How to Revive a Dying Houseplant

How to revive a dying houseplant

Having worked in a nursery cultivating houseplants for sale at garden centers, I have had my fair share of dying houseplants to deal with! In this post, I distill all my years of experience to formulate a strategy for tackling the most common problems I see people encounter when growing indoor plants…

The most common reason for a dying houseplant is root rot due to overwatering. Most species of houseplants require the top inch of soil to dry between bouts of watering. If the soil is constantly saturated, then the roots begin to rot, which causes the leaves to turn yellow and drop off, and the plant dies back.

Whilst overwatering is the most common reason I see for dying plants, there are many different causes…

Here is a summary of common symptoms and causes of dying houseplants…

Symptoms of Dying Houseplant:Reasons for Dying Houseplants:
Houseplant Leaves Turning Yellow (and drooping):Root rot due to overwatering or slow-draining soils. Dry soil, too much or not enough fertilizer, sun scorch, or low levels of light can all cause yellowing leaves.
Houseplant Dropping Leaves:Usually, a sudden and drastic fluctuation in temperatures is the primary cause of dropping leaves. Low humidity, underwatering, or overwatering are also common causes.
Houseplant Dying in Winter:Many species of houseplants drop their leaves in Winter even if they are not deciduous due to low levels of light and cold temperatures, but should recover in Spring. Overwatering in Winter can cause a houseplant to die back.
Houseplant Dying After Moving:Houseplants take some time to acclimatize to their surroundings. Any sudden change in temperature, humidity, levels of sunlight, and airflow can cause houseplants to die back.
Houseplant Leaves Turning Brown:Most often underwatering, root rot from overwatering or too much direct sunlight.
Houseplant Leaf Tips Turning Brown:Low humidity is by far the most common reason for brown leaf tips. Underwatering and too much fertilizer can also be factors.

Keep reading to learn why your houseplant is dying and for my steps to revive it…

Why Are My Houseplant Leaves Turning Yellow?

  • Symptoms. Yellowing, often drooping leaves which can also turn brown.
  • Causes. Overwatering, underwatering, too much sun, not enough light, a lack of nutrients or too much high concentration fertilizer scorching the leaves yellow, cold temperatures.

Overwatering and Underwatering

The most common reason for houseplant leaves turning yellow is because of root rot due to overwatering and slow-draining soils.

This is because most houseplants need the soil to dry slightly between bouts of watering. If the potting soil is constantly saturated, the roots rot, which turns the leaves yellow with a dying appearance.

To understand why a plant turns yellow, I find it is always helpful that we learn how they grow in their natural habitat…Then we can recreate these conditions in our homes to save our plants…

The vast majority of houseplants that I grow commercially originate from either desert climates, such as cacti and succulents (and therefore adapted to tolerate drought), or tropical humid climates, such as calathea, orchids, ficus, and almost all other leafy houseplants, which all need well-draining, porous soil.

Too much moisture around the roots from overwatering or slow draining soils excludes oxygen from the soil which prevents the roots from respiring and interferes with the root’s ability to draw up moisture and nutrients.

If the roots cannot uptake moisture and nutrients, the leaves react by turning yellow and drooping, sometimes with brown spots.

Rather confusingly, your houseplant leaves also turn yellow and wilt due to underwatering. From my experience, this is usually because people water their soil too lightly so that only the top inch or so becomes moist (without reaching the roots), or perhaps they leave a long time between each bout of watering.

I often come up against another problem where the soil dries out completely, which causes it to turn hydrophobic, which means it repels water off the surface and down the side of the pot rather than infiltrate the soil and reach the roots.

How I Revive Yellow Leaves (Due to Underwatering or Overwatering)

  • For desert houseplants such as cacti and succulents, I recommend always allowing the soil to dry out completely between bouts of watering. I find this is the most effective way of mimicking the cacti and succulent’s natural cycle of drought followed by a deluge of rainfall that they typically experience in their natural habitat.
  • To establish the correct watering schedule, I feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole in the base. If the soil still feels damp, I delay watering for a few days until the soil feels dry, then I give the soil a thorough watering. This ensures that you are watering your cacti or succulents at the correct frequency for your plant in the specific conditions in your home (according to temperature, humidity, etc).
  • Ensure cacti and succulents are planted in the correct potting medium. Desert-dwelling houseplants are adapted to growing in gritty, poor soils with excellent drainage and relatively low nutrients. Ordinary potting soil retains too much moisture, resulting in a yellowing (and black) rotting appearance due to root rot.

