Common Problems with Indoor Plants, and How to Correct Them
This guide will help you diagnose common problems with indoor plants, including houseplants. While not specifically geared towards plants in hydroponic systems, you'll find some of the problems require similar solutions.
It was a normal day just like any other for Cheryl Bigsbee. Skies were blue and her birdsnest fern was green and happy on the windowsill perch. Things were good. But then, what she saw sent shivers down her spine: a yellow leaf.
She knew something had to be done fast, but where to turn? A quick browse through the phone book didn't yield any listings for “plant doctor”. Sweat formed on her brow. Now she was really starting to panic.
Suddenly the phone rang: “Hey, this is Mary-Lou. My prized birdsnest fern just turned a yellow leaf, and I'm really starting to worry. Does yours have the same problem?”
Her stomach turned, her heartbeat quickened. “Cheryl, I think this could be serious. Angela said her fern died yesterday!”
Cheryl dropped the phone and clutched her fern in desperation. “Hello! Cheryl? Are you there? Is everything ok!?”
But it was too late for Cheryl: her birdsnest fern had already passed on to the great beyond.
This scene plays out in homes across America every day, but you don't have to be the next victim of a dead plant. We're going to give you some tips to help diagnose problems early and get your little friend on the road to recovery before it's too late.
How to Use this Guide
Start at the first numbered problem you're experiencing, and then read down through the questions. Each question will provide a solution, and will lead to another question if your solution isn't found.
Yellowing of the Leaves
This common problem can be a sign of something insidious, or something innocuous, and there are a number of factors to consider in trying to arrive at a solution. Follow these steps to help arrive at a conclusions
Does your plant have enough light?
Even a sunny windowsill can lack the light needed for a plant to be healthy, especially in the winter months when the sun is less intense. If a plant looks yellow and leggy, it probably needs more light.
Solution: Consider purchasing a grow light fixture that will provide the proper spectrum of light for your plant, and allow you to keep your plant anywhere in the house. Grow lights are especially important for fruiting plants like peppers and tomatoes, which require a lot of light to produce fruit. Plants also need a lot of nutrients, which leads us to...
Are you providing your plant adequate nutrition?
Plants need a certain amount of minerals not just to survive, but also thrive. There are at least 17 of these minerals. Inadequate nutrition can result in yellow leaves and leaf veins, purple stems, rotten fruit, and any number of other problem.
Solution: The only way you can assure that your plant is getting the right amount of nutrients is to invest in high quality hydroponic nutrients. These nutrients will provide the complete spectrum of nutrients that your houseplant needs. We recommend starting with any of the following kits:
“Houseplant food” you buy at the store just isn't going to cut it, and, in fact, is probably killing your plant. That leads us to...
Are you feeding your plant the proper nutrients?
Just because you've got a houseplant doesn't mean you have to use “houseplant food” from the big box store. In fact, that's probably the worst thing you can do for the little green life form you call a friend. Boxed plant foods are filled with salts that will burn the roots of your plant, and can lead to long-term poisoning. So while yellow leaves can be a sign that your plant isn't properly fed, it can also be a symptom of salt burn. A key indicator of salt buildup is white, sometimes tan, crusty buildup around the sides of your pot and on the soil surface.
Solution: Switch to quality hydroponic nutrients. You can get salt build up even while using these, but you'll greatly reduce the amount of salt your plant receives during each feeding. Products like Clearex can help you flush these and existing salts out of your soil and solutions like Dr. Repair can help your plant recover. We recommend the kits listed above, as well as the following products:
It's really hard to pin down exactly what is causing your yellow leaves because it is symptomatic of so many things. Try the steps above and see if the problem gets better. If you find the problem isn't being corrected, then move through the rest of the possible solutions.
No healthy plant should have rot, which we'll define as brown or black plant material that has died but is still attached to the plant. Rot can be associated with yellowing of the leaves as well, and this brings us to our first solution...
Is your soil too wet?
90% of plants don't like “wet feet”, and this is a big problem for plants in the house because we tend to over water them. Unless you're growing something from a swamp, the goal is to keep soil damp. This means that when you touch the soil, it should just tack on to your fingers ever so slightly. It will even look a little dry on the surface. Symptoms of over watering can include yellow leaves, which is actually symptomatic of the roots rotting in this case. If the roots are too wet, they will drown and die, and the plant will starve. It may even fall over. Some rot can also occur at the base of the stem, or where leaves touch the soil.
Solution: The immediate solution is to stop over watering. Try to water your plant only a few times a week at the most.
But what if I can't find a balance between sopping wet and bone dry?
If you've got a plant in peat moss, you may find that the soil is either soaked, or dry as can be. This is extremely frustrating, and it's a big reason why we don't recommend peat moss products at all anymore. Most of them contain a polymer that helps the peat moss retain water, and when it dries up, so does the soil, along with your plant. Peat moss can also belong to the other extreme where it holds too much water and turns into a slimy mess. Needless to say, this will kill your plants.
Solution: Immediately move your plants over to a coir growing medium. Coir is made from the husk of coconuts, and it has taken the world by storm as the preferred growing medium of professional horticulturalists. The reason is that coir absorbs and holds on to water well, but yet it drains excess water at the same time which results in a soil that is not too wet, not too dry. In addition to avoiding the Goldilocks syndrome, coir also breathes extremely well, meaning that air and oxygen reach the plant roots and root rot becomes less common.
