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

By Sydney Price
September 19, 2018

One of the most frustrating parts of houseplant ownership is when a normally healthy plant starts dropping leaves or turning yellow and you’re not sure why. Don’t fret; many of these problems can be easily resolved with small care changes. Learn how to decode the messages your plant is sending—and how to fix them. You’ll be back to thriving, happy plants in no time!

Related: Our Ultimate Houseplant Care Guide

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 your plant from growing lopsided. 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.

Related: More About Houseplant Light 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 how to remedy the infection. Some plants require a specific anti-fungal or anti-bacterial solution, while others can be just be hosed off well to get rid of diseases.

Problem: Brown Leaf Tips

Solution:

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

  • Inconsistent watering: This doesn’t mean you have to always water your houseplants at 9 am on a Tuesday, but rather, 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.

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 bigger issue. Overwatering kills houseplants just as often (if not more) than underwatering. Most plants shouldn’t sit in water, as it leads to root rot and makes 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 new leaves after it settles in.

If you haven’t moved your plant recently, leaf drop may also be a sign of low light.

Related: Our Favorite Low-Light Houseplants

Problem: Pale & Yellow Leaves

Solution:

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

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

Problem: Wilting Leaves

Solution:

Wilt can be difficult to diagnose and 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.

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.

Related: Common Plant Diseases to Watch For

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 know you are giving a plant plenty of water and that it's not root-bound (two common reasons for plants to dry out), it may be an issue with your soil. A lot of potting soils use peat, which holds water well when it is moistened but is difficult to wet thoroughly the first time. Even if it has been moistened well in the past, leaving the plant unwatered when you go on vacation or forgetting to water it regularly can dry out the soil and it won't absorb the water well. Small pots can be submerged in lukewarm water to remoisten the peat in the soil. It's more difficult 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.


Comments (3)

mars23982
February 11, 2019
If watering is inconsistent, try to use one of these watering bulbs https://amzn.to/2I73tw8 . It makes it much easier and more consistent, which is great for the plants.
aioshopsab
February 10, 2019
hii very good article thanx for sharing ...
mamamarmour
February 10, 2019
Very helpful article - I especially appreciate the photos. This will help me a great deal! Thanks.