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Ok, so you’ve ascertained that house plant isn’t happy, but you’re pretty sure it’s not dead.
I know it’s tempting to just keep watering and hoping for the best, but I promise you’ll probably just kill it faster. You need to properly tend to its every need – not just what you think it needs.
But don’t worry – I’ve compiled a step-by-step checklist of tasks to complete that will give your plant the best chance of survival. We can do this. It’s fine.
- Assess the damage to the plant
- chop off anything dead or rotten
- Put the plant in water
- Ensure constant humidity
- Adjust the light
- Be vigilant about pests.
This post is about how to save a plant that’s on its way out. If you keep killing plants and you’re not sure why try this article: why do my house plants keep dying?
1 – Assess the damage
This is a nice way of me saying…er…is the plant already dead? Check out this article if you’re not sure.
If you’re still unsure, then your plant is probably still alive.
But also, the method I use for rehabbing plants is very much a last resort kind of thing. It’s…extreme. And it can hasten death. So make sure you’ve tried all these things first:
- Checked for pests.
If you’re seeing signs of pests but can’t see any actual bugs, then you can always err on the side of caution and give your plant a shower. Tilt it under the stream so you’re not getting the soil soaking wet (though inevitably some water will hit it – no big deal).
The shower method is great because you don’t have to add chemicals that may potentially damage the plant.
- Check for watering…issues
Is the plant under or overwatered? If the soil is super dry and doesn’t seem to moisten up no matter how much you water it, then try setting it in a bowl of water for a few hours. Soil can become hydrophobic and refuse to let water permeate properly – a good soak should remedy this.
- Is your plant hungry?
Go careful here, because adding fertiliser to an unhealthy plant that doesn’t need fertilising can be a recipe for disaster. Dilute that stuff to at least half the strength of whatever the manufacturer recommends. Only fertilise moist soil. Read up on fertiliser here.
- Is your plant rootbound/er, the opposite of rootbound?
It’s quite rare that a plant could get so rootbound that it’s dying, without giving you some sign (like, roots pouring out of the drainage holes).
Still, it could happen.
Either trim the roots (not recommended if they’re all tangled up with each other or you don’t know what you’re doing) or increase the pot size.
Only increase the pot size by an inch or so because drowning in a big pot is actually just as bad (if not worse) than being rootbound. The reason for this is that more soil holds more water, and if your plant doesn’t have a very big root system, it’ll end up being overwatered by proxy.
- Too heavy a soil mix
Root rot is caused by a combination of bacteria and a lack of oxygen, so using houseplant potting soil right out of the bag can cause root rot – especially if the soil has been compacted over time and/or you’re a heavy waterer.
If you think this is the case, buy something to add a bit of airflow. Orchid bark or perlite are great options.
2 – Chop off anything dead or rotten
If it’s dead or rotten, nothing can be done to save it. At best it can’t help your plant, at worst, it can spread to healthy parts or spread bacterial or fungal diseases.
I know it feels wrong to snip your plant’s roots, but if they’re brown or mushy, they’re no longer viable. Snip them so we can save the rest.
I also like to chop off any leaves that don’t look like they can be saved. Chop off any brown leaves, and any that are yellow or yellowing. Your plant doesn’t need to waste resources on them.
This part can be a bit of a judgement call – the plant needs some leaves to photosynthesise, so if they’re all yellowing, leave a couple of the healthiest looking leaves. If they all fall off, don’t panic. Plants can come back from surprisingly little.
Don’t give up if your plant has no roots.
Given the right care, it can grow them from scratch.
3- Put your dying plant in water
Remove as much soil as you can from the plant’s roots. Be as gentle as you can – wash them with lukewarm water if necessary.
Put your plant in water, like you would if you were propagating a cutting. Water is one of the best media for root rehabilitation and is probably the best chance your plant has at recovering.
Make sure you change the water every few days.
If you don’t have time to be messing about changing water, you have a couple of options:
- Add an air stone to the water
The reason we change the water is to add oxygen to it. After a few days it becomes depleted, and lack of oxygen can cause bacteria to proliferate, which will, er, not help.
If you have a freshwater aquarium, add the plant to it. You can either clip it to the side or float it in a slice of pool noodle. Do NOT do this if you have fish that will eat your plant (so goldfish).
- add oxygenating plants to the water
This is my preferred method, since it doesn’t require a noisy air pump (and they’re all noisy – ignore what it says on the box).
My rehab box has about an inch of water in the bottom and a load of java moss:
I mostly use this box for propagating plants, but I also use it to rehab plants. The aglaonema on the right there went in looking like this:
4 – Put your dying plant in a makeshift greenhouse
Increasing the humidity around the plant can help it recover more quickly, but it’s not necessarily the high humidity that helps, but the consistent humidity. In our houses humidity varies throughout the day.
