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When we bring a houseplant into our home we do so to spruce up the space, to bring color into our home, or to bring a bit of life into our lives – without having to worry about shedding. Plants are a joy in any apartment or home, but when our beautiful plants begin to sag, begin to wither, and then suddenly they’re on the verge of death, it becomes a mix of frustration and tragedy. Definitely not something we ever want to associate with something as calming as a houseplant!
There are hundreds of diseases and problems plants can pick up, and they can pick them up from anywhere. From your cats, from your clothes, from your watering schedule. Because plants are confined in the environment we make for them, they are also at the mercy of the changes in that environment, without the benefits they might have had in the outdoors.
This is why it is so important to keep your plants happy and healthy! We do this by ensuring we take care of them properly, and by extension we keep them safe from possible complications.
How do I know if I have a sick plant?
To start, we’re going to go over the different signs you need to look out for. Diseases and ailments have a few sure signs you can easily pick up on. Some are pretty obvious; others lie just beneath the surface. Whatever it is, you’re going to have to get to the root of the problem before you can start trying to save your dying houseplant.
- Brown or yellow leaves – often a sign of dehydration, thirst, or pests.
- Wilting leaves – poor hydration and starvation.
- Tips of leaves turning brown – dehydration, poor nutrition.
- White silk all over the plant – spider mites.
- White bumps and rapidly dying leaves – scale
- Flowers budding and then dropping off before they flower – poor nutrition, pests, dehydration, no sunlight.
- Roots pressing up at the surface, or breaking through the drainage holes – cramping.
Some plants have very specific diseases and problems attributed to them, like Black Spot for roses. Make sure you know what ailments your plant can pick up, and keep an eye out for them as you take care of your plant every morning. They are, after all, completely at your mercy, and trust you to make the right decision regarding their wellbeing.
The following issues are common problems you might come across and which can easily go from bad to worse when not cared for. This article will show you how to take care of both mild and severe cases of plant-related problems.
How to Save a Plant From 8 Common Diseases and Ailments
1. Root rot
Probably one of the biggest problems facing your indoor plants would be root rot. Root rot is exactly what it says; the roots of your plant are rotting off. Often fatal, it is caused by a combination of poor drainage, a bad watering schedule, and no light or sun to dry out the bedding.
The tragedy is, once root rot has set it, most plants perish because of it, it is a very difficult thing to treat, and can easily be avoided if you ensure the plant gets proper care, good sunlight, and watered properly.
A sudden decline in the plant’s growth rate, stunted growth, pale leaves, and wilted or brown leaves are sure signs of root rot. When you spot any of these signs, remove the plant from the pot and check the root system.
The roots should be white or pale green and springy to the touch. If they are brown and squishy, you’ve got root tor.
By this point, you’ll have to decide if you can save it. Although root rot is a very serious matter, some plants can be nurtured back to health, but if the entire root system is brown and squishy, it is best to call it a day and let the poor thing go.
You’ll have to remove the plant from its pot completely. Wash-off, or gently cut-off the rotted parts of the root. They will be quite squishy and usually brown. Once all the rotten roots are gone, wash the remaining roots with a light insecticide and let them dry before repotting. You can leave the plant overnight in a cool, dark (indirect sunlight), dry area, with a napkin covered over the roots. This will give the plant some time to recover.
Replace the old soil with a new batch and replant. Keep an eye on the plant, and don’t water for at least a few days. Start giving it small amounts of water, if it seems to be still wilting or not recovering, it might be in shock. Scrolls down to the ‘Shock’ section of this article to see what you have to do next.
For most houseplants, this will happen eventually. Your plant will essentially outgrow its pot! It is quite common, and a good thing! It means your plant is growing strong enough to grow big.
Uninspired growth is the first thing to look out for. Your plant’s leaves might fall off, and its buds won’t blossom. Another sure sign is roots pushing up past the top of the soil, or out of the drainage holes.
Just go ahead and replant to a bigger pot. Simple enough! But be sure to do so carefully. Some plants are very sensitive when being replanted, and can even go into shock.
When moving a plant, try not to do so without a good reason. Some plants are quite sensitive to their environment and a sudden change can cause them to go into shock. Although it might sound strange, plants are still living things that are completely dependent on their environment, and a sudden change from a cool low-light room to a bright sun-light balcony can make an orchid go the plant equivalent of; yikes!