These are the steps I take to replicate their environment and keep my succulents and cacti happy. However, if your cacti and succulents are rotting, then you need to cut away the rotting parts of the plant with sharp sterile pruners and propagate any healthy tissue that remains.

For more information, read my article on How to Save a Dying Succulent and How to Save a Dying Cacti.

(I also have an article on how often to water succulents for more specific information).

For leafy foliage houseplants that are native to the tropics (orchids, philodendrons, spider plants, and most other houseplants)…

  • Only water when the surface of the soil feels dry. Most plants cope much better with underwatering than overwatering, so always wait until at least the surface of the soil is dry, if not the first inch of the soil. This ensures the plant has enough water to meet its requirements whilst reducing the risk of root rot.
  • Empty saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots of excess water. If water pools around the base of the pot, then the potting medium stays too damp for the plant’s roots to tolerate, promoting the conditions for root rot, which turns the leaves yellow.

(Read my article on watering orchids as they often require their own specialized potting medium in conjunction with the correct watering schedule).

Once you have corrected the watering conditions then your plant may recover. Cut back any yellowing leaves with a sharp pair of pruners, as these individual leaves do not turn green again if the cause is overwatering.

However, if your houseplant has been in damp soil for too long and most, or perhaps all, the leaves have turned yellow, then it is likely that the plant has rotten roots and is likely to die back, in which case the only possible case for saving the plant is to propagate any leaves or plantlets that still look healthy.

With the right conditions, propagating houseplants is relatively easy and a good source of free plants.

If your houseplant is yellow due to underwatering…

Houseplants that are watered fairly regularly can still turn yellow due to underwatering, if the potting has been allowed to dry out completely and bake hard as the soil can become hydrophobic (repels water).

Therefore what I do is scratch back the top inch or so of the soil after watering to see if I can detect whether the moisture is able to infiltrate the soil properly.

Useful tip: If it feels dry, I submerge it in a basin of lukewarm water for around 10 minutes. This allows the soil to properly absorb the water so that the roots can access the moisture.

Submerging the soil like this changes its structure, and it should be able to absorb water properly the next time you water your plant.

It is likely that your plant should perk up in the following days. Wait until you see new growth growing in the Spring (as this is when houseplants are at their most resliant) and cut back any yellowing leaves back to the base.

Too Much or Not Enough Sunlight

Most desert plants, such as cacti or succulents, can tolerate full sun and typically can be kept on a south-facing window sill without any problems of scorching.

However, most leafy foliage house plants (calathea, orchids, peace lilies, etc.) are native to tropical forests where they grow in the shade of a tree canopy. This makes most houseplants perfect for growing indoors as they do not need full sun and, therefore, are more adaptable as to where they can grow in the home.

However, as they are adapted to the shade, the leaves tend to be more sensitive to direct sunlight, which can scorch the houseplant’s leaves yellow with a shriveled, dying appearance.

A classic mistake I see people make is placing plants like orchids right on the window sill of a south-facing window. From what I have seen, it only takes a few days for orchids to scorch yellow in these conditions in the Summer.

Important tip: Most of our houseplants prefer the balance of bright indirect light as the bright light provides the plant with enough energy to grow without scorching the leaves.

Just to be confusing, I can report that too much shade typically results in poor, drooping growth that can turn yellow. So we need to seek a happy medium.

How I Save Yellow, Scorched Leaves…

The vast majority of houseplants require a balance of bright, indirect light rather than full sun. So, to save it, replicate its preferred conditions by moving it to a nice bright room but keep it away from windows sills with intense direct sunlight.

What works really well for my spider plants and orchids is growing in a room with a sheer curtain which does a great job of diffusing the direct light. I also grow a lot of my houseplants in my bathroom as I find the frosted glass creates the right balance of light for my big leafy plants to thrive.

Once you have done this, leave the plant for a few months (caring for it as normal) and assess the damage.

I advise to cut back any yellow, scorched leaves back to healthy growth as these scorched do not turn green again. Trimming the plant back should stimulate new growth.

If your houseplant is leaning and turning yellow due to too much shade, then I would move it to a brighter room and apply fertilizer at half concentration in the Spring and Summer. This should provide it with the energy to grow again and restore its appearance.

Low Nutrients or Too Much Fertilizer Causes Yellow Leaves

If your houseplant has been in the same pot for many years, the roots can exhaust the soil of available nutrients. Without enough nitrogen, the houseplant leaves turn yellow with poor growth and a dying appearance.

