It doesn’t take long for a plant to go from thriving to looking like it’s on the verge of death. Trust me—I (unfortunately) know. The good news is even when members of your urban jungle are looking pretty horrible, you usually still have a shot at reviving them and making them look as healthy as the day you brought them home. In order to learn how to bring a plant back to life, you first have identify the cause of its demise.
Things can either be super simple or really hard, according to Susan Spanger, professional gardener and floral designer of Bloomful Floral Design. The most basic method of reviving your houseplant is easy: Remove the top 1/4 inch layer of soil and replace it with high-quality potting soil that’s “chock full of natural ingredients, such as earthworm castings, bat guano, peat moss, and either perlite or vermiculite to provide airspace,” she says. But a lot of the time, it’s more complicated than that, and there are certain issues you’ll have to address in order to start the healing process.
Whether you’re dealing with a pest infestation, watering issue, plant disease, or a lighting problem, consider this your go-to guide to bringing your plant baby back to life.
How to bring a plant back to life based on the problem
1. Pest infestations
Spanger says she’s encountered many scenarios where customers present her with their beloved house plants, many of which are on their last legs, asking how to save them. And her first question? Whether there’s any sign of pest infestation. “It’s one of the biggest frustrations and most pervasive problems facing an indoor gardener,” she says. “Unlike in an outdoor environment, there aren’t any natural predators to control houseplant pests, which can enter the home through open doors or windows, fresh flowers or produce, bags of potting soil, or new plants.”
If a pest infestation is the problem, you need to act quickly and begin treatment ASAP—otherwise your plant is doomed. And one of the most common pests to hurt your plants are fungus gnats, which are attracted to the moist soil in houseplants. To avoid this problem all together, it’s best to water plants less often so the top two inches of soil can sufficiently dry out. “Watering frequently and keeping soil consistently damp is ideal for egg hatch and larvae survival,” she says. “Another cheap and easy method is to spread a half inch of sand across surface of the soil. It dries out quickly and provides a scratchy surface that’s unappealing for adult fungus gnats looking to lay eggs.”
To treat the problem, Spanger first recommends isolating the plant from your other plants so they’re not affected too. Then, get to work. “I typically recommend all-natural products and home remedies rather than synthetic chemical pesticides,” she says. “There are many methods, including insecticidal soap, neem oil, horticultural oil, rubbing alcohol, and even yellow sticky traps to capture little flying bugs.”
2. Yellowing leaves
If your plant has yellowing leaves, your first step is to trim off damaged foliage with sharp scissors or pruning shears, wiping them clean with rubbing alcohol as you go, Spanger says. “If only the tips of the leaves are yellow, you can snip off that portion rather than the whole leaf. Then less frequent watering is the next step,” she says. If you don’t back off your watering schedule, your plant’s roots can begin to rot, which introduces fungal and bacterial issues that are hard to come back from.
3. Browning leaves
If your plant’s leaves are browning or wilting, that’s usually a sign your plant is too dry and underwatered. Luckily, this is a easy problem to solve. First, snip off tips or remove entire brown leaves near the base,” Spanger says. Then, give it some water.
“If it’s a container plant, it should be moved out of the sun and placed with dry soil in a sink or tray filled with water. If the plant is particularly parched, place it back in it tray before it’s stopped dripping to soak up more water,” she says. “It’s also important to boost levels of water retention in the soil. Look for soil that’s high in organic matter such as sphagnum peat moss or compost. Or, you can try adding water-retaining crystals—a relatively safe and effective method for a short period of time.”
4. Too might light
When it comes to giving your plants sunlight, there is such a thing as overdoing it. “If the foliage of your houseplant is lacking vibrant color or looking dull, it typically means that it’s getting too much light,” says Spanger. “Try moving it to a new place and avoid magnified direct light in front of window. Keep a close eye on it to see how it acclimates to its new location and slowly expose the plant to higher light.”
5. Spotty leaves
Notice icky-looking spots on your plant’s leaves? It could be due to leaf spot disease. “It’s a common culprit and occurs when the attacking fungus or bacteria causes tiny brown spots with yellow trim,” says Spanger. “After removing the diseased leaves, you can treat the plant with a homemade remedy consisting of 1 to 2 tablespoons of baking soda mixed with a teaspoon of mineral oil in a spray bottle of water. Shake the combination well and then generously spray the affected areas that covered with brown spots.”
6. Root rot
While a lot of plant issues can be treated, this is one that unfortunately doesn’t usually have a happy ending. Root rot typically occurs when your plants are overwatered, and “if the roots are completely rotted, it’s almost impossible for a plant to rebound because the roots can’t drink,” Spanger says. If you suspect root rot—if the leaves are yellowing, it’s looking bland, or the plant is wilting—you need to act quickly. Because if you don’t catch it in time, it’s done for.
If you want to try to save your plant, first inspect it. If the roots are dark, mushy, and smell bad (they should be firm and white), Jimmy Thuan Nguyen, MD, of Legends of Monstera, said in a YouTube video that those areas need to be removed. He recommends cutting them off above where the issue is, then rinsing them with any soap you have on hand to help reduce the bacteria load. Next, let the plant air dry for a day, get rid of any additional bad roots, then repot your plant and hope for the best.
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