How to Bring a Houseplant Back to Life

Inspiration Tuesday, January 26, 2021 Written by

If you’ve got a house plant that looks like it’s on its last legs, don’t give up hope, you may be able to revive it.

Water and Light

Wilt is the most obvious sign of plant collapse. If you pick up the plant and it’s noticeably light, the problem may be underwatering. Put your finger in the soil, and if the top inch of the soil is dry, water all the way through and let it drain.

The quickest way to kill a house plant is to overwater it. Overwatering can cause soil to become waterlogged and lack sufficient oxygen. It can also cause root rot. To check for root rot, gently remove the root ball from the pot and take a look. Healthy roots should be light-colored and firm, while diseased roots will appear dark and soft. If root rot is the problem, cut out the rotten roots and repot using a well-draining potting mix meant for house plants.

Is your plant pot-bound? A pot-bound plant has filled its pot with roots. The soil will be completely surrounded by a mass of roots and roots may be growing out of the pot’s drainage holes. Since there’s not enough soil to hold the water for all those roots, the plant wilts. You can correct this problem by repotting in a larger pot.

House plants should be repotted in one-inch increments. Planting into too large a container will give the roots more soil than they need. The extra soil will hold too much water, creating excessively wet conditions.

If your plant is spindly, has small or yellowing leaves or few flowers, it may not be getting enough light. Alternatively, if leaves are bleached or whitened, the problem could be too much direct sunlight. Move the plant to a location with better lighting conditions.

A sudden loss of leaves may be caused by a rapid temperature change or by hot or cold drafts.  The best temperature range for indoor plants is 70 to 80 degrees during the day and 65 to 70 degrees at night.

Pest Control

Leaf yellowing or mottling or stunted growth may indicate your plant is infested. Common pests include:

Aphids

These tiny green, brown, or black insects are generally located on the undersides of leaves. They cause stunted growth and distorted foliage. You can control aphids using insecticidal soap. It’s simple to make your own. Use 1 teaspoon of mild dish soap per quart of water and spray on both sides of the leaves and on growing surfaces.

Spider mites

So small they are difficult to see, these bugs produce webbing on foliage and cause distorted yellowish foliage. Wash leaves to remove the mites. You can also use neem oil, which is available at nurseries.

Mealy bugs

These insects have a white cottony appearance and appear on stems, undersides of leaves and on nodes where the leaf attaches to the plant’s stems. Mealy bugs cause stunted growth. To get rid of them, dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol and clean all affected areas.

Scale

These oval brown insects that look a bit like army helmets are found on stems or leaves. They feed on foliage and flowers, causing them to become distorted and discolored. You can use the cotton swab and rubbing alcohol method on scale.

White fly

The tiny, gnat-like insects cause leaves to turn pale yellow or white. Spray with insecticidal soap or neem oil.

Leaf Maintenance

If your plant has white powdery patches on leaves or stems, it’s likely powdery mildew, a fungal disease. The airborne spores can easily spread, so isolate the plant and remove the affected leaves and dispose of them (not in the compost). Providing good air circulation around plants can help prevent this problem.

It’s a good idea to clean the leaves of your plants. Dust on leaves is not only unattractive, it can harm the plant by shading light needed for photosynthesis. Regularly cleaning leaves can make your plants look great and help prevent a pest infestation. Large plants with thick leaves can be cleaned using a damp sponge, while small plants can be dipped in lukewarm water. To dust cacti or hairy-leaved plants such as African Violet, use a small paint brush.

Don’t assume that a sad-looking plant just needs a shot of food because fertilizer won’t help a plant that is suffering from insect infestation, disease or overwatering. There are many brands of house plant fertilizers, from slow release to liquid that you add to your watering can. Fertilize every few weeks during the growing season of spring and summer. During the cooler months, fertilize if the plant is growing.

Regularly examining your plants is the best way to prevent problems or catch them before they escalate.

Resources

List of indoor plants and their growing requirements

Pest management guide