Do you yearn for a beautiful indoor garden? You have every reason to! Houseplants brighten up your living space and make your decor that much more beautiful, but they also benefit your emotional and physical health.
Houseplants quite literally cleanse the (often rather polluted) indoor air we breathe in throughout the day and night, and some have the amazing ability to cut down on toxic carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene in our homes. Growing and caring for houseplants has further been proven to lift our mood, and even to increase our cognitive abilities by rewarding us with a better memory!
Houseplants are amazing in every way, then, and that’s exactly why you keep bringing them home. Every time, you promise yourself that you will do better — that you will take excellent care of this little life form, providing it with everything it could possibly need. Every time, your new houseplant seems to be doing well, only to eventually start withering.
When your houseplant is beginning to send out clear distress signals, you probably start Googling frantically in an effort to discover how to save it. Alas. It’s already too late. After a struggle, which may be long or short, your beautiful new plant ends up in the compost heap. Another one has bitten the dust.
Should you declare yourself a supervillain — one who goes by the ominous moniker “red thumb”? Should the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants (don’t worry, that’s not actually a thing) ban you from ever owning another houseplant?
Hang on a second. There’s still hope. If you can pinpoint the underlying causes of the repeated plant manslaughter (plantslaughter?) you have committed, you might be able to keep a houseplant alive in the future. In fact, you might find yourself with an entire indoor garden, wondering how so many plants could ever have perished in your care.
We’re here to help. Hint: Please do read about the top reasons that cause houseplants to die before bringing another houseplant home.
What Are Houseplants?
Houseplants are, “the free encyclopedia” (Wikipedia) declares, plants “that are grown indoors”, “mainly for decorative purposes”. We are here, of course, talking about homes and commercial spaces where people work, so it is important to keep in mind that spaces occupied by humans tend to have certain characteristics.
We generally like to live in temperature conditions roughly between 68 to 72 °F (20 to 22 °C), which are popularly called “room temperature”. The US Environmental Protection Agency further recommends that we keep the relative humidity levels in our homes and places of work between 30 and 50 percent. Depending on the season and the steps we take toward climate control, those conditions may vary — for instance, if you don’t use air conditioning, the temperature in your home may rise to be significantly warmer, and your heating generally dries the air significantly during the winter.
Lighting conditions in homes and office spaces span the entire range, but we all likely have “shadier” and “sunnier” spots available in our homes.
Keeping all of this in mind, “houseplant” should be defined as the type of plant that can thrive in the conditions you have in your home. Because you’ll be watering your plants, rainfall doesn’t really come into it, but the temperature, humidity, and lighting conditions should all be appropriate.
The kinds of conditions we have indoors generally allow us to bring more exotic or tropical plants into our homes, but these plants do not automatically thrive because they are indoors. Plants do well in conditions that simulate their native habitats, and not all plants are suitable houseplants — and by the same token, not all plants that can be grown as houseplants will be right for your home.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top reasons for which houseplants die.
You know that your plants need water to stay alive, so you keep watering them. Perhaps you even get into a nice little routine where you water all your plants every day. Overwatering your plants is easy to do. It can damage their root systems, quite literally drown them, and make them vulnerable to life-threatening fungal infections. Overwatering is likely the number one reason why your houseplants keep dying, and you should start your search here.
Each plant species has its own water needs, so it is important to know the name of every plant you bring home, so that you can look up how often it should be watered. If you don’t know how much water your plant needs, keep in mind that most plants don’t tolerate perpetually soggy or waterlogged conditions well at all, and that you should typically only water a plant when the top inch (two and a half centimeters) of its soil has dried out. You can easily check this with a wooden chopstick from a Chinese takeaway, or even a wooden toothpick.
You’re here — reading about the reasons for which your houseplants keep dying — so you are not the type of person who would buy houseplants and forget to water them. “Underwatering” doesn’t quite deserve its own section, but it’s still worth mentioning that never watering your plants will also cause them to die.
2. Root Rot Caused by Poor Drainage
Overwatering is so much more damaging if your plant sits in soil that cannot drain well for whatever reason. Keep in mind that nearly all plants need well-draining soil, with only a few notable exceptions. That means it is crucial to ensure that the pots in which you keep your houseplants have drainage holes, through which excess water can escape. It also means that that tray below the pot, which is there to collect excess water, should be emptied frequently to make sure the excess water doesn’t lead to root rot. It may also mean that you need to place rocks or gravel at the very bottom of the pot, below the soil, to encourage drainage.
Once root rot sets in, root pruning — during which you remove the diseased portions — can sometimes save the plant. It is very often a death sentence, however.
