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How to Tell if a Houseplant is Pot-Bound

People who take care of houseplants long enough will eventually run into houseplants that have become pot-bound. If you give certain types of houseplants the right growing conditions, this could be a question you’re asking almost every year. Sometimes, it’s easy to tell with clear-cut signs that a houseplant is pot-bound. In other cases, the signs are more subtle. With this guide, you’ll know how to tell if your houseplant is pot-bound and what you should do about it.

Signs of a Pot-Bound Houseplant

  • Exposed, overgrown roots are one of the most obvious signs of a pot-bound houseplant. This could be roots poking out the top of the soil, or it could be roots coming out the bottom of the drainage holes. However, some plants, like orchids, have naturally exposed roots, so you need to know the type of houseplant you’re dealing with.
  • The houseplant is drying out more quickly than usual. This is a side effect of the roots breaking down the soil. Without enough soil, the water washes through the pot too quickly. Discoloration and wilted growth may be a sign of a pot-bound plant.
  • Many pot-bound houseplants are hard to remove or even stuck in their pots. In some cases, the root ball forms in a place where it can’t escape the confines of the pot. These roots may crack or deform the pot from the pressure of its new growth.

Houseplants that Like Being Pot-Bound

Several types of houseplants are known to like being pot-bound, but this is something of a myth. It’s not so much that these pot-bound houseplants like cramped conditions. Rather, it’s that these houseplants respond to these conditions in favorable ways. Simply put, being pot-bound stresses the plant. Many types of plants respond to this stress by producing new offshoots (spider plants) or flowers (peace lily) to ensure a new generation of plants. Some plants will survive the stress of being pot-bound for many years but are already stressed to the point that repotting them may do more harm than good. African Violets, for example, are very hard to transplant successfully once they’ve become pot-bound.

Pot-Bound vs. Root-Bound Plants

Root-bound plants are a closely related condition to pot-bound plants, though there are some differences. Pot-bound plants have consumed so much of the potting soil that there’s not enough growing medium left to provide enough nutrients, hold enough water, and allow the plant to continue to grow. Root-bound plants have had their roots turn in on themselves creating an increasingly dense root ball that threatens to strangle itself while also not finding enough nutrients in the growing medium. You can read more about the differences between root-bound and pot-bound plants from Nellie Neal at the Clarion Ledger.

How to Repot Houseplants

While transplanting will stress a plant, healthy plants quickly bounce back and see new growth. Even many struggling, pot-bound houseplants will quickly find their footing and again become strong, established plants. There are some basic steps to repotting houseplants, but the trickiest part is often removing the plant from its current pot. Pot-bound houseplants with extensive root growth often stubbornly cling to the pot. Learn even more about how to repot houseplants that are pot-bound.

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Best Home Humidity Levels for Houseplants

Houseplants may struggle when the air has too much or too little humidity, so it’s good to know the best home humidity levels for houseplants. There is no exact number that fits every climate and houseplant, but the range is usually somewhere between the 30-60% recommended by the EPA for general home humidity. Too much humidity can lead to mold, bacteria, gnats, and increased risk of root rot, while too little humidity makes the plant vulnerable to spider mites, scale, aphids, and other pests that thrive on warm, dry air. These are among the most common houseplant killers in which advanced infestations may require you to start over or fight an indefinite battle with houseplant pests. But the pests themselves are only one part of the reason houseplants struggle in dry air.

Low Humidity Levels and Houseplant Pests

It’s not just that common houseplant pests like dry, warm air. The plants themselves may be vulnerable due to low humidity levels. If you live in an arid climate, it’s only the most drought-resistant succulents that will live their best lives. Most houseplants can still grow and look good in drier climates, especially if you stay up on its watering and fertilizer needs. At the same time, you may have a houseplant that’s done well for years, but during an especially dry year or because an adjacent plant became host to a pest, this houseplant gets an infestation and is never the same.

Another reason houseplant pest control is harder with low humidity is that it adversely affects predatory bugs. One of the most effective forms of houseplant pest control is to introduce other bugs that prey on houseplant pests. This is especially true if you can identify the type of pest and then determine if it has a natural predator. One of the most common types of plant pests is the spider mite, but there is also a bug called the spider mite destroyer. The only problem is that predatory mites and other bugs that might serve as pest control aren’t viable in humidity levels lower than 50-60%. Most homes require a whole home humidifier system to maintain this humidity level.   

