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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. Till 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 sitting 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 of anything dead or rotten
If it’s dead or rotten, nothing can be done to safe 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 wring to snip your plants 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.
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. Use filtered or rain water and make sure it’s at room temperature so your plant doesn’t go into shock
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.
A humidity level of 65% is perfect – too low and the plant will dry out, too high and the plant will start to rot.
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 growlight, box, and heat mat ready.
My fave grow light is actually an aquarium light – I’ve been getting great growth (even in winter) from it. The downside is that it’s a little pricier than other grow lights, but I love it – it’s the Fluval COB light.
Of course, you can always stick the box near a window for free!
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 everyday, to make it more likely you’ll remember to give it the once over.
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 months. Some people keep their plants in water indefinitely – I have a Monstera deliciosa that lives in a jar of water, and the peace lily that grows hydroponically in my aquarium is growing like a beast.
Just be aware that your plant will need nutrients at some point. I believe hydroponic gardeners add a mineral nutrient solution to the water which is an option.
I’ve personally never tried them, but I would recommend either having a look or Amazon or lurking on the r/hydroponics subreddit to see what those guys use.
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. I just need to devise a method to keep them upright!
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 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!