3. Failing to Repot Your Houseplants
Repotting a houseplant can be scary. You may be afraid that you will damage the plants roots, and keep putting it off. Root-bound plants need healthy fresh soil to “explore”, take root in, and keep growing, and a plant that’s more than outgrown its pot will eventually perish.
If you’re not sure whether it’s time to repot your plant, look up information on the frequency with which your particular plant should be repotted. Then, closely follow the instructions you find — and your plant will continue to grow and thrive.
It is also important to take into account that soil becomes increasingly acidic over time, and not all plants like that. So even if your plant has ample space, the old soil you have in its existing pot may no longer be adequate for the houseplant. This is another compelling reason to repot from time to time.
4. Errors in Fertilizing the Plant
Each plant has unique nutritional needs. Some will begin to protest if you feed them fertilizer at all, because they have adapted to grow and thrive in nutrient-poor soil. Others will get sad if you give them the wrong type of fertilizer. The frequency with which you feed your houseplant fertilizer also has a great impact on its health.
Sadly, there is absolutely no hard and fast rule when it comes to fertilizer. Garden Beast has published ample guides on how to grow and care for specific plant species, including those that are often grown as houseplants, and we’d like to invite you to explore them if you are looking for information on caring for a specific plant. Sometimes, altering the fertilizer regime will help your plant grow strong and healthy again, even when it was really struggling before.
5. Wrong Light Conditions
Houseplants are placed in pots, making them mobile, so this is one problem you can work to rectify immediately. Most plants, whether houseplants or garden plants, thrive in full sun to partial shade. For practical purposes, this means that plants classified as needing full sun exposure need at least six hours of direct sun exposure every day to be the healthiest and happiest they can be. These plants should be placed near a window where they get that, or may even need to be moved around periodically, whether daily or with changing seasons, to maximize their sun exposure. Houseplants that need partial shade will need two to four hours of direct sun, and will generally be happy with some afternoon shade.
If you have a rare plant that does better in shady conditions, this too should be accommodated for the plant to thrive.
Houseplants that require more light than many can benefit from a grow light to support its growth; one example would be a Venus flytrap.
6. Wrong Temperature or Humidity Conditions
Most plants that thrive as houseplants, and are therefore sold as such, tolerate the conditions typical in homes. We won’t therefore devote much time to discussing this, but it’s still possible that you’re keeping your plant in excessively cool or hot conditions. Your plant may not want to be right on the windowsill (and above your radiator, in many cases), both because it is too hot and because it receives a constant influx of dry air. It may not do well in an unheated conservatory. Look up the ideal temperature range for your plant, and you may save its life.
In terms of humidity, some plants thrive in dry conditions, while others need moisture from the air. Most are somewhere in between. Again, discover more about your plant’s needs to be able to give it what it needs. Sometimes, installing a humidifier or dehumidifier can save your plant. If you have a lot of plants, you will want to make sure they all have similar needs.
7. Pests and Plant Diseases
Many plants, including houseplants, are susceptible to pests and plant diseases, such as spider mites, mealybugs, fungal infections, and root rot. Keep an eye out for signs of these, and treat with fungicides, neem oil, or citrus insecticide as needed.
8. Wrong Soil Type
Not all houseplants thrive in typical houseplant potting mixes. Some need loamy soil or rocky soil designed for cacti, for instance. If you are planning to repot your plant, look up what soil it does best in before you proceed, or you may deal it a fatal blow.
9. Pets, Children, and Other Sources of Stress
Some houseplants can easily be moved from one spot to another, without suffering any stress. Other plants stress easily, even when they are moved from one location in the same room to another. Some need frequent repotting, while others become stressed when their roots are interfered with. Keeping your individual plant’s needs in mind can help you keep it alive.
If you have a dog, a cat, a bird like a macaw or budgie, or a small rodent, you will already know that these pets can often playfully interfere with houseplants. In some cases, they might like to nibble away at the plant until the point where it dies. In others, they might like to wack at the plant’s leaves or dig in the soil. All of these factors can cause yet another houseplant to perish. Keep your plants outside your pets’ reach, maybe in a room where they don’t go or higher up, and your plants will live longer.
Small children can sometimes cause similar damage, so they should be supervised and taught not to mess with plants — not just for the plant’s safety, of course, but also their own, because some houseplants are poisonous to people.
If you want houseplants to thrive in your home, do your research even before you bring a plant home. Find out what a particular plant species needs, and only add the plant to your home if you can offer that. If you establish that a plant could do well in your home, keep learning more about its needs as you go, and your plant will likely live a very long time — or at least, it will have a fighting chance!