Common Houseplants Problems and Fixes

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Common Houseplants Problems and Fixes

Sometimes it seems that houseplants can be even more persnickety that your plants outside.

Perhaps this is because, even though many plants do just fine indoors, none of them evolved over the millennia while growing inside someone's air conditioned, forced air heating home. And then there's the whole absence-of-rain-indoors problem. Not to worry, most houseplant problems are easy to fix.


Believe it or not, most houseplants die from complications of overwatering. Always use a pot with adequate drainage holes in the bottom, and water until it starts flowing out the bottom of the pot. Then, don't water again until the soil about an inch below the surface is only just barely moist.

If you see unnaturally small, yellow leaves, and stunted overall growth; or the whole plant is wilting; or all the plants' leaves all/most fell off at the same time, then you should check to see if your plant is suffering from root rot, caused by overwatering. To confirm the diagnosis, gently pull the plant out of the pot and examine the roots. If you see brown or black, slimy, mushy roots, then your plant is indeed suffering from root rot. If the damage isn't too severe, put the plant back in the pot and allow it to dry out until the soil is only just barely moist. Then water according to the instructions above. If the damage is extensive, throw the plant out and move on with your life.

Fungus Gnats

Fungus gnats themselves, aren't much of a problem, other than that they're kind of gross. But their larva feed on the roots of plants, and they can damage or kill a plant, if left unchecked. How do you know if you have a fungus gnat larva problem? If you have tiny black flies buzzing around the base of your plant, you almost certainly have the larva too.

In general, seeing fungus gnats is a sign that you are overwatering, because their larva can only survive in very moist conditions. Try to water only when the soil an inch below the surface is barely moist. That should hopefully kill off the larva. To get rid of the adults, purchase a yellow sticky trap near the base of the plant, underneath the lowest leaves. The yellow paper attracts the gnats, and then they get stuck in the sticky substance and die. This is a safe solution for the humans and pets in your home, there's no need to spray anything!

Nutrient Deficiency

If the overall palor of your plant is yellowish, or very light green; or if the edges of the leaves have turned brown and brittle; or if the bottom leaves have turned yellow and have fallen off, you're probably looking at a nutrient deficiency. Think back, have you ever fertilized your beloved houseplant? If not, it sounds like you need to start! Lack of deep, dark, green leaves is usually a sign that the plant isn't getting enough nitrogen. When the margins of leaves turn brown, that's often a sign that it needs some potassium. I prefer to use fertilizer sticks in the pots of my houseplants, they slowly release fertilizer into the soil over a long period of time. Whatever the type of fertilizer you use, always follow the package instructions.

Too Little Light

Not all indoor light is created equal. Some plants need bright light, while others prefer much darker growing conditions. If your plant appears stunted, and the leaves are unusually small; or the plant looks stretched out, and possibly can't hold itself upright anymore, then there's a good chance that your plant needs more light. Though if the growth is stunted, check to make sure that the roots aren't rotting (directions above).

Not Enough Water

You would think that most people kill their plants because they forget to water them. But that's not normally the case. Unfortunately, the main symptom of under watering looks exactly the same as one symptom of overwatering. This is because both under and over watering does the same thing to the plant: restrict the ability of the plant to draw up water and nutrients from the soil. Unfortunately, most people associate a wilting plant with one that needs more water, not less.

When you see that one of your houseplants has wilted, always check the soil before deciding that the problem is lack of water. Obviously, if the soil is dry, the problem is lack of water. If the soil has sucked itself inwards, away from the sides of the pot, the best way to rehydrate the plant is to place the whole pot in a shallow bowl, full of water. Allow the plant to draw up water from the bottom, and "re plump" the soil. If you water from the top, the water is likely to slide down the space between the soil and the pot, and not soak in to the area where the plant's roots are growing.