.
Turns out I was wrong. When I returned to my old job almost three years later, there they were: my old plants thriving and supple in my boss’ office. Of course, they were his now and he categorically refused to return them, and with good reason.
It was then I decided I couldn’t own plants. Every living green thing I ever bought and tried to grow died or went into a coma; that is until after my mom passed away and I brought one of her house plants home with me. I didn’t do much – just watered it and put it in a sunny spot, but I had that plant for 10 years. Ten. Years.
I didn’t know what I’d done to keep that plant alive for so long, but I was grateful and since then, I’ve studied how to keep indoor plants growing (or at least not dying). So if you tend to buy houseplants and they go to “pot” sooner rather than later, here’s some ways to keep them healthy, bring them back to life or maybe, just maybe living for 10 years:
1. Know your plant.
Sure this seems obvious, but even though most plants come with tags explaining the conditions they most need, we can ignore them in lieu of what we think they need. Read the tag carefully and familiarize yourself with the plant’s requirements for sunlight and watering. Some plants don’t need as much water as you might guess and some need more. I have one plant now that I only water once a week, which seems counterintuitive to me (don’t plants need tons of water?), but I follow the instructions.
2. Pay attention to its appearance.
Like, before it’s dead. First, check the soil. If it’s soaking a few days after your last watering, you’ve overwatered. Let the soil dry out, then water. If the soil is dry and crumbly, water prodigiously until drops emerge from the drainage holes at the plant’s bottom. After that initial major watering, only water when the you feel dry soil just underneath the top soil, and then water until water is moist, not soaking.
Now check for new growth. Is your plant producing leaves and shoots? If not, it probably needs light fertilization to restore growth or repotting to allow room for expanding roots. If there is new growth, but the leaves are thin and stretching toward the sun, your plant obviously needs more even sunlight. For even growth, rotate your plants a quarter turn weekly. Also keep in mind that stunted plants could also be over fertilized, which impacts the plant’s nutrient absorption and water intake. Lower fertilization levels and watch what happens.
If there are brown spots on leaf tips, revisit your watering schedule/levels and the humidity in the area your plant sits. If you over water plants, all that excess water can drown the roots, which rot and die, causing leaves to yellow and brown. However, if you know you’re not overwatering and the soil is dry to the touch, under watering may be the issue (it’s all so complicated!). Low humidity could also be drying out the plant and you’ll need to mist the leaves or give the plant a light shower 2-3 times a week. If you’re really committed, use a humidifier to increase air moisture around your plants.
3. Know your water.
If you’re not over or under watering, it could be the water itself that’s the problem. Tap water can contain excessive levels of chlorine, which is toxic to plants. Try filtered water or collect rainwater in a bucket and use that to hydrate your plants. You can also put tap water in a bucket and set it out in the sun for a day to evaporate the chlorine and make the water safe for your plants.
4. Check your location.
Keep plants away from very hot, cold or drafty areas in your home. Move your green things away from heating vents or air conditioners. If your plant is in direct sunlight and the leaves look dry, move the plant to a place in your home that receives indirect sun because leaves can get sunburned just like humans.
Also check the plant’s home. If the pot’s soil looks cramped/compacted at the bottom, the roots are coiled or growing out the drainage holes, or if roots are emerging from the soil’s surface, it’s time to repot and give your plant more room. Use a container that’s about two inches wider and deeper than your original pot otherwise the roots will grow to accommodate the new space at the bottom and the top of the plant won’t show growth until later. Turn the plant on its side and pry it out with tender loving care. If the roots are coiled, pull them straight and prune if need be before repotting. Place the plant in the new container and pour soil around the sides, then lightly water until the soil is moist.
5. Adjust levels.
Sometimes we’ll overdo in efforts to shock our plant back to health. But too much of a good thing is too much. We already talked about over watering (don’t soak the plant’s soil, just wet it), unless the soil is very dry and then one good soak will work after which you return to watering that just wets the soil. Also check your fertilizer levels.
As mentioned in point number two above, over fertilization slows water absorption into the plant’s roots and dries out plants. You can check if you’re over fertilizing by checking growth levels (no new leaves is a signal of overdoing the fertilizer), the existence of a fertilizer “crust” on top of the soil, and the presence of yellowing or wilting leaves. If you notice these signs, stop fertilizing for awhile to let your plant eliminate the excess it can’t process. And a tip? Many houseplants don’t require the minerals in fertilizers. What they DO need is adequate light and water.
6. Give them love.
Make sure your plant is happy. This involves checking your plant for pests and dust build-up on its leaves. If you find pests (mealybugs are one persistent variety), you can place the plant in the shower and give it a brisk wash to knock off bugs, or try washing the leaves with a solution of one tablespoon of dish detergent to one quart of water. Take a soft towel placed in this mixture and gently sponge off the front and underside of the leaves. For dust, this solution works as well or use paintbrushes to remove leaf debris and keep your plants breathing.
Be sure to prune if necessary (most houseplants don’t need much pruning and if they do, the best time is in the spring) and remove dead, brown and yellow leaves and stems as well to allow for new growth.
Most times if your plant is looking limp and lifeless, it’s getting too much or too little of something important. You might need to experiment to see what that is, and once it’s adjusted, the plant’s condition should improve within days. I never did get my original office plants back, but I know if I did, I’d make my old boss proud by how well I could keep them alive.