Yellowing leaves can be due to the plant outgrowing its pot, and the roots become matted and pot-bound as they look for more nutrients and available moisture. (This is a common problem I come across!)

It is also important to note that a lot of houseplants (such as ficus or orchids) are sensitive to fertilizer and either need houseplant fertilizer applied at half the concentration stated by the manufacturer or require a specialized fertilizer.

(Here’s my technical description of the problem) If too much fertilizer is applied, then salts can accumulate in the potting around the roots. The excess of salts creates osmotic pressure, which prevents the roots from uptaking water, resulting in wilting leaves that turn yellow.

How to Save it…

Check the pot to see if the roots are pot-bound, in which case repot your houseplant to a pot, ideally just one size larger (if the pot is too large, it can risk excessive water retention).

Ideally, I always recommend repotting house plants in the Spring or Summer as plants tend to be more resilient to the stress of repotting.

Repotting with new potting soil should provide the plant’s roots with more space to access nutrients and moisture which should help to address the nutrient deficiency in the soil that caused the yellowing leaves.

I would also recommend applying a general houseplant at half strength in the Spring and Summer, and the plant should perk up.

If you have applied too much fertilizer (either used the fertilizer too often or in too high a concentration), then the only solution is to flush the potting soil by leaving it under a faucet (tap) for 10 minutes or so. This should dissolve the excess salts in the soil, allowing the roots to function properly.

Temperatures Cooler Then 50°F (10°C)

Most houseplants are native to warm tropical regions, and in certain rooms at certain times of the year, our homes may not be tropical in temperature! The reason most houseplants are cultivated from the tropics is because they are comfortable at typical room temperatures of 65°F to 75°F (18°F to 24°C) and can often tolerate indoor heating.

However, if they are exposed to temperatures cooler than 50°F for too long due to cold draughts from open doors and windows or cold rooms in Winter, then they can often turn yellow and brown.

One thing that I see that catches people out is that if the leaves are in contact with windows, then the glass can often be much colder than the ambient room temperature. The leaves that are touching the window can often turn yellow due to stress from the cold temperatures.

How to Save it…

Houseplants are selected and cultivated due to their ability to thrive at room temperature, so if your plant is currently in a cool or draughty area of the house that fluctuates significantly in temperature throughout the day or regularly gets below 50°F then move the plant to a warmer more hospitable room.

Once the plant is in more favorable conditions, then it should revive in the following weeks. As most houseplants originate from tropical regions (and are therefore used to tropical temperatures), if it has been exposed to severe cold, then it can be too difficult to save.

As previously stated, cut back any yellowing leaves, as they can no longer photosynthesize.

Houseplant Dropping its Leaves

  • Symptoms. Leaves dropping suddenly, or perhaps leaves dropping in Winter.
  • Causes. Most often, the cause is a combination of sudden temperature fluctuation, low humidity, not enough light, or perhaps underwatering and overwatering. Moving houseplants can also cause leaves to drop.

To revive a houseplant that is dropping leaves I recreate the conditions of its natural habitat by increasing humidity by misting regularly, water when the top inch of soil has dried, and avoiding temperature fluctuations.

Why are My Leaves Dropping in Winter?

A certain amount of leaf drop is expected for most houseplants in Winter in reaction to the lower light intensity, fewer hours of sun, and cold temperatures, and some houseplants are even deciduous losing their leaves as part of the seasonal cycle.

However, I must caution that you should reduce the frequency of watering in Winter whilst the plant is in a state of dormancy, or it can develop root rot and drop its leaves.

Temperature Fluctuations and Low Humidity Causing Leaf Drop

Houseplants are usually tropical in origin and prefer stable room temperatures with around 10 degrees F cooler at night (and some humidity) as this is the typical daily temperature cycle that they experience in their natural habitat.

One of the biggest reasons for houseplants dropping leaves, in my experience, is that indoor heating is often used in the evening and raises room temperature at night, which is contrary to the houseplant’s preferred cycle of temperatures.

This was a problem for me when I lived in a small apartment in a cold climate with regular indoor heating.

High temperatures lower the humidity and sap moisture from the leaves and water from the soil, which causes the leaves to drop as a survival strategy to avoid losing any more water.

Draughts from open windows or doors or air conditioning also cause drastic changes in temperature and dry out the air to the point a houseplant can drop its leaves.

