Yellowed leaves. Drooping leaves. Dried leaves. It’s pretty easy (and heartbreaking) to spot a sick houseplant. Who among us has brought home a healthy plant, perhaps a tropical split-leaf monstera or a fuzzy, opalescent succulent, only to soon stand guilty of planticide? (Sheepishly raises hand.) Who has kept a dearly departed air plant on a windowsill months after its expiration as a painful reminder of the crime? (Maybe just me.) What’s less straightforward, and what can be downright daunting, is how to prevent a houseplant’s seemingly preordained demise before it’s too late.
We’re in the midst of a vibrant houseplantaissance. Millennials dig them, particularly apartment dwellers in big cities looking to infuse their corners of cramped real estate with breaths of fresh air from the great, green outdoors. And it’s no wonder why: Healthy houseplants mean healthy humans. Studies have shown that indoor plants boost productivity, purify the air, and bust stress.
Which makes it all the more frustrating — and/or gutting, depending on your personality type — when a houseplant’s health fails. A string of ill-fated plant purchases might even make you wonder if you’re fit to take care of houseplants at all. But friend, you are! It’s absolutely possible to not assassinate your houseplants! Here’s how.
Treat your plants like they’re your pets
Step one for keeping a plant alive? Remember this: It’s alive! And now that you’ve brought it indoors, it needs you. Not entirely unlike a dog or a cat, your houseplant depends on you for its care. That means nutrition, hydration, a supportive home environment, and intuiting its needs.
Plants are aesthetically pleasing and can transform a living space, to be sure, but they’re not simply decoration. “I don’t say that they become a part of your plant family for nothing,” says Hilton Carter, noted plantfluencer and author of Wild at Home. “Plants are living things. They aren’t props.”
Know thyself, know thy space
Carter suggests that folks in the market for a plant figure out what kind of “plant person” they are before bringing one home. “If you’re a busy person, you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you’re purchasing ferns that need to be watered every three days,” says Carter. “Because if you do, then you’re going to end up killing these plants over and over again, and you’re going to consider yourself a ‘bad plant person,’ or someone who has a ‘brown thumb.’ But that’s not really the case. It’s that you don’t know what type of ‘plant person’ you are.”
Do you spend 60 hours a week at work? Do you travel a lot? Are you pretty forgetful? These types of questions aren’t a whole lot different from what to ask yourself before bringing home a dog (at least, we hope you ask yourself these questions). They get at how much energy you are willing to invest in your houseplants. Because let’s face it, plants can be expensive (sometimes really expensive). If you’re going to invest the funds, be sure you can invest the time, too.
Every plant requires a different care regimen — running the gamut from every-other-day maintenance to once-monthly check-ins — and the answers to those Plant Person Questions can point you to which plants are right for your lifestyle. An areca palm might look cool and match your rug, but you should bring one home only if the two of you are a good fit for each other.
And while you’re at it, take an inventory of what your living space brings to the table. The biggie is sunlight. Do you get much of it (yay!), or do you live in a spooky house straight out of a gothic horror story, all heavy drapes and zero sun (no judgment)? Is it humid in your place? Is it dry? Do you crank the heat in winter and/or blast the AC in summer (and, it bears repeating, is your house haunted)? Don’t buy that dracaena because all the beautiful people on Instagram have one; ask your local plant shop what plants might adapt best to the environment you have to offer.
Horticulturist Tovah Martin recommends that plant newbies consider starting out with a class of plants that she terms “indestructibles” — plants like the spider plant, the ZZ plant, and yes, the dracaena. She picked 200 for her book The Indestructible Houseplant that, she writes, “tend to tolerate sub-par conditions and less-than-perfect gardeners.” If you Google “set it and forget houseplant,” which I did, you’ll find a slew of articles boasting plants “that are almost impossible to kill.” But there’s a caveat.
“Anything that is alive can be killed,” Martin says. “[Indestructibles] are plants that can take a lot of abuse, a lot of forgetfulness. But you don’t want to abuse anything, so don’t do it. Don’t go there.” She shares Carter’s earlier point: “Think of them as your pets.”
Become fluent in plant
For anyone unfamiliar with the musical Little Shop of Horrors, a very rare Audrey II plant sings, “Feed me, Seymour!” in a resonant baritone when it’s hungry, which at a certain point in the narrative is always. (Audrey II, it must be noted, is a bloodthirsty alien intent on world domination.)
It’s a shame that real plants can’t talk like that. What they lack in verbal skills, however, they make up for in body language. Those yellowed or drooping or dried leaves are your plant’s pained way of screaming, “Please pay attention to me!”
When it comes to sunlight in particular, “Plants have a clever way of conveying when they need more lumens,” writes Martin in Indestructible Houseplant. “When they bend toward the light source, that’s your cue to move them closer and rotate their containers.”
