Follow the Rule of Thirds and Keep Your Plants Alive Longer

updated Nov 21, 2019
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(Image credit: Viv Yapp)

When it comes to plant ownership, there are certain things you can do to keep your plants alive longer. Even if your jade is leggy, or your dieffenbachia looks like it’s on death door, there’s still hope—as long as you know what do next. Follow these tips, including the helpful Rule of Thirds, to help your green friend thrive again.

Follow the 1/3 Rule

Not all plants look beautiful all the time. Sometimes you’ll need to trim some weird or dead leaves from your plant, or a few wayward limbs. That’s okay! Moderate pruning can stimulate new growth that’s healthy for your plant. A good rule to follow is to not trim off more than one-third of the plant. (This rule extends to all areas of horticulture, including trees and shrubs as well.) If you cut off more than one-third, the plant might go into shock and not recover.

Neglect to Repot

All houseplants need to be repotted at some time or another. You don’t have to do it right away, though. It’s time to repot when: a) you notice that your plant has stopped growing, even though you’re caring for it properly; b) you can see aerial roots coming out of the soil or roots growing out of the bottom of the pot; and c) you pop the plant out of its pot and the roots are tight and bound together. This is called being “root bound.” The best time for repotting is in the spring, as most houseplants go dormant or slow their growth in the winter months, because the light is weaker and less prominent.

Don’t Over Water

Don’t assume that all sick-looking plants just need more water. Overwatering just leads to root rot, which kills the plant from the inside out. Then, after your plant dies, you’ll be left with a smelly, grimy pot to clean out.

Watch Temperature Exposure

If you put a houseplant near any heat or air exchange, it’s going to suffer. Radiators are houseplant murderers. Pay attention to where your air exchange vents are pointing—if they’re facing right at your tropical palm, change the plant’s position. Also try not to put a plant right next to a door that leads directly outside. In the winter your poor plants will freeze to death.

Pause Before You Trash a Sad-Looking Plant

If you do end up with a totally dried-up plant, you might think, “Hey, I’m just gonna throw this brown, dead plant right in the trash.” Odds are, it’s probably not dead. (Or, to quote the “Princess Bride,” it’s probably mostly dead.) Even if the foliage is brown and droopy, give it a chance as the root system might be able to reboot. Cut the dead (leaves, stalks and all) down to the soil, put it in a sunny spot and water normally. Give it time and you’ll probably see new growth come shooting out. Only then, if you don’t see progress, throw it out.