High Humidity Levels and Mold Growth

People who live in a tropical or high-humidity climate need to be on the lookout for different warning signs. Too much humidity comes with its own set of risk factors including mold, bacteria, or fungal growth. Mold is the most common, but these problems are all treated pretty much the same. The first step is to physically remove as much of the mold as possible. For minor mold growth, you may be able to prevent new mold growth by increasing the ventilation and/or drainage so the soil can dry out between watering. More widespread mold may require repotting with fresh soil.

For further control and prevention, a simple home remedy is to dissolve one teaspoon of baking soda in one quart of water. You can also find many types of fungicidal treatments and products. These products are fine and good if you have them available, but don’t wait if you have baking soda ready to go. Better to treat the plant as soon as possible, and then follow up with targeted treatments as necessary.

What’s the Best Home Humidity Levels for Houseplants?

The best humidity levels for houseplants is usually within the high end of the range for a comfortable, healthy home. We frequently suggest somewhere between 45-55% to accommodate the widest range of plants. In general, it’s helpful but not essential for houseplants to have a whole house humidifier. Some houseplants including most succulents do fine with dry air, but many houseplants will do best with just a little extra humidity. If you live in a dry climate but want to grow more tropical houseplant varieties, some type of home humidifier may be essential. If you live in a tropical or coastal climate with high humidity, it’s important to maintain good ventilation in areas with houseplants. For seasonal climates, the time of year also plays a role with colder outdoor temperatures leading to lower humidity. Here is a handy chart of home humidity levels based on outdoor temperatures.

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What is Root Rot?

Root rot is an opportunistic infestation of mold spores that occurs when roots are waterlogged and unoxygenated. The roots begin to decay and with the high-moisture content, it creates the perfect environment for fungal spores to germinate and do serious harm to your houseplant. With prolonged water saturation, root decay may occur even in the direct absence of mold and fungal spores. There are countless types of root rot that may get a foothold first or be uniquely suited to that plant root and soil environment. Some of the most common types of fungus and pathogens that can take advantage of root rot include phytophthora, pythium, rhizoctonia, and fusarium.

What to Do about Root Rot

Now that you know what root rot is, the question becomes what to do about it. In most cases, this problem is only noticed when advanced enough to show symptoms above the soil line. This might include discolored or wilted leaves, stunted growth, or an odd smell coming from the plant. There are also common symptoms for root rot in different types of plants. Usually, there’s not much you can do except expose and cut out the affected portion of the plant. This could include some part of the root, stem, or plant foliage. Moving forward, it’s essential to figure out the best way to reduce soil moisture while maintaining a reasonable watering schedule for that plant. If the houseplant was accidentally watered multiple times by different people, this might require little action beyond setting a houseplant care schedule.

What is the Treatment for Root Rot?

There are chemical fungicides that can target and neutralize specific or general root rot infestations. However, these treatments are NOT recommended because they are expensive and not widely available in home and gardening stores. Plus, while the plant may recover more quickly with this type of treatment, extensive root damage still won’t be able to suddenly repair itself. Still, if you have a home full of cherished houseplants, having an antifungal treatment on hand may help you quickly treat and save more of the houseplant.

Prevention and Houseplant Care

Prevention is the best way to fight root rot because root damage is often irreparable and because following a few easy steps should be sufficient to prevent rot in most every case. Really, it boils down to recognizing and following a few of the basic principles of houseplant care:

  • Make sure your houseplants are in pots with good drainage.
  • Especially for succulents, make sure the soil is fast-draining with lots of aerators and soil amendments.
  • Avoid excessive misting or overwatering your houseplants.
  • If you live in a humid climate, you might also think about an air dehumidifier.

If you’re continually struggling with this problem, one of the surest ways to prevent root rot is to water from below and follow other houseplant watering guidelines. More than just using a pot with good drainage, use a catchment pot that will allow you to carefully control the water and moisture level in the root system before emptying the catchment water and letting the soil aerate and dry out.

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Do Succulents Need Special Soil?

Yes, succulents need special soil. All houseplants need aerated potting soil, whereas in-ground plants use nutrient-dense topsoil. Drought-resistant succulents, however, benefit from soil that’s even more aerated than regular potting soil. This is done by adding a slightly higher concentration of perlite and sand to the potting mix. The extra aeration helps prevent root rot by allowing the soil to drain and dry out more quickly.