All you need is something clear to enclose your plant. A cloche or terrarium is perfect for a small plant. If you have a big plant, you could fashion a terrarium from Cellophane or even a massive plastic bag. If that isn’t an option, put your plant in a room that isn’t used much, and put on a humidifier if required.
Until you’ve grown a plant in a terrarium it’s hard to understand quite how much they love it in there. We’re talking new leaves every week, multiple growth points and wild aerial roots.
Literally, the only issue I have is the slugs that somehow managed to find their way in there. Oh, and it’s not big enough.
It is very unphotogenic, but the plants grow like weeds in there.
5 – Keep an eye on the holy trinity
The trick is to keep them balanced – if you keep your plant warm but with low light and humidity, that won’t help.
If you do go the makeshift greenhouse route, then adding a grow light can really help. The plastic box will protect the plant from being burned, but it’ll get ample light to start recovering.
Humidity tends to stay pretty high in an enclosed box (especially when it’s in water), so you just need to keep the box warm. If you have a cold house, or it’s winter, then you might want to try a heat mat.
For those of you that just have a few cheap plants (no shade – I just don’t want you wasting money), then it’s probably better value for money to just, er, buy a new plant. But for those of us that buy a lot of plants online, it can be helpful to have a grow light, box, and heat mat ready.
Professional (or even semi-professional) grow lights are GAME CHANGERS. Humidifiers are great and all, but grow lights can make a massive difference in DAYS.
I have a pilea peperomioides that struggled everywhere I put it. It grew most in my west-facing window, but showed signs of sun stress (the leaves went red). It didn’t grow any other place I put it.
Under my grow lights, it THRIVES. I’m talking new leaves weekly on all the pups, and a new pup too.
If you’re looking for a way to instantly improve all your house plants – a grow light is the thing to get. I have an indoor greenhouse, so I can fake dappled light by putting lower-light loving plants on the lower shelves.
Of course, you can always stick the box near a window for free. The natural light we have depends entirely on where we live and the time of year.
In my house, even the light in the brightest windows isn’t suitable for all my plants. It’s good for hardy plants like rubber plants and my ponytail palm, but most of them grow best under grow lights.
6 – Check your dying plant for pests
Pests love a dying plant, so you have to be vigilant. It can take a matter of days for a compromised plant to get infested, so check every day. I got a magnifying glass because I’m cool like that.
Move the plant somewhere that you’ll pass every day, to make it more likely you’ll remember to give it the once over. If you can keep it in your bathroom, even better, because you can run the leaves under the shower easily.
How long can you keep a plant in water?
As long as you keep the water fresh, you can keep your plant in water for ages. Some people keep their plants in water indefinitely – my Monsteras live in the aquarium and love it in there.
You will need to add nutrients once your plant is growing. Don’t add nutrients until your plant is growing. It will not appreciate it. Imagine if you needed emergency surgery and someone was like ‘here, have a sandwich’. No. Food AFTER recovery.
Make sure to use a fertiliser that’s suitable for hydroponics – soil fertilisers may not be able to be absorbed properly by a plant with water roots. I use the General Hydroponics Flora series for all my plants in water, leca AND soil.
If you have a (freshwater) aquarium you can either take water from it or try to rehab your plants directly in the tank. I have a paludarium (half-filled with water, with a rocky landmass) that has successfully grown peace lilies and a peperomia.
It’s both toasty warm and super humid, so it’s a great place to rehab plants.
When can you pot your plant up again?
I like to wait until I have a healthy root system and ideally some growth. Don’t be surprised if you lose a few leaves in the process – your plant has a lot going on.
When you do pot your plant up, you need to make sure to keep it moist for a couple of weeks, because it’s used to being in a wet environment.
If you’re adding the plant into a pot with another plant (for example if you removed part of a large pothos or something, you can use a mister to keep the top of the soil damp without risking root rot in the other plant.
If you’re potting into a terracotta pot, soak the pot before adding soil and then thoroughly water the soil and let it drain. Make sure you’re not recycling old soil, and if you’re using regular house plant potting mix, add perlite to improve drainage. I would mix equal parts soil to perlite.
Some plants like to put us through hell, and go up and down in health like a yo-yo. If you find that your plant recovers well in water, then you might want to consider growing it in a semi-hyroponic potting medium. I have a few plants in Leca (it’s great for propagating) and theyr’e all doing well. Read this post on getting started. More Leca content is on the way!
Keep a close eye on your plant. If it goes downhill again, put it back in water. Once it starts putting out new growth, congratulations! You’ve successfully saved your plant!