Better living through plant healing
July 8, 2011 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Help me save Mabel, my new spider plant, who is not adjusting to my apartment very well at all.

I have a black thumb. I have never been able to keep a plant alive. I want a plant so bad! Some folks had suggested a spider plant because they are "impossible to kill". I love the way that they make a house feel homier, and my new spider plant (whom I have named Mabel, in a futile attempt to let it know that I love it, and that I don't want it to die) was purchased about 3 weeks ago.

I got it home, set it in the window, and oh-ho, Mabel did NOT like that. Its leaves began to brown. I also made the mistake of watering it when I got it home, and I believe that it did not need it yet. I bought a hook and put it on the wall a little further into the room, but still near enough to the windows that it will get SOME light. I refrained from watering it for another week. Two nights ago I gave it one more watering with a little all-purpose plant food (MABEL! I care!! Hang in there!) - but I think I might be overdoing it?

The plant is still alive but it's rapidly deteriorating. The leaves all around the edges are browning and shriveling. Can you give me some instructions to help nurse it back to health?

Information that might be useful: I bought it in a flower/plant shop and it was hanging from the ceiling pretty far back in the shop. It wasn't dark back there, but there was no really direct sunlight and it was pretty airy. My apartment has bay windows, and it doesn't get too bright in there (I'm on the first floor and my windows look out into an urban alley) and I've hung it inside and drawn the shades. It does get a bit stuffy in the apartment during the day because I need to shut and lock the windows while I'm not home.

posted by pazazygeek to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My spider plants have thrived in indirect lights It does not like a lot of water, so I water it sparingly. Cut off the brown bits of the leaves and it will bounce back.

(PS. My friend bought a house near Santa Cruz, CA where someone threw a dead spider plant into the corner of the yard. Fast forward 1 year later and there are spider plant babies everywhere! I go and pick off the "babies", let them sit in a shallow bowl of water to grow roots, then plant them.)
posted by HeyAllie at 9:05 AM on July 8, 2011

Do you have a picture of the setup?

My spider plants prefer:

- Indirect light or fluorescents (which is why you scorched it in the window)
- To dry out between waterings (1x/week, wet the soil, then leave it alone)

I got a tip from this Spider Plant care site:

"If the foliage begins to brown, try watering with distilled water. The Spider Plant has been known to have problems if there are chemicals in the water."
posted by bookdragoness at 9:06 AM on July 8, 2011

The reason I asked about setup is that unglazed clay pots are best to prevent overwatering for dry-loving plants. When you repot (or pot the babies), add a layer of gravel to the bottom for drainage.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:07 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pictures would help. I've never been able to kill mine, though I frequently forget to water them for long stretches, and I've had them in light and not, so I doubt the light killed it. Just back off the watering for a bit, maybe trim out the brown bits (I usually don't bother), it will be fine. They are very very hardy. And if it does die, I'm sure someone you know has one that will be more than happy to give you some babies to start growing more.
posted by katers890 at 9:09 AM on July 8, 2011

There is a reasonable chance that Mabel is just suffering from a sunburn. Basically, if you take a plant adjusted to a relatively low light condition & put it in a much higher light condition, the leaves will change color & sicken just like pasty-skinned people do. Generally speaking, sunburning on plants will leave the plant looking bleached-out before the general die-off of leaves begin. The good news is, most plants recover just fine --and more sun tolerant-- after a sunburn. It takes a couple months, though, for the plant to grow a new, tougher set of leaves to replace the casualties. Patience is key to dealing with the setback. And a scaled-down watering schedule: Plants with no leaves don't do a very good job of pumping water out of the soil, so you need to keep them on the dry side. Not saharan dessert or anything, but water lightly and allow to dry between waterings.

So: Step 1 is moving the plant away from the window. You don't want to lock it in a closet or anything, you just don't want sunlight falling directly on it. This is what people are talking about when they say "my spider likes indirect light." My next move would be to pick off all the severely damaged leaves. Hopefully there are some leaves that were shaded by others & didn't get as sunburned, but if the damage is just complete, give that plant a buzz-cut & let it start over. Then just be patient, go gently with the water, and maybe give it a little fertilizer at some point.