How to Save it…

  • Keep houseplants out of any air currents, and ideally, I would place them on the other side of the room from any sources of heat. House plants typically like room temperatures, so try to avoid placing them on a cold window sill.
  • The air indoors can be too dry for tropical leafy houseplants, so I would mist any remaining leaves every few days to mimic their natural habitat and reduce the rate of water loss. What I found particularly effective is using a special plant humidifier to create optimal conditions for your houseplants to prevent them from losing their leaves. This really helped me create the right conditions when I lived in my apartment.

Once the houseplant has more favorable conditions, it can grow new leaves in the Spring and Summer. I would recommend using a general, all-purpose houseplant fertilizer at half concentration (some species of plants are sensitive to fertilizer, so always use it at half strength) to help stimulate the growth of new foliage.

I would also urge you to consider moving any plant that is dropping leaves to your bathroom, as the natural humidity helps the plant feel more at home!

Not Enough Light

Whilst some houseplant’s leaves turn yellow in response to a lack of light others simply drop their leaves. If they are in deep shade, the plant does not have enough energy to support its leaves, which causes them to droop downwards and fall off.

Most houseplants thrive in bright, indirect light rather than deep shade or full sun.

This solution to this is very simple. Move your plant to a brighter area (avoiding direct sunlight), and usually, I see the plant perk up and grow new leaves in the Spring.

Underwatering and Overwatering Causing Leaves to Drop

Letting the soil dry out for too long is another very common cause of leaves drooping. Most houseplants (other than the desert-dwelling succulents and cacti) prefer the first inch of potting soil to dry out between bouts of watering.

Overwatering to the point the soil is consistently moist can result in yellow leaves that drop off due to root rot.

To establish a good watering schedule, I feel the soil to an inch depth and only water when the potting soil starts to feel dry. This meets the moisture requirements of the plant without risking root rot.

I find feeling the soil with my finger a more accurate way of establishing whether or not the first inch of soil is dry rather than using a moisture meter, which I find is not sensitive enough to subtle changes in soil moisture.

If the plant has been chronically underwatered or watered too lightly (the potting soil should be evenly moist after watering) then what I advise to is to submerge the root ball for 10 minutes in a basin of lukewarm. This should rehydrate the plant, and every time I have done this, the structure of the soil improves so that it is much easier to water the following week.

Moving Your Houseplants Around A Lot Causes the Leaves to Drop

One of the most common problems people tell me about is that their leaves have dropped after they moved their plant to a new location.

My explanation is that houseplants often drop their leaves as a sign of stress when moving from one location to another due to the sudden contrast in light, temperature, humidity, and airflow. Plants drop their leaves if they have not had enough time to acclimate to their new surroundings.

The greater the contrast in conditions the more likely the plant is to drop its leaves, therefore it is generally recommended to only move houseplants if necessary.

How to Save it…

Keep in mind whether the houseplant has been moved too near to a source of indoor heating, in the path of air conditioning, or near draughty areas with open windows, that could be causing too much stress and relocate accordingly.

I would recommend to Mist the plant to to create a humid micro-climate to replicate the conditions of its natural habitat. This should reduce the stress of moving the plant and reduce water loss from any remaining leaves.

Keep the plant watered and ensure it stays at around room temperature and it should be able to grow new leaves in the Spring and Summer.

House Plant Leaves Turning Brown or Brown Leaf Tips

  • Symptoms. Leaves can be scorched brown or turn brown and die back. Brown leaf tips can develop even if the rest of the leaf is green.
  • Causes. For brown leaf tips, the primary causes are low humidity, too much fertilizer, or underwatering. For brown leaves too much sun can scorch leaves yellow and brown, and the lower leaves often turn brown as the plant matures. Cold temperatures and overwatering can be contributing factors.

Low Humidity and Underwatering Causes Wilting Brown Leaves

Easily, the most common reason I see for brown leaf tips is because of low humidity. As I have stated previously, most houseplants are native to humid tropical environments, and the air in our homes is usually too low in humidity, which dries out the leaves and turns the tips brown and crispy.

Some houseplants are more adaptable and can tolerate low humidity better than others, but plants such as peace lilies and spider plants commonly develop brown leaves or leaf tips in response to dry air.

Brown leaves and brown leaf tips can also indicate that there is not enough moisture at the plant’s roots due to underwatering or hydrophobic soil.

How to Save it…

Again, my solution that has worked best for me is to mist the leaves with water (or use a plant humidifier) as often as every day to increase the humidity, which should alleviate the stress that caused the brown leaves.

