5 Reasons Your Houseplants Die And How To Save Them

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Keep humidity-loving plants in a well-lit bathroom, where the air gets steamy every time you shower. Small rooms are also less drafty.

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.

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.


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