Also: Does Mabel have any babies? Those little dangly-spiders with the chunky little root systems? As a hedge against the worst, put some of those babies in water. They grow GREAT in just a normal cup with their little feet dangling in water & the rest of them up above in the air. Can stay that way for years, or be transplanted to dirt from the get-go. Before you know it, you will have a plant for every flat surface.
posted by Ys at 10:24 AM on July 8, 2011

I've always found that the soil used for pre-potted plants at places like Home Depot & the like is subpar. I re-pot right away with some nice chunky potted plant soil, & add some compost if I have it. Seconding the layer of gravel on the bottom, especially for spiders, they like to drain. Good luck!
posted by kris.reiss at 10:56 AM on July 8, 2011

It's absolutely not "impossible to kill". I had 4 plants at one point - lemon plant, date palm and a kind of a tall succulent with thin leaves, and a spider plant, and the spider plant was the only one to die, the other three are still doing great. So, if yours does badly, it does not mean you're terrible. That said, it's a pretty easy plant to keep. I don't remember exactly, but I think I overwatered it in a plastic pot, and maybe overfed it and changed location at the same time.

Here's what Barbara Pleasant's book says about spider plants:

light: bright to moderate

fertilizer: in spring and early summer, feed every 2 weeks with a balanced houseplant fertilizer mixed at half the normal rate, in fall, feed monthly

water: in spring and summer, keep soil lightly moist, in fall and winter, allow surface to dry 1in deep between waterings

use rainwater or distilled water if your tap water is fluoridated. this plant is particularly sensitive to contaminants in water and brown leaf tips are often the result of that.

repotting: repot youung plants annually in spring, larger plants in 6 in pots - every other year.
posted by rainy at 10:58 AM on July 8, 2011

Another thing to be aware of about light is that very, very often it's possible to acclimatize a plant to brighter light if you do it gradually. Once it settles in for a couple of months, start moving it gradually closer and closer to window, if that's the location you prefer.
posted by rainy at 11:04 AM on July 8, 2011

Oddly enough, I grow a spider on my back porch every summer that will be beautifully variegated, yet not much more so than the mom which always stays in the house in a low light area. When it first moves outside, it goes quite shocky--sometimes loosing the majority of its leaves. Spiders don't like sudden light change.

Spider Mom is nearly 20 years old, and is a spider baby producing fool. I think I've only repotted three times. Lots of drainage, don't over water, use well water or bottled water and don't over feed. I feed my plant maybe twice a year, if that. Trim your brown edges and it will look better. Then put it in a quiet spot and leave it alone for a bit.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:10 PM on July 8, 2011

If the leaves are going brown along their whole length, you're probably overwatering. If it's just the tips, it's a common occurrence with spider plants due to an intolerace wiith minerals in the water, but it shouldn't do the plant any harm - either ignore it, trim the leaves or switch to using distilled water.
Overwatering is more of a problem, spider plants are pretty tolerant of a wide range if conditions but they prefer to be underwatered than overwatered.
As for light conditions, I have around 10 spider plants in my house currently (I did have 30 last year but had to get rid of some!). Some have filtered light, some have very little direct light, 3 of the healthiest are in bright sunlight. I've even kept them successfully on a sunny outdoor windowsill in summer. So I think they're pretty tolerant of most light conditions. But even now one of my healthiest plants has begun to deteriorate, despite being perfectly happy with its current position and watering for over a year. So don't feel like you're a failure for not having a thriving plant, just give it time to adjust to changes in its position and light levels, don't overwater it and you probably don't need to feed it unless the leaves are going a pale translucent green or it's got loads of babies. Spider plants are not unkillable but they're tough and you have time to experiment a little.
As a side note, I always thought I had black thumbs, but in the last couple of years I've kept anywhere between 30 and 50 house plants healthy in my house at any one time. I don't do well with everything though, still manage to kill plants off! So even if this plant doesn't survive, do try again!
posted by kumonoi at 2:38 AM on July 9, 2011

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