What about houseplants that have already been potted? Do succulents need special soil to survive? Certainly, many succulents can tolerate ordinary potting soil, which already has considerable aeration, but it does complicate the plant care. Specifically, you’ll have less room for error when it comes to overwatering and underwatering. You may be able to repot the succulent in the preferred dry potting mix. Most plants can overcome the short-term stress of being repotted, especially if the new conditions are compatible for the plant.

Now, if the succulent has been doing fine in its current potting soil and watering schedule, you might simply use the special potgting soil for succulents when the time comes to add soil. The opposite is also true. Many tropical houseplants can survive or even thrive in the dry potting mix for succulents by watering just a little more frequently than you would otherwise. That said, it’s hard enough to get the watering schedule just right for healthy houseplants with strong growth. We recommend using special potting soil for succulents when putting a plant in a new pot.

How to Find Special Potting Soil for Succulents

The good news is that it’s easy to find the special soil that succulents need. Major gardening brands offer specially formulated potting soil for succulents and cactuses. There may be other subtle differences as well, but usually these potting mixes simply have more perlite, sand or other aerating agents. You can also make your own special potting soil for succulents. Here is a DIY succulent potting soil mix from Get Busy Gardening, or you can also check out this YouTube video from Fine Gardening.

Use Dry Potting Soil to Help with Overwatering

If you feel like you’re consistently following the water recommendations for your houseplants but still seeing signs of overwatering, it could be a sign that your potting mix is holding too much moisture. People who make the mistake of using topsoil for their houseplants will inevitably struggle with root rot. Putting houseplants in pots without drainage is another common reason to use potting soil with more aeration. Sometimes, root rot can be an issue even with tropical plants that prefer consistently moist soil. The first step is to reduce the frequency and/or amount of water, but another way to help this problem is to add perlite or some succulent potting mix to increase the aeration in your pot.

Other Types of Potting Soil for Indoor Plants

Many types of houseplants will thrive in a standard indoor potting mix that is formulated to provide a viable growing medium for a wide variety of plants. In addition to special soil for succulents and cactuses, there are different types of potting soil and growing mediums for orchids, African violets, and other specialized houseplants. There are also moisture control soil mixes that retain but then slowly release moisture into the soil.

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Why is Overwatering Houseplants So Common?

Overwatering is one of the most common problems people experience with their houseplant care. Even many people who are aware of the danger can sometimes end up overwatering their houseplants. Troublesome signs of overwatering include pale, waterlogged leaves; soft, mushy stems; a moldy or rotten smell; yellow or brown discoloration; stunted growth or dropped leaves. If you believe overwatering houseplants is keeping one of your plants from living its best life, consider whether one of these common causes may be the culprit.

  • Overwatering vs. Underwatering Houseplants: Because many of the signs of overwatering houseplants may also describe what happens when underwatering plants, it’s important to look at the entire plant and your recent watering schedule to recognize the difference between the two. You should also recognize that if you’ve been neglecting your houseplants to the point that they are underwatered that you can’t fix the problem by overcompensating and overwatering the plant.
  • Amount vs. Frequency: How often and how much water you give a houseplant is not the same thing. Many people give their houseplants a small amount of water at frequent intervals, when the plant would prefer deep watering spaced out over more time. Misting houseplants is not the same as watering. In extreme cases, it’s even possible to overwater a houseplant and create root rot or mold in the topmost layers of soil, while the bottom of the pot and root system is bone dry.
  • Poor Drainage: Often, signs of overwatering houseplants isn’t about the water at all but is rather a consequence of excessive moisture in the soil. This can happen because the pot doesn’t have drainage holes, the soil doesn’t have enough aerators and fast-draining amendments. If you’re seeing clear signs of overwatering despite only infrequently watering the plant, consider whether the underlying cause is insufficient drainage. Repot the plant and/or amend the soil to improve drainage.
  • Summer Loving: When most people think of their houseplants, they imagine the plant as it looks and acts in spring and summer when bright light and warmer temperatures create the highest watering level needs for the whole year. Many people fail to adjust their watering schedule for the season or else they mistakenly reset their watering schedule after being away from home to this higher watering level.