A few ways to avoid plant shock is to move it in small bursts to a new area. First, have it stand on the balcony for an hour for a few days, then two hours, and so on, until you have it at that eight or so hours you’re aiming for. When repotting a plant, be sure not to disturb the roots much, keep the roots as moist as possible, and finally bring as many of the roots along as you can.
A plant that is in shock will have leaves that change color, they will droop and will fall off quite easily when touched. Shock does terrible things to a plant’s system. That is why, when you change its pot or its location, it is always a good idea to keep an eye on it to ensure it is acclimatizing well.
Add sugar to the water! As odd as it sounds, yes, some plants respond well to sugar and it stabilizes them quite quickly. Try and keep the plant’s bedding moist until it has recovered, and finally trim it back a bit. If it has less to focus on at the top, it will turn its attention to its roots and will be able to recover. Just be patient.
4. Powdery mildew (and other fungi)
This is another common problem with household plants. Powdery mildew usually occurs when a plant is left in a room with no air circulation and the fungus forms on its leaves.
However, fungi can be a big problem for most indoor plants. There are a few to look out for, like Downy Mildew (prefers moist and cool areas) and Rust (also likes moist areas) being a couple. They each have different symptoms but can be treated in much the same way.
Powdery mildew: A white powdery substance on the leaves.
Rust: Small patches on the leaves that resemble, you guessed it, rust.
Downy mildew: Red and yellow spots on the leaves.
You’ll have to remove all infected areas of the plant. First, remove the plant from your other plants. Take a pair of clippers or shears, and snip the infected parts. Use disposable gloves and put all infected leaves/branches in a plastic bag to safely dispose of later.
Also, get some rubbing alcohol. After you’ve snipped the plant, be sure to clean your tools to prevent accidental contamination.
Once you’ve removed all infected areas, move your plant to space in the house with better airflow. Keep it separated from the other plants for a few weeks until you’re sure all traces of the fungus are gone.
Sometimes the infection is so intense that you have to remove too much of the plant. But if you don’t try, you won’t know if the plant might still survive.
- Baking soda
A lot of plant owners will swear by this treatment, so it’s certainly worth a try.
Simply mix one teaspoon of baking soda into one quart of water, put in a spray bottle, and spray on the plant. It should dissolve the fungi over time, but if it’s still persistent then you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.
Be careful when using baking soda, it can seep into the soil and end up damaging the plant’s growth by changing the pH of the soil. So use only when needed.
5. Spider mites
These little pests can kill a plant easily if not treated quickly. They are tiny spiders that will chew and bite your plant and slowly kill it. They thrive in dry climates and usually start their siege in the Spring. Although they can’t be seen, they are quite deadly to a plant and are often brought in when you leave your plant outside.
So before bringing your plant back for the winter, give it a spray down of insecticide just to be sure, and make sure to give your plant good dusting! Spider mites love dusty plants.
You’ll know you have spider mites by the white silk they leave behind. It can cover a leaf, a branch, or the entire plant if not taken care of quickly! They also leave very tiny holes in the plant, like little burrows.
For plants that have only damaged leaves, simply wash off the leaves with an insecticide, remove the ones that are too badly damaged, and keep your plant wet to keep any further spider mites at bay. They hate the wet climate, and won’t be able to spin their webs as a result. Do this for a week or so, and then just keep an eye out for any new webs being formed.
For more extensive damage you’ll have to be a bit more hands-on. Add some fertilizer to give the plant a nutrient boost. Keep the soil moist, not soggy, and make sure to keep the entire plant wet. Also, keep a close eye on the plant to make sure it isn’t dropping leaves or changing color.
Sometimes the problem can’t be simpler. A plant will easily starve if you’re not giving it the correct amount of nutrients. When buying any plant, make sure the soil you’re getting is the correct type, and that you continue to use the same. We sometimes let this sag because some soil is expensive or someone we know told us something different. But oftentimes the botanists at the nursery know what they’re talking about. So rather stick with what they know, and your plant should be fine.
