Here’s What’s Making Your Houseplant Sad—and How to Fix It

updated Jan 14, 2021
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Everyone’s been spending more time indoors this year, which means there have been more opportunities to up your plant-care game. If you’ve dived deep into plant parenthood, you’ve likely done what feels like everything to take care of your greenery: You’ve searched the plant care encyclopedia for help on all your plant babies from big rubber plant trees to tiny succulents; you’ve made checklists; you’ve bought misters and watering cans and fertilizer. But sometimes, there are problems that you just can’t seem to figure out.

Why are my houseplants leaves turning yellow? Why is it developing brown spots? Why is my houseplant so sad?! I’m trying so hard to give it all the love it ever wanted!!!!!!

As Puneet Sabharwal, CEO of Horti, a plant subscription company, writes in the Horti plant care blog, sometimes that in and of itself can be the problem. “Too much love is as bad as too little,” Sabharwal writes. “A common houseplant care mistake is in being a little too conscientious.”

Sabharwal goes on to explain that many plant parents overcompensate with a little too much care and attention, whether that’s over-watering or over-fertilizing. The good news is that your plant will tell you when something’s wrong, but it’s up to you to figure out why it’s sad. While every houseplant is different, there are usually some pretty clear telltale signs of sadness, and Sabharwal shares his tips for translating plant cries for help into actionable steps to assist in their healing.

Credit: Illustration: Laura Hoerner

What drooping or wilting leaves can mean

“If plants are not getting enough water, they’ll either droop or wrinkle,” says Sabharwal. It could also mean that your plant has become root-bound and needs to be repotted.

If your plant is root-bound, Sabharwal says, “its roots will be coming out of the bottom, it will dry out faster than other plants, and it will drop leaves as it grows new leaves to keep the exact same number of leaves on the plant.” When re-potting, he suggests going up 1 to 2 inches in pot size, making sure to pick a pot with proper drainage.

But if you’ve repotted your plant recently and can’t identify any other issues, it’s possible you just need to treat your plant to filtered water next time you give it a drink.

Credit: Illustration: Laura Hoerner

What crispy or brown leaves can mean

Another possible sign of a too-dry plant is brown or crispy leaves. But this doesn’t mean that you should start dumping water into the soil—the best solution could be to put a humidifier in the room with the plant to help add moisture to the air.

If you’re confident in your watering, consider where your plant is placed and if it’s getting too much light. Sabharwal says if a plant has been exposed to too much sun recently, crispy or brown leaves could also indicate burn. Gently prune away the burned places and move it to a spot with a little less direct light.

Credit: Illustration: Laura Hoerner

What leaves with brown spots can mean

Similarly, Sabharwal says, brown spots can indicate that your plant is parched and needs some humidity—or it could be a sign that your plant is infected and needs to be treated if it’s showing signs of asymmetrical brown spots. Try the humidifier first to see if it helps before moving on to fungal or pest treatment options.

Credit: Illustration: Laura Hoerner

What yellowing leaves can mean

Yellowing leaves are typically your plant’s first sign of distress, so this could be a symptom of several different issues. Common causes for yellowing include overwatering, root rot, and not receiving adequate amounts of light.

In figuring out the cause, start by addressing the amount of watering you do before moving on to possible repotting. If nothing else works, your plant might be infected.

Credit: Illustration: Laura Hoerner

What mushy leaves can mean

Another sign of overwatering, especially in succulents, is thick leaves that start to get mushy.

If, however, you’re monitoring your soil dryness and you feel like there’s no way you’re overwatering, mushy leaves are a sign that it’s probably time to upgrade to a slightly bigger pot.

Credit: Illustration: Laura Hoerner

What a plant starting to lose leaves can mean

When it comes to light exposure, Sabharwal says that can be a little bit of a trial-and-error experiment. But one sign that your plant isn’t receiving enough light is a pile of leaves at its base. “A good healthy plant means that it’s getting sufficient light,” he says. “If it’s not getting enough light, the leaves will start dropping off and/or will get pale. In certain varieties you can also notice stretched growth.” Think: succulents that all of a sudden are shooting up to get a little sunshine.

Sabharwal adds that if your plant seems to be receiving great care but is still dropping leaves, it could be because of pesticides or harsh chemicals in your soil or water—so keep that in mind when repotting. You can also experiment with filtering your water and only watering your plants with room temperature water, rather than cold water, which might cause shock.

What to do once you’ve figured out what’s making your houseplant sad

Ok, so let’s say you’ve identified your houseplant’s sign of sadness—for example, dropping leaves. It’s not dropping old leaves, so you’ve eliminated the possibility that this is normal shedding. So you try moving it closer to a window. How long do you have to wait until you know you’ve fixed the problem?

Sabharwal suggests giving your plant five to seven days to readjust to its new conditions before making any changes to its environment or watering schedule. (That applies to new plants you’ve just brought home, too.)

Once your previously-dropping-leaves-and-very-sad-houseplant has adjusted to its new spot closer to the window, is it looking happier? Great! If not, now that you’ve eliminated the possibility that it needs more light, you can address the possibility that the plant is root-bound and it’s time to re-pot.

What to do if the problem is infestation or infection

“The first step is quarantining by isolating the sick plant,” says Sabharwal. That helps prevent the infection or infestation from spreading to your healthy plants.

Mealybugs, spider mites, and scale are all common plant pests that can harm your plant. You can use neem oil or rubbing alcohol to help rid your plant of these pests, but keep in mind that it will take a fair bit of persistence.

As far as houseplant illnesses go, Sabharwal says the common ones include fungal or bacterial infections, which can cause leaves to drop or lead to yellow or black spotting on the leaves. It can also lead to powdery mildew on the leaves and stem of the plant. Depending on the extent of the outbreak, you can most likely treat it by making a solution of baking soda and water or non-chemical soapy water to spray on the plant.

Another common illness is root rot, which is caused by a lack of oxygen in the roots. If you find that your plant has root rot, wash the roots and use a clean pair of garden sheers to cut away the affected roots. Then, repot—and make sure your planter has good drainage and that you’re not drowning your roots by overwatering.

All of this trial-and-error legwork has its benefits, Sabharwal says: “Not only can bringing a new plant into your home make being stuck indoors more bearable, but in taking time to nurture your plants, you’re ensuring you will be more resilient, too.”