What to Do for an Overwatered Houseplant

First and foremost, you need to accurately recognize the signs of overwatering houseplants. If there is serious discoloration or damage, that part of the plant is unlikely to recover and should be excised and thrown away. Keep any part of the plant that looks green and healthy. If the damage is minimal and the pot already has good drainage, you may be able to let the soil dry out and then resume a watering schedule tailored for that type of plant. In a more severe case, you should remove and repot the least damaged or discolored part of the plant in fresh potting soil with good drainage.

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Can Houseplants Think? Do Plants Have Consciousness?

The scientific consensus is that plants do not have the kind of cognitive faculties necessary to support a consciousness that includes things like self-awareness, theory of mind, or complex emotions. That said, plants do have sophisticated mechanisms for sensing, perceiving, and responding to their environment. Plants do not simply sprout out of the ground, grow toward the sun, and hope for the best. If you watch houseplants for long enough and in a wide range of circumstances, it’s not uncommon to get the impression that maybe plants can think, maybe plants are self-conscious. With this in mind, here are some of the most critical and impressive aspects of plant perception that will help you appreciate the complexity of your houseplants, while also recognizing that houseplants cannot think as we do.

Proprioception: This is the plant’s ability to perceive itself in space. The plant knows if it sends off a growth shoot toward another part of its foliage, the two parts of the plant will connect and can be used for mutual support. The plant will also know where it still has room to grow. Proprioception also plays a crucial role in the plant’s ability to balance itself, while maintaining its other physiological processes. Humans also have proprioception, but this cognitive faculty is distinct from self-consciousness.

Geotropism: Also called gravitropism, this is the plant’s ability to sense gravity. Statoliths within specialized statocyte cells are denser than the surrounding cytoplasm and are sensitive to the force of gravity. But more than just knowing which way is up and which way is down, the plant shows a differentiated response. The plant roots are constantly trying to grow down with gravity, while the stems are constantly trying to grow up against gravity. More than just proprioception and geotropism, some plants can sense orientation and gradients to a degree that they have a fully formed sense of balance, or equilibrioception.

Photomorphogenesis: This is the plant’s ability to detect light and modulate its growth pattern. Again, the plant shows a differentiated response in which the roots are programmed to grow away from light, while the stems and foliage and programmed to grow toward light. This process begins as soon as the seed is germinated. A combination of phytochromes, cryptochromes, and phototropins also allow the plant to detect and respond to various duration, strength, and wavelengths of light. The plant has its own Circadian rhythm, internal clock, and seasonal adaptations. A related process, photoperiodism, detects periods of darkness to regulate when the plant produces its flowers.

Response to Other Stimuli: Space, gravity, and light are some of the most important and obvious ways that plants mimic behavior that can create the impression that plants can think. Even still, these are far from the only stimuli that plants can detect and respond to. Plants can also detect moisture, temperature, sound, touch, physical trauma, pests, and a wide range of chemicals in their environment. They can detect chemicals released by other plants and animals and release their own chemicals to repel unwanted pests and warn other plants that pests are in the area. They can communicate in a kind of common plant language.

Final Thoughts on Plant Consciousness

With these complex sensory and perceptual faculties, it’s no wonder that people wonder whether or not houseplants can think, and whether they might have a consciousness similar to our own. Know that scientists have taken the question quite seriously, but the research and best scientific minds believe plants don’t have consciousness as we think of it. Sure, you can attempt to parse certain aspects of plant perception in ways that parallel human consciousness. In many ways, plants can see, hear, smell, and respond to stimulus, but again the consensus is that the evidence is lacking that plants can learn, feel, or think in complex ways.

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Popular Myths about Houseplant Care Practices

If you’re just starting to learn about how to care for houseplants, we recommend you check out our general guide that covers all aspects of houseplant care. If you’re trying to fine-tune your knowledge, learn about some of the misconceptions that may be holding you back. Some myths about houseplant care have taken on a life—and a brand—of their own. (Just adding ice is not the best way to water orchids, for example.) Other myths come from misapplying some basic facts about houseplants or else failing to recognize the ways in which houseplant care can be counterintuitive. 

We have a separate page that discusses myths about potting and placing houseplants. In this space, we wanted to focus on dispelling popular myths about houseplant care practices including light exposure, watering, temperature, and soil quality.