There are quite a few signs to look out for. Purplish-red leaves, slow or sudden sluggish growth, sudden leaf discoloration or chlorosis, leaves with burnt tips, flowers won’t bloom and necrosis, or the slow death of your plant.
There are a few things you can try, depending on the severity of the nutrient deficiency.
Check the soil. Make sure that when you potted your plant you used the correct soil. If its pH level is too high or low, for example, it will hinder the plant’s ability to grow. Simply exchange the soil with a new batch.
If your plant is suffering from chlorosis, you can add some Epsom salts to the soil, which will give it a boost in magnesium and should stabilize it again.
Necrosis, the slow decay of plants living cells, is a little more difficult to treat. All parts affected by necrosis will have to be removed, and the rest of the plant can then be saved. When necrosis sets in, parts of the plant will die, with no chance of being saved.
This is usually a sign of poor soil and nutrient deficiency. Make sure to change the potting soil, and make double sure you have the correct one this time.
Another little bug to make your life difficult. Scale is, much like the spider mite, a tiny insect that likes to drain the fluid out of your plants. They are quite common and can be easily treated unless it’s a particularly bad infestation.
They can spread quite easily when they hatch in winter. Making tiny ‘crawlers’ that move around the house and to newer plants. Once they’re settled, they stick themselves to the plant and start sucking. These crawlers are impossible to see, so you’ll have to look for other symptoms to know if you have a scale.
Dying leaves accompanied by small white or pale bumps on the stems is usually a sure sign of scale. But keep in mind there is a wide range of different species of scale. Mostly, you’ll find the Tea scale on your plants. Another sign to look out for is a sticky residue on the lower foliage called ‘honey dew’.
Honeydew is made by the secretion of scale insects, it usually ends up on the lower foliage, because scale often loves to hide under the leaves. Aphids can also create a sticky residue, so be sure to check if you have aphids or scale by looking for those tell-tale white bumps on your plant.
Simply take a knife, scrape off the scale and kill it. Most basic infestations can be treated like that, but if the infestation is particularly large, you’ll have to take more drastic measures.
Remove the parts of the plant which are completely infected. After you’ve done so, wash the plant with insecticide. Be sure to burn all of the parts you removed.
Another method for getting rid of scale is to use an oil-based insecticide. Oil is quite deadly for scale, as they suffocate when coated in it. Simply coat the affected areas, and keep an eye out if any new scale pops up.
8. Poor lighting
Nothing kills a plant faster than poor light quality. Without light, plants will wither and die, no maybes about it. Always make sure your plant is getting the correct amount of light for its species. Every plant is different, so make sure you take note when picking up your new green friend what the botanists tell you about its care.
If you weren’t paying attention, Google is your friend.
There are a few things to look out for. Sparse leaves, the plant will be ‘shrinking’ or getting smaller and finally, the leaves will be smaller. It can’t grow ‘lush’ without some serious sunlight nutrients.
Get it back in the sun! The most amazing thing about a plant is how quickly it recovers when its environment is balanced out again. To help it along, you can add some fertilizer, and make sure its watering schedule is adjusted to make-up for the condensations of the usual watering.
When to say goodbye
There is always a point when we have to throw in the proverbial towel and say goodbye to our dear houseplant. Usually, when all the leaves are dead, when the roots are all rotten, and the stem has become rotted, then we can safely say it won’t be making a triumphant comeback.
But don’t feel too bad. Houseplants are a learning process as much as gardening, and as you say goodbye to one, you’ll be carrying the knowledge over to make sure the next one sticks around for much longer.
A lot can go wrong with a houseplant. Surprising when we consider they can’t even climb trees or chase cars! But despite their stationary disposition, they are still a handful when not properly cared for. The best way to ensure the health and happiness of your plant is to make sure you as its plant-parent understand how to take care of it.
Long before you bring your plant home, know what you’re bringing home. Make sure you have the correct sunlight, the correct soil, the correct pot, and the correct climate! We sometimes buy a plant on a whim only to learn later that our freezing weather won’t be too good for our tropical darling.
Research everything, and remember that My Garden Plant is your friend. Use it wisely, and make sure you prepare everything accordingly before you bring your plant home. If you tick all the boxes, your plant will live a happy life with you for a very, very long time.