How to Save a Dying Houseplant: A Beginner's Guide

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Finding and fixing your common houseplant problems

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We’ve all been there. You go to water your favorite houseplant and notice that something’s just not right. Your formerly thriving green friend is looking a bit droopy or yellow or just, well, wimpy. Luckily, most common houseplant problems have pretty simple solutions. Just follow the steps below to help diagnose the issue and guide your houseplant back to good health.

It’s worth noting, too, that the earlier you catch the problem, the better chance your plant has for a full recovery. So, make a habit of taking a good, thorough look at each of your plants at least once a week. If you see any of the signs below, it’s time to move into action.

Without further ado, here’s how to figure out—and fix!—common houseplant problems.

Tips to Find—and Fix—Houseplant Problems

First, let’s look at the leaves.

1. Wilting Leaves?

If the leaves are wilting, your plant may need more or less water. We know this may sound confusing, but it’s easy to tell the difference. Check the soil: If it’s bone dry, chances are you’ve been underwatering and need to water more frequently. If it’s soggy, allow the soil to dry out and only water when the top inch or two of the soil is dry.

Wilting leaves. Credit: Shutterstock.

2. Leaves Turning Yellow or Brown?

When do leaves turn yellow or brown? If this only happens with older, mature leaves, there is no problem. But if it’s more widespread, it could be a sign of overwatering or underwatering or that your plant isn’t getting enough food. Do a moisture check (see above), and if everything seems fine there, make sure you’re feeding your indoor plant food on a regular basis.

Leaves turning yellow. Credit: Shutterstock

3. Leaves Dropping Off?

While it’s normal for plants to occasionally shed their lower, older leaves, anything more than that could mean your plant isn’t happy in its environment. Ensure it’s getting enough sun and isn’t too near a heating or cooling vent. Also, check the soil moisture because–you guessed it–you might need to adjust your watering habits.

Leaf drop. Credit: Shutterstock

Next, look at the stems. Are they…

4. Are Stems Dry?

Brittle and dried-out stems are another sign you may not be giving your plant enough moisture. Be sure to water whenever the top inch or two of soil dries out.

5. Plant Not Growing?

Is your houseplant the same size it was a few weeks ago? If it isn’t growing, the issue could be a lack of light, crowded roots, or worn-out potting mix. Try moving it to a sunnier spot and repotting it if you can see roots growing through the drainage holes or peeking up through the soil. Even if the pot seems roomy enough, if you haven’t repotted for a while, changing the potting mix may help.

Look at the soil. Does it…

6. Does Soil Look Moldy?

Do you see fuzzy white mold or mats of fungus growing on your plant? The culprit is likely poor drainage, overwatering, lack of air circulation, or a combination of all three. 

You can lightly scrape the fungus off the soil surface or refresh the soil with a new potting mix. But the main way to stop mold is to improve soil drainage. Make sure the pot has drainage holes, then try cutting back on watering and setting up a fan to move the air (gently, please!). You can also mix a bit of sand or perlite in with the soil for better drainage.

7. Are Roots Rotting?

If you think your plant has root rot, you’ll see mushy brown roots when you brush away the soil. Other cues are large numbers of leaves falling off the plant or turning pale. 

Carefully remove the plant from its pot and examine its roots. Gently rinse off the roots, trim off the rotten ones, and then repot with fresh potting mix. From here on in, back off a bit on the moisture–the top inch or so of the soil should be dry before you reach for that watering can.

8. Does Plant Smell Funny?

If the plant smells odd, that may be decay. This can be another sign of root rot—just follow the advice above (#7).

9. Are There Pests?

Do you see pests flying around? Check the soil and leaves to see if pests are crawling around or nestling on or under the leaves. Fungus gnats, aphids, and spider mites love to call houseplants home. We’ve got easy how-to articles on how to identify and get rid of them–just click on the links above. 

While there’s a good chance your ailing plant will recover if it isn’t too far gone, it’s important to remember that, just as we humans need time to get better after an illness, plants need recovery time, too. So, have some patience and think of your plant’s healing time as an excellent opportunity to improve your houseplant caretaking skills! See our complete houseplant guide for beginners.

About The Author

Su Reid-St. John

Su, a master gardener, spent many years editing and writing garden content for Bonnie Plants and Miracle-Gro. Read More from Su Reid-St. John

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