Common Myths about Houseplant Care

  • Water can Focus and Burn Plants in Direct Sunlight: This is just as common with watering the lawn and outdoor plants, but we’ve heard it about houseplants, too. The theory goes that the round water droplets can act as a magnifying glass to focus the sunlight and burn the plant. The theory makes a kind of sense, but it doesn’t represent the facts. Water can act as a magnifying leaves but doesn’t have enough space to focus the sunlight. There is something of this effect on plants with strong hairs that can capture water some distance from the leaf, but even then the science suggests that the cooling effect of evaporating water counteracts much of the added heat.
  • Misting is Good for Houseplants: Arguably, misting houseplants can provide a few, isolated benefits. For one thing, it can serve as a de facto cleaning mechanism for leaves that have gotten dusty, for example. Under direct sunlight in summer, misting can provide a cooling blast and lower the humidity, if only for a few minutes. Misting air plants can help you procrastinate on a full watering soak. That’s about it—even then you need to be careful when misting houseplants. Too much and you can encourage mold and pests to get a foothold. If you want to increase humidity, a pebble water tray or air humidifier is a better method.
  • Using Leaf Shine Products to Clean Plants: The popular home remedies for leaf shine include a mixture of water with milk or mayonnaise. There are also leaf shine products that make all kinds of outlandish claims. Yet, there’s no good evidence to think that leaf shine is any better than water. The important thing is to keep dust and other debris off the plant so the leaves can breathe. This can be done with water and a soft, clean cloth. Most leaf shine won’t hurt the plant directly, but some poorly made or poorly applied products may leave a residue on the leaves which can attract dust and make it even harder for the plant to breathe.
  • Chlorinated Water is Harmful to Plants: This goes hand-in-hand with letting a full jug of water sit overnight to let chlorine and other chemicals settle. There is no evidence that the levels of chlorinated water you’ll find in tap water can harm houseplants. There is more of a debate about whether fluoridated water and fluoride exposure can stunt the growth of plants known to have a higher sensitivity to fluoride, like spider plants. Moreover, forever chemicals and systemic failures to municipal water can lead to unhealthy tap water for plants, pets, and humans. That’s why even though we’re not worried about chlorinated water, we use filtered water for some of our cherished houseplants just in case.  
  • Fertilizer will help weak, stunted growth: Fertilizer provides the final ingredients that houseplants need to take advantage of the extra light and warmth that comes with spring and summer. It is not a health remedy, and it’s not a cure-all for weak growth. Worse, if the plant’s growth has stalled as a natural consequence of the winter season, adding fertilizer could do more harm than good as it sits in and degrades the soil rather than getting sucked up into new plant growth.
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Why is My Houseplant Turning Red?

Often, the direct cause of a houseplant turning red is the plant releasing protective antioxidants called anthocyanins. Used by many different types of plants, these anthocyanins offer protection against too much light, too little water, and other stressors. Many deciduous trees and shrubs will naturally turn red in the fall season as a way of salvaging the nutrients in the leaves before they fall to the ground. Some plants also have leaves that are red when they are new and actively growing, before turning green when the leaves reach maturity.

Indoor houseplants do not go through these same seasonal growth patterns, but their leaves can still turn red as the result of environmental stressors. If you’re noticing some reddening on the tips of leaves, there’s no reason to panic, but you should take steps to determine the underlying cause in case it does threaten the longevity of your houseplants.

Too Much Direct Sunlight

Some houseplants will turn red as a way of coping with too much direct sunlight. Many types of jade plants—which like lots of indirect light and some direct light—are known for turning red in the summer if they start to receive too much direct light. This reddening is usually not the sign of anything serious. In many mild cases, it’s like a summer tan for the plant that will gradually fade back to a lush green throughout the winter. Notably, some people want to know how to make their houseplant turn red. If you like the look of red jades, you can intentionally give your houseplant a sunnier spot and fast-draining potting soil that hasn’t been enriched with extra nutrients.

Water and Temperature Changes

Even in summer, direct light exposure isn’t the only possible cause. If you start reducing watering frequency prematurely, this can prematurely cut off nutrients to the remaining foliage growth and the plant may turn red as a result. Water softeners, hard minerals, and metals can also cause reddening. Similarly, if the plant suffers a temperature shock, especially from warmer to cooler temperatures, the houseplant may turn red. These problems can affect many types of plants but are especially common with jade and jasmine plants.