Overdry soil? Not enough watering. Soggy soil that isn’t escaping through the container’s drainage holes? Too much watering. Soil speaks!
The easiest way to pick up on your houseplants’ cues and become attuned to their needs is to, simply put, enjoy them. “You’re looking at your plants all the time because they’re so beautiful and you’re loving them,” says Martin. “So take a minute to check and see if they need a little drink.”
What to expect when you’re plant parenting
Houseplants don’t necessarily come equipped with a one-size-fits-all how-to. There are a host of factors that play into how best (and how often) to serve your houseplant. Luckily, though, there are only a few key care categories to incorporate into your plantiful lifestyle.
“When I lecture, audience members sit with their pens poised, hoping I will advise them to water every Tuesday or the like,” writes Martin in Indestructible Houseplant. “It doesn’t work that way.” How much and how often to water depends not only on the type of plant but also on weather conditions outside and the temperature you keep your house. The conditions may be variable, but luckily, Martin tells Vox, “The solution is the same. You check the soil to see if it’s dry. That’s the solution.”
Martin cites an oft-repeated myth about watering. “Never, never wait for it to wilt,” she says. “That’s like saying, ‘Wait for your teenager to faint before you feed them.’ That’s stressing the plant. A stressed plant is a plant that’s going to be victim to problems.”
It’s absolutely possible to be overzealous and overwater, a practice akin to helicopter parenting, says Carter. Learn what balance to strike in the watering department by studying up on your plant and by familiarizing yourself with what healthy soil looks and feels like. “If the soil crumbles apart, that’s good,” writes Martin in Indestructible Houseplant. “If it remains in one soggy glob, that’s not good.”
After you bring your plant home, you’ll likely want to repot it in a container that resonates with your personal style. You also probably need to repot it anyway, because often the container your plant comes in doesn’t have drainage holes, which give excess water an escape route. Make sure that water has someplace to run off to.
Following that initial homecoming, there will come a time when you will need to repot your plant so that it can grow bigger and avoid issues like root rot, says Carter. If your plant is wilting, it might need more space for its roots to spread out. Research what healthy roots look like (light and fibrous!) versus what unhealthy roots look like (kind of a gloopy mess).
You might also consider terrariums for certain plants to keep them moist and humid, adds Martin, particularly if you travel for work. Not all plants are made for terrariums, though, so be sure to do your homework first.
- Positioning and rotating
Reading up on how much water your particular plant friend needs will point you in the direction of another plant-specific necessity: sunlight. Assign your most sun-loving plants to your most generous windows, and don’t be afraid to relocate them from time to time to keep them nourished and happy. On the flip side, your plant might be sunlight adverse and prefer shade. The great thing about the modern age in which we live is that you don’t need to guess. Google your plant, go to the library, ask your local plant shopkeeper, DM your favorite plantfluencer, and equip yourself with knowledge.
You’ve got to rotate them too, says Carter. Rotating tends to be an overlooked care tip. The side of your plant that’s directly against the window will, of course, get the most sun, but what many plant parents forget is that this can translate into either overgrowth on one side, causing the plant to topple over, or into a half-fried plant. Don’t topple or fry your plants.
- Leaf care, soil stuff, and pests
You’re going to need to prune those yellowed and dried leaves, and Carter recommends that you wipe your leaves down regularly to boot. Dusting isn’t just for keeping your home clean. Says Carter, “Dust creates a filter between the sunlight and the leaf tissue,” and that barrier keeps the leaf from effectively absorbing the sun’s rays.
And if you’re enjoying an ongoing conversation with your plants — rotating them, wiping down their leaves, checking their soil, etc. — you’ll notice any unwelcome bugs that might infiltrate Plant Town before a full-on invasion hits. For Carter, it all comes back to the pet analogy. “You take your dog for a long walk in the woods. Most good dog parents check their dogs when they get home to make sure they don’t have ticks.”
There are plant enthusiasts, too, who bring in “good bugs” for their plants, like plant YouTuber Summer Rayne Owens. “I think when you get enough plants you’re basically creating this little ecosystem in your home,” Owens told the New Yorker. “And for me it’s the only sensible way to be able to control any kind of outbreak. Otherwise all my plants would be dead.”
Don’t give up!
That poor once-green victim of your forgetfulness or your under-watering or your overwatering or whatever weird confluence of events? Do not despair! It’s possible to revive a dying houseplant and bring it back from the brink of death. And in fact, your yellowed, drooping, dried plant friend might not be as dead as you fear.
“It’s not dead until the stem is completely dried out,” says Carter. Many people, he adds, are too quick to throw out plants they mistakenly believe are dead, when in fact they simply need help. “There’s always, always a chance to turn it around.”
Stephie Grob Plante is a writer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, Playboy, the Atlantic, The Verge, The Goods and elsewhere. She last wrote about the rise of homeopathy for The Highlight.