It’s hard enough to keep our outdoor plants alive during hot summers and frigid winters, but when our indoor plants start popping off it can be even more alarming. When symptoms arise, the first step is to check for evidence of a pest infestation. Lacking that, it’s time to reconsider how you’ve been caring for the plant.
Since plants vary in their needs, it is challenging to find the right balance of moisture in the soil, sunlight-to-shade and optimal temperatures. Luckily, most plants sold to be grown indoors hail from the tropics, specifically tropical rainforests. Recreate those conditions and you should be one step closer to providing a healthy environment for your houseplants.
The symptoms of both under-watering and overwatering can be similar, but as a rule of thumb, if the leaves seem soft, with spots that appear rotten, and they aren’t developing as they should, too much water may be the culprit.
Plants that don’t receive sufficient water have foliage that appears dry, with brown edges and the leaves on the lower part of the plant may be yellow or curled. Help the dry plant by watering more frequently.
Few houseplants (aside from succulents) can tolerate dry soil but you don’t want the roots to sit in soggy soil so aim for the soil moisture content to be similar to a well-wrung sponge.
If you aren’t sure when to water, stick your finger into the soil, about an inch deep. If it feels dry, water the plant slowly until water drains from the bottom of the pot. Another way to water is to place the pot in a container and add water to the container until it reaches halfway up the outside of the pot. The soil will suck the water from the container. When the top of the soil is wet, remove the plant from the water and allow it to drain completely before placing it back in its saucer.
Even plants that thrive in shade require a bit of light now and then. Think of the understory in a rain forest – the play of light between the tall trees’ foliage. That’s dappled sunlight and many houseplants thrive in it. Others, however, require more sun. If any of your houseplants display the following symptoms, move them to a place where they will get more (indirect) sunlight:
- Foliage that curls upward
- The plant is stretching toward the light source
- New growth is unusually small
- Leaves fall off the plant
Before moving the plant, check the foliage for dust. Even a small amount can block sunlight, so dust the leaves before relocating the plant.
If you’ve ever visited the tropics, you’ll recall that the air is heavy with moisture. Many houseplants, such as the Boston fern and African violet, thrive in this type of environment. Unfortunately, with heaters running in the winter and the A/C in the summer, the air inside our homes tends to dry out.
If your African violets’ buds fail to open, suspect a lack of humidity as the cause. Other symptoms include darkened edges of leaves, dry and shriveled leaves and slow plant growth.
A cool-mist humidifier, set close enough to the plant so that it benefits from the moist air but the foliage doesn’t become wet, is the ideal solution. Double potting the plants may help as well. Choose an additional pot that is just slightly wider than the one in which your plant is growing and place the potted plant in it. Then, fill the empty spaces around the smaller pot with peat moss. Keep the moss moist and it will provide a moderate amount of humidity for the plant.
Plants that drop leaves may be telling you they don’t like the temperature of the room. The ideal temperature for many houseplants is between 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Place plants away from any sources of drafts, such as doorways, furnaces and air conditioning vents.
Experts recommend that houseplants be fed monthly while they are actively growing, and that fertilizer be withheld in the winter. The symptoms of a plant in need of nutrients mimic those of other maladies, so if none of the above seem to help the plant, consider how much and how often you fertilize it. Dropping lower leaves, weak growth or a pale or yellow-green color signifies a nutritional deficiency. Burned leaves means it may be getting too much or that the fertilizer isn’t diluted properly. Organic fertilizers will help you avoid the burn, as long as you don’t use too much. Follow the label directions carefully.