Surefire Ways to Kill a Houseplant in 10 Days or Less

updated Jul 16, 2020
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(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

Plants are fickle. They’re hot, they’re cold, then they’re dying of thirst, and now they’re drowning. And they never communicate their needs clearly—they just expect you to guess. To decode all the finicky things your plant is trying to tell you, but can’t seem to find the words, we’ve decoded their top ten complaints. Time to air grievances.

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

1. Using the wrong potting soil. Ideally, you should choose the type of soil that works best for your specific plant. Most will be happy with a standard indoor potting soil that’s a mix of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. Because this indoor blend is actually soilless, it lowers the threat of infestations and diseases. Succulents and cacti generally prefer a courser, drier mix that’s at least one-third sand. Pair orchids with an airy mix specifically created to let their roots breathe, or follow the American Orchid Society‘s advice and use chips of bark or stones instead.

2. Not grooming your plants. Plucking off dead leaves is a win-win; not only does it look better, but it also helps prevent fungus and diseases from spreading. “Pinching” is another important plant grooming method that’s not nearly as cheeky as it sounds. It means pinching off young stem tips on soft-leafed plants, such as coleus, to keep them from growing too quickly and looking lopsided.

3. Moving your plants around too often. Plants tend to be creatures of habit and appreciate a familiar environment. Your once-a-year apartment hop is probably more than they can handle. Resist the urge to relocate your cactus from the windowsill to the mantel on a whim, as the move may stress your plant, forcing it to adjust to the light and temperature in a new spot.

4. Letting them get sunburned. That’s right, plants can get sunburn. If a fragile plant is left in direct sunlight for too long, you may notice that the leaves turn brown and crispy-looking. Ouch—that’s plant sunburn. I learned this the hard way when I spritzed my humidity-loving fern with water, set it near a window and congratulated myself on what a good plant parent I was, only to realize that water droplets act like magnifying glasses that intensify the sun’s damage. Lesson learned.

(Image credit: Emily Billings)

5. Letting Fluffy snack on them. It’s pretty much impossible to keep a curious cat from nibbling on a pretty-looking plant. But if you’ve already tried keeping your houseplants on a high shelf or hanging them from the ceiling, consider keeping smaller plants in a glass terrarium, case or cloche. Also, adopt one of these five pet-safe house plants to make sure Fluffy stays safe.

6. Allowing your home to turn into a desert. Most plants are happy at a balmy 40-50% humidity, but your home is likely much drier. Easy ways to turn up the rain forest factor include buying a humidifier, leaving out trays of water, and misting the plant with water (just learn from my mistake, above, and save the spritzing for after sundown).

7. Getting a bad case of root rot. One sad result of overwatering your plant (the #1 killer of houseplants) is that the waterlogged roots may start to decay. If you notice a slight scent of mildew wafting over from your orchid, it’s likely a victim of overwatering. To prevent this, choose a pot with drainage holes and use loose, airy potting soil that lets the roots breathe.

(Image credit: Brittany Purlee)

8. Stifling their growth. Overcrowding your windowsill with too many plants means that none of them will have space to stretch out. To prevent roommate battles, give each plant a buffer size that it’s free to spill over into. Also make sure that the plant’s pot provides enough space for its roots to grow. If you suspect that your plant has outgrown its home, it may be time to repot it.

9. Skipping bath time. To keep pests at bay and clear off dust that may be shielding the plant’s sunbathing, it’s a good idea to give broad-leafed plants a sponge bath. While supporting the leaf with one hand, use a damp sponge or cloth to wipe it with the other.

10. Forgetting to call a plant sitter. Every time I leave my fern alone for the weekend without water and the shades open, exposing it to full-strength sun, I return home to a very crunchy plant. After some generous watering and profuse apologizing, she tends to perk up. An easy way to prevent all that stress is to invest in a water globe that will slowly water the fern while I’m away. If you have an entire forest, you may want to ask a friend or neighbor to stop by with a watering can. Either way, you’ll return home to significantly happier houseplants.

Re-edited from a post originally published 2.13.17