Ensure that the potting soil is evenly moist each time you water by giving it a good soak to the point excess water trickles from the base of the pot.

It is best to allow 1 inch of the potting soil to dry between bouts of watering, but keep up the watering schedule consistently (I urge you to not make the mistake of letting the soil dry out completely) to prevent the leaves from turning brown and ensure your houseplant is not too close to a source of heat that could be drying out the leaves.

You can trim any brown leaf tips back with a sharp pair of pruners to improve the appearance of the plant.

Brown leaf tip of a peace lily trimmed back with pruners to restore the appearance of green healthy leaves.
This is the brown leaf tip of my peace lily that I trimmed back with a sharp pair of pruners

Too Much Fertilizer

A significant reason I have seen leaves turning brown is also due to applying fertilizer too often or applying it in too high a concentration.

A lot of species of houseplants are actually very sensitive to fertilizer and either require a specialized fertilizer (such as orchids) or the fertilizer should be applied at half concentration.

Special fertilizer made for orchids contains the right nutrients at the right concentration.
I use Special fertilizer made for orchids that contains the right nutrients at the right concentration.

It is much easier to revive a houseplant due to a lack of nutrients rather than too much fertilizer, which is why you should err on the side of caution for most houseplants.

How to Save it…

Too much fertilizer can either burn the roots of your houseplant or cause an accumulation of salts in the soil.

To dilute the salts and alleviate the stress, I place the potting soil under the faucet (tap) for 10 minutes or so to flush out the accumulated salts.

Avoid using any more fertilizer until the following Spring, and I would strongly recommend using a general houseplant fertilizer at half strength or using a specialized product.

Leaves Turning Brown and Dying Naturally

Some houseplants also have lower leaves that turn brown and crispy as the plant matures. This is because the plant is redirecting its energy into growing more leaves that are receiving more light, and the larger leaves at the base die back.

This does not mean the plant is dying and is a normal part of the plant’s cycle. Cut any brown crispy leaves back to the base with a sharp pair of pruners.

Why Are My Houseplants Dying in Winter?

The most common reason for a houseplant to die back in Winter is because of overwatering. It is a common mistake I see a lot of people make. Houseplants should be watered less often in Winter as they enter a state of dormancy and, therefore, do not require much moisture.

If you water the plant as often as you would in Summer, then it is likely the soil is too damp, which promotes the conditions for root rot.

From what I’ve observed, this can cause a variety of symptoms, such as wilting and dropping leaves that turn brown and yellow (depending on the species and the extent of overwatering).

Reduce the watering and ensure that the first inch is dry before watering again. I find with all my houseplants, it usually takes a week longer for the soil to dry between each bout of watering compared to the Spring or Summer due to the reduced demand for moisture in Winter.

I would also recommend misting the leaves every few days to counteract the dry Winter air and ensure that the houseplant is not next to a source of heat or on a draughty area such as a window sill.

Indoor heating can dry out the air too much or even dry the soil too quickly if it is too near to your houseplant.

Some leaf drop or yellowing leaves are expected in Winter due to lower light intensity, and the plant can revive in the following Spring.

However, if the houseplant has been significantly overwatered, then I’m afraid it is unlikely to recover.

Key Takeaways:

  • A dying houseplant usually occurs because of root rot due to overwatering and slow-draining soil, which causes plants to turn yellow, droop, and die back. Temperatures lower than 50°F can cause leaves to turn yellow and brown with a dying appearance.
  • Houseplants drop their leaves in response to a sudden temperature fluctuation or low humidity. Most houseplants prefer stable temperatures of around 65°F to 75°F during the day and 10°F cooler at night. If the temperature suddenly increases or decreases, the contrast can cause a plant to lose its leaves.
  • The reason for brown leaf tips is usually low humidity. Most houseplants are native to humid, tropical environments and prefer high humidity. Dry air saps too much moisture from the leaves, causing the tips to turn brown as a sign of stress.
  • The reason for houseplants dying in Winter is usually due to overwatering. Houseplants go through a dormant period in Winter and require watering less frequently. If the potting soil is too damp in Winter the roots start to rot which causes the leaves to turn yellow, droop, and die back.
  • To revive a dying houseplant, it is important to recreate the conditions of its natural environment by maintaining a temperature range of 65°F to 75°F, mist the leaves of any leafy tropical plants, find the right balance of bright indirect light and water when the top inch of the soil feels dry.

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