How to Fix Common Houseplant Problems

Is your houseplant dropping leaves, turning yellow, or wilting? Learn how to decode the messages your plant is sending—and how to fix them

Houseplant in gray pot

One of the most frustrating things about houseplants occurs when a normally healthy plant starts looking sick—wilts, drops its leaves, turns yellow, or worse—and you're not sure why. Don't fret; many plant problems can be quickly resolved with small care changes.

You can coax your houseplant back to life from stretching, brown leaf tips, fertilizer burn, and more by learning how to tell if you're underwatering, overwatering, or your plant isn't getting enough light.

You'll be back to thriving, happy plants in no time!

Schefflera plant reaching for light by door

Problem: Stretching

Solution:

If your plant has suddenly grown awkwardly tall or long or sends out spindly stems reaching towards its light source, it's trying to tell you that it needs more light. Move it closer to a window or switch it to another window that gets more light. Thanks to the sun, south-facing windows tend to be the brightest, north-facing windows offer the least light, and east and west windows fall somewhere in between. And rotate your plants so that all sides of the plant get equal access to the sun and to prevent the houseplant problem of lopsided growth. If you still can't find the perfect spot for the plant, invest in a plant light to make sure it gets what it needs.

Problem: Curling Leaves

Solution:

Unusual growth patterns are a common sign of disease or insect presence. If you see curling or distorted leaves, look closer—you may find other signs of insects or the insects themselves. If you find black spots or fuzzy white spots, it's probably a disease. Bring the affected plant into your local garden center for advice on remedying the infection. Some plants require a specific anti-fungal or anti-bacterial solution, while others can be hosed off well to eliminate diseases.

Problem: Brown Leaf Tips

Solution:

If your houseplant problem is brown tips on its leaves, it may be signaling one of the following issues:

  • Inconsistent watering: This doesn't mean you must constantly water your houseplants at 9 am on a Tuesday. Instead, be sure to only water when a plant really needs it. And even if your plant can tolerate less frequent watering, try not to go weeks without watering and then randomly surprise it with a well-intentioned deluge. When you water, make sure water runs out of the drainage holes, so you know it's not a) sitting in the pot or b) only reaching the top part of the plant.
  • Low humidity: Many houseplants are tropical natives. If the air in your house or apartment is dry, mist your plants every few days.
  • Too much salt: This can happen from overfertilizing or salts from treated tap water. Go easy on the fertilizer and try watering with distilled water.
Deadheading Chinese evergreen

Problem: Yellow Leaves

Solution:

If your plant only has one or two yellow leaves, it's likely not serious—just pluck them off, and your plant should be good to go. An excessive amount of yellow leaves, however, could be a sign of a more significant issue. Overwatering kills houseplants just as often (if not more) than underwatering. Most plants shouldn't sit in water, leading to root rot and making them more susceptible to disease. Although exact needs vary by plant, a good rule of thumb is to water when the soil feels dry about 1/2 to 1 inch down.

Yellow leaves may also be a sign of low light. Try moving the plant to a brighter spot.

Problem: Dropping Leaves

Solution:

Are you constantly having to pick up leaves from the floor when you walk by your plant? Some plants, such as ficus, are sensitive to a change in location and show it by dropping leaves. As long as the growing conditions in the new spot are still ideal, it should grow fresh leaves after it settles in.

If you haven't moved your plant recently, leaf drop may also indicate low light.

Problem: Pale & Yellow Leaves

Solution:

Like humans, your plant can get sunburned. Leaves that are pale or white are usually a result of too much light. Luckily, this is easily resolved by moving your plant out of direct sunlight or to a window that gets less intense light.

Leaf scorch can also be a result of fertilizer burn. Use less fertilizer or switch to distilled water, as the salt from softened faucet water can build up in the soil.

Problem: Wilting Leaves

Solution:

The plant problem wilt can be challenging to diagnose; sometimes, it can be too late to save your plant. It may be caused by underwatering, overwatering, poorly draining soil, heat stress, disease, or a lack of humidity. You can try to bring your plant back from the brink by checking the soil for dampness or dryness and adjusting watering habits accordingly, lowering the temperature, repotting in better soil, or misting to improve humidity.

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Problem: Spotted Leaves

Solution:

Spots on leaves are usually indicative of a bacterial, fungal, or viral disease. You may be able to salvage the plant by improving air circulation so that it dries out more quickly between waterings and removing diseased foliage. Throw away any diseased plant material so it doesn't spread to other plants. To prevent disease, give plants ample space to grow, remove dead foliage promptly, and always water at the base of a plant.

Problem: Powdery Mildew

Solution:

Powdery mildew is a fungal infection that affects many plants. Fungicides are available and can help control the problem. It's easiest for mildew to form in still, humid conditions, so increasing the airflow around the affected plant can also help. Remove the severely infected foliage when working on controlling the issue.

Problem: Non-Absorbant Soil

Solution:

If you're confident you're giving a plant plenty of water and it's not root-bound (two common reasons for plants to dry out), your houseplant problem may be an issue with your soil. Many potting soils use peat, which holds water well when moistened but is difficult to wet the first time thoroughly.

Even if it's been well-moistened in the past, leaving the plant unwatered when you go on vacation or forgetting to water it regularly can dry out the soil. This can result in the plant not absorbing water well.

Small pots can be submerged in lukewarm water to remoisten the peat in the soil. It's more challenging to do that with large pots. Many nurseries sell surfactants (wetting agents) that are safe for the plant. Surfactants will help water "adhere" to your plants. Follow the instructions on the bottle to fix your soil.

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