Some rots have less to do with too much water, and more to do with a fungal or bacteriological infection. If you find that taking the steps above doesn't solve your problem, consider taking your plant to a local Extension office where Master Gardeners may be able to help you determine the cause of the problem. You can also use online forums, like Reddit, to post pictures and ask for answers.
Your plants shouldn't wilt in the house. Outside, there are factors such as humidity, wind, and sun that can lead to wilting, but inside plants are protected from these conditions. So when your houseplant wilts, it's kind of a big deal.
Have you been watering your plant?
Wilt could come from either lack of water or too much water. Leaves wilt when devoid of water from under watering, but can also wilt if the roots are too wet and begin to rot.
Solution: If you're keeping the plant dry and you're seeing wilt, try watering more often. If this isn't solving the problem, or you've been watering too much, this symptom can be the result of rot, so see that section above.
Is it too hot for your plant?
If you've got your plant in a sunny south-facing window, or under a grow light, it's possible your plant is wilting in response to heat. It may not seem like it, but the temperature right under a grow light, or within the confines of a window sill can get pretty high. This can be compounded by a lack of ventilation, or a nearby source of heat like a radiator or an air vent. Dry air from a forced hot air heating system can also dry out plant leaves and make them wilt.
Solution: Try moving your plant to a cooler location, or ensure adequate air movement. If dry air is a problem, try to protect your plant from being directly in line with air from a heating vent. For plants under grow lights, you may need to move the light further from the surface of the plant, or provide a fan to help bring in cooler air.
Is it too cold for your plant?
Some windowsills and other locations get too cold for tender plants. This may make the leaves wilt and then die. Sometimes the leaves will curl.
Solution: Move your plant to a warmer location, or provide a fan to bring in warmer air.
There are other reasons your plants may wilt, including infestation by fungus or bacteria. See your local Extension agent to help diagnose those problems if you are unable to find a solution above that works.
Insects and Diseases
In the confines of your home or grow room, insects can be a very bad thing. Outside they can be controlled by natural predators, but without something to keep them in check, insects without end. Well, that is until your plants die and they lose their food source.
There is some great info out there already about houseplant pest problems, so if you have pests, check out this link: http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/insects/find/houseplant-insect-control/
You can read more about plant diseases at this link: http://www.bayeradvanced.com/articles/signs-of-common-houseplant-diseases
We have a selection of natural pest and disease treatment options in our store. You can view them here.
We also have beneficial insects that you can release on your plants that will attack the bad ones. The only problem is that once the bad bugs are gone, the beneficial insects will have nothing left to eat. View beneficial insects here.
The final problem we'll talk about is the worst: Sudden Death. This is when you have a plant that goes from perfectly fine to perfectly dead in the course of a 1-2 days. While there are no real solutions here, you may find some lessons to be learned. All you can do is try your best to either prevent the problem in the future. There's no guarantee your plant will bounce back from these issues, even with prompt treatment.
Since you can't see how warm or cold the air is, you may not know that conditions where your plant is living are a problem until it's too late. An open window or cracked door, a draft caused by a spectacular storm, a failure in your heating system, or even just cold creeping through a poorly insulated wall can all lead to death by freezing. Some plants are more tolerant than others to cold temperatures, but generally speaking, anything below 32F is going to kill your indoor plant.
Solution: If you find a plant that develops wet, watery leaves and/or stems suddenly, this is probably a symptom of freeze damage, and you need to move the plant somewhere warmer. Or use a fan to bring in warmer air. Get a thermometer to keep an eye on your temperatures.
We've all been there. You misread the directions and you give your plant too much nutrient. Next thing you know, it's dead.
Solution: If you catch the mistake early enough, quickly flush your soil out with lots of water 5-10 times in a row. Add an amount of water, let it all drain out, and repeat. This will help remove excess nutrients. If you're in a hydroponic system, either quickly add more water if you have room or drain off some solution and add more water.
You forget to water your plant, or your hydroponic system fails in some way and it dries out. You find it nearly lifeless.
Solution: Immediately provide water, not just to the roots, but also to the leaves. Keep the plant out of the sun to help prevent leaf burn. Try not to move the leaves too much though or you may cause further damage. We recommend you keep one of our Cyco Recovery Kits on hand for just such an emergency. This kit can help you nurse the plant back to life if you catch the problem fast enough.
Plant is entirely consumed by a Brachiosaurus
Jeff Goldblum warned you about the danger, but you didn't listen. And now look what happened.
I didn't find what I was looking for!
This guide is not a definitive list of every problem you will encounter. Some things you may just have to take to your local Extension agent or Master Gardeners program for a personal diagnosis. Many of our suggestions above will definitely help you grow better plants, however. Here are a few more links that may help you find an answer for a problem we didn't cover.
Now that we've given you all the information you could possibly want about how to diagnose common indoor plant problems, we want your feedback. What are some problems you've encountered in the past? What steps did you take to remedy them? Do you have any problems which were really hard to solve? Let us know!
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