Soil Imbalance

Soil imbalances can also cause houseplants to turn red. If you’ve added too much fertilizer or if it’s been a long time since you’ve added fertilizer, soil amendments, or fresh potting soil, this could be the culprit. Likewise, if you’ve been tinkering with your soil composition with a new kind of fertilizer or if some kind of contaminant has been introduced to the soil, one of the signs could be leaves that start to turn red.

The key takeaways here are that often a houseplant turning red is nothing to worry about, especially if you’ve been keeping up in general with houseplant care practices. Even still, you should investigate the change in coloration and the circumstances to make sure there aren’t more serious problems that lie ahead.

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Myths about Potting and Placing Houseplants

There is no shortage of myths about houseplants in general. It’s easy to take basic facts about how plants live and grow and come to the wrong conclusions about what’s best for choosing, potting and placing houseplants. There are also many popular myths about houseplant care. Here, we wanted to focus on some of the most common myths about potting and placing houseplants in your home or office.

Biggest Myths about Potting and Placing Houseplants

  • Placing Houseplants Will Affect Your Indoor Air Quality: A misunderstood NASA study continues to perpetuate the myth that houseplants can improve indoor air quality. This study looked strictly at the effect of plants on closed environments like you might find on a space station. A different myth suggests the opposite: You should avoid putting houseplants in bedrooms because they will hurt your indoor air quality. The simple facts are that houseplants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen during the day, while releasing carbon dioxide overnight, but there is enough space and ventilation that these emissions do not appreciably change the overall air quality in your home or office space. Houseplants can affect mood and mental health that may improve breathing indirectly, but this has nothing to do with the indoor air quality.
  • Plants Grow Bigger in Bigger Pots: Most people who know their houseplants can tell you that this isn’t true, but it’s a self-perpetuating myth based on people’s intuitions. It’s easy to think that if you want a houseplant to get bigger, it needs room to grow. It’s also easy to think that because repotting puts stress on the plant, it’s better to start with a bigger pot. The facts are houseplants need comparatively little soil to sustain new growth. Instead, they need easily accessible potting soil and less competition. Bigger pots hold more soil which retain more water and can lead to root rot. It also provides more opportunity for mold, bugs, and other houseplant pests to get a foothold. Think of the stress of repotting a houseplant as a positive stressor that stimulates new growth. By knowing what type of houseplant you’re potting, it’s easy to choose the correct size pot and to know the signs for when it’s time to repot.
  • You Should Put Gravel in the Bottom of Pots: There are a lot of people who think that if you’re going to put a houseplant in a pot without drainage holes, it’s best to put small rocks or gravel at the bottom of the pot to help drainage and prevent root rot. The truth is a little more complicated. Excess water will sit at the bottom of the pot without hurting the plant, but it won’t be helping, either. You will still need to water enough to get the bottommost part of the root wet. It’s when the soil stays moist for a prolonged period of time near the top of the root that serious root rot can set in. Thus, by putting gravel in the bottom of the pot, you’re shortening the available growing medium and the potential distance between the bottom and top of the root system. By putting dirt through to the bottom of the pot, you won’t need to water as much to give the plant what it needs. An even better plan is to always use pots with drainage holes, except in special circumstances like when growing hydroponic plants.
  • Some Plants can Grow without Light. Full shade plants is not the same as plants that can grow with light. You may have an office or houseplant that has good environmental conditions, is a full-shade plant and is coping with indirect light from across the room. Sunlight likes to bounce around. Even small windows or plants near open doors that may catch sunlight from an adjacent at least have a chance. It doesn’t take much in other words, but if you have houseplants in a basement, media room, or bathroom with no windows at all, plants will not grow or stay alive indefinitely without the aid of special indoor grow lights. These types of lights may cost anywhere from $50-$250 or more.
  • All Houseplants do Best in South-Facing Windows. It’s so common for a houseplant that’s lingered along for several months or even years with a minimal amount of light to brighten up and sprout new growth in a south-facing window that it’s become something of a myth that all houseplants do best in south-facing windows. It’s one of the more versatile windows, and some of the most popular houseplants like lots of indirect and some direct sunlight that it reinforces the myth. However, this is far from universally true. Worse, if you take a cherished houseplant that’s experiencing mild symptoms of overwatering or less than ideal soil conditions but is ill-suited for direct sunlight, you might inadvertently kill the plant in an attempt to brighten up its leaves.
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Why is My Houseplant Turning Brown?

Houseplant leaves may turn brown for a variety of reasons. This most often occurs when a houseplant does not have the requisite water and nutrients to support its current foliage, and the leaves start to die back. Often, there’s nothing that can be done to save the withered growth, and it should be pruned from the plant to make room for new growth. By understanding the cause of the browning leaves, you can hopefully ensure the plant can support and maintain green, healthy growth in the future. Much of the time, you can accurately diagnose why your houseplant leaves are turning brown by looking at the timing and circumstances of the discoloration.

Most Common Reasons Houseplants Turn Brown

Too Much Sunlight: Direct solar rays can burn many types of houseplants. Dried leaves naturally turn brown. If your houseplant is turning brown in the summer and especially if it’s a houseplant in a south- or west-facing window, then it’s likely sun damage. This type of browning almost always starts with the tips of leaves or other parts of the plant that are closest to the window. As a remedy, prune back the damaged part of the plant. Next, consider moving the plant to an east- or north-facing window, or moving it further back from the window if possible. You should also closely monitor the soil moisture level to make sure this isn’t contributing to the sun damage.

Underwatering: Plants that don’t receive enough will also dry out and turn brown. Underwatering is often connected with summer and sunlight, especially if you first started caring for the plant in colder weather. Most houseplants need more water in summer as evaporation increases. At the same time, browning plant leaves will occur due to underwatering regardless of the season. The winter season brings dry air for houseplants, especially in homes with forced air heating. Along with holiday travel, it’s easy to forget your houseplant watering. The solution here is to increase the amount of water you give the houseplant—albeit gradually. First, you need to be sure the problem is underwatering, but you also don’t want to overcorrect. Too much water can lead to root rot.

Pests: Yellow is a more common discoloration with houseplant pests which tend to steal nutrients from the plant. Once the pest damage hits a critical point, leaves may begin to die back and it’s more common for them to turn brown. Any unusual discoloration—but especially yellow, brown, white and black—may be a symptom of a pest infestation. The initial discoloration may be spotted and/or clustered based on where the insects are attacking the plant. If you see bugs on your plant or other signs of houseplant pests, then you should begin insecticide treatment as soon as possible.

Root Rot: Here, too, houseplants that turn yellow are more common with root rot—at least with the leaves. Root rot occurs when the soil is oversaturated and the roots become waterlogged. The leaves are more likely to turn yellow, but the roots will turn brown. If you expose a portion of the roots and they look brown and feel soft to the touch, then there’s a good chance that the discoloration you’re seeing is root rot. The solution here is to remove the affected roots, and the discolored leaves, and repot the healthy portion of the plant. Closely monitor the watering schedule going forward.

Water and Soil Quality: If leaves continue to turn brown, but don’t seem to be seriously harming the plant, it could have something to do with the water quality. If our tap water has high levels of fluoride or hard alkaline minerals, it can affect the soil quality and health of the roots. Adding a water softener is NOT the solution. These salts will interfere with houseplant roots even more. Another common reason for houseplants turning brown is adding too much fertilizer which will also disrupt the roots ability to deliver water and nutrients to the plant.

Houseplant Turning Brown: Why It’s Important to Know the Type

A lot of times, you can tell from the situation why a houseplant is turning brown. Other times, it’s not as obvious. Knowing the type of houseplant can help you diagnose the discoloration. For example, a drought-resistant plant that loves sunlight is less likely to be seriously harmed by the summer sun. However, in late summer and fall, houseplant pests are also more likely to find their way inside your home and may be the hidden cause of houseplants turning brown. Finally, there may be multiple, contributing causes. The summer sun may start to burn houseplants, or maybe you overcompensate and overwater a plant slightly. This weakens the plant just enough for a common houseplant pest to get a foothold.

Once you recognize why a houseplant is turning brown, you’ll know how to treat and care for the houseplant to help it recover. Sometimes, a houseplant simply can’t be saved—or else the best chance to save the plant is to isolate the healthiest growth and put this part of the plant in a new pot.