Help with struggling exotic house plants!?
February 23, 2012 11:52 AM   Subscribe

An older couple asked me to care for their condo & exotic house plants for three months while they're traveling. Two of the plants are struggling, and I don't know what to do! More info inside.

Now that their kids are all grown up, I was told that these plants are like children to them. SO: I have a month to revive the two plants! Both are in their own individual pots.

I'm not really sure what they are, and I've scoured the Internet trying to figure that out, but I've been watering them every 5 days or so, as needed (checking the soil, etc)... as of about a week ago, I noticed that Plant A's leaves were very crispy. Green, but crispy. Its leaves, when healthy, looked sort of like Baby's Tears. Is this the blue screen of death? What can I do?

Plant B is very small, a crawling fern-ish type thing... about 50% of it started to grow brown, so I picked the bad stuff out, put it in better light, but still... not much improvement. Ideas?

Thank you!
posted by eenagy to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Photos would be a big help, here. Some plants might need more water than you're giving them, some might need less... there's no way to tell from what you've said. But someone here might be able to identify the plants if you post photos.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:54 AM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well...if you post pictures you might be able to get plant-specific advice.
posted by 6550 at 11:55 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah we need pics.

BUT. The "crawling fern-ish thing"... I bet that does NOT want better light. Likely quite the opposite. Sounds like a moist and dark plant to me.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:59 AM on February 23, 2012

Also you need to tell us how much and how often you're watering. Also: are you using tap water? Some plants are sensitive to chloramine and chlorine. The best thing you can do is leave your watering-water out for a couple days to off-gas.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 12:00 PM on February 23, 2012

Response by poster: Gah, I know. My phone's camera is broken, so I thought I'd give it a go without pictures.

I'm watering every 4-5 days, as they told me to... checking on the soil in between. I've been using filtered water at room temp.
posted by eenagy at 12:02 PM on February 23, 2012

Filtered, not distilled right?
posted by edgeways at 12:04 PM on February 23, 2012

Response by poster: Yes - filtered.
posted by eenagy at 12:05 PM on February 23, 2012

I think we'll definitely need pictures. Putting a fern-like plant in the sun could either help it or hurt it a great deal.
posted by Think_Long at 12:06 PM on February 23, 2012

Best answer: I see you're in the D.C. area. Perhaps you could contact the horticulture department or extension office of a local university for help. Or even a local botanical society or garden organization--don't know if the Smithsonian Gardens has indoor plant experts, but someone at any of these places might be able to refer you. Even a florist who deals extensively with houseplants--if you took the plants there, at the least they might be able to identify them for you definitively.
posted by tully_monster at 12:16 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a botanic garden or garden supply shop near you? Maybe bringing it to them and asking for advice may be of some help. A botanic garden is ideal because they're all about education, and they also may have more experience in rescuicitating dying plants.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on February 23, 2012

My guess is that you're watering too often for most houseplants, but given that we don't have photos, who knows!
posted by barnone at 12:20 PM on February 23, 2012

Hmm. I think that GENERALLY there may be underwatering. "Crispy" does not sound like an overwatering issue; neither does browning.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 12:26 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you moved any of the plants (except the one you mentioned)?

Listen, if not, and you really have been following the care instructions, this is not your problem. You were not hired to be a plant miracle worker. If you were my plant-sitter I'd appreciate an email saying, "Hey, I've been doing what you asked, and X is happening. What would you like me to do?"

Are you staying there? If not, and it's unheated at night, my money's on the night temperature. If it's getting cold at night, the plants could be protesting.
posted by purpleclover at 12:27 PM on February 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

Has the amount of direct light changed in the house?
Ferns and orchids need shade, indirect light.

Too much water will darken their roots: take a look, they should be light brown not black roots.
posted by artdrectr at 12:27 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

After you water, is any excess left in the saucers beneath the plants? That should probably be dumped out so that it doesn't keep them waterlogged and cause root rot.
posted by bunji at 12:38 PM on February 23, 2012

Seattle Tilth has a gardening hotline, call them
posted by pakora1 at 2:12 PM on February 23, 2012

Best answer: Seconding the ambient temperature. Even if it's within healthy ranges for the plants, a sudden change from "72 all the time" to whatever they set their furnace to (even if it's just 5-6 degrees cooler) can send tropical plants into slow shock. Email or call them, if you can, and ask if this is expected behavior. Also, if the plants are their babies they probably talk at them all the time. There are studies showing that plants thrive in atmospheres with activity and noise. Try singing a stupid little plant song to them every day, while watering them.
posted by zinful at 2:15 PM on February 23, 2012

It's really hard to tell without knowing the plants. What were the instructions they gave you? Did they tell you to water that often? For some plants, that's fine, and for others, that's way too much. And for something like spikemoss, that's not enough. Are these fully indoors, or outside? If outside, what's the weather like right now?
posted by vegartanipla at 2:21 PM on February 23, 2012

contact the owners!
posted by yarly at 2:26 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are you using filtered tap water? Do they have a water softener? Water softeners use salt to replace the calcium in hard water. It's not good to water plants with it.
posted by annsunny at 2:50 PM on February 23, 2012

This is definitely a situation where I think you would be justified in contacting the owners.
"I'm really sorry to interrupt your vacation, but I know your plants are really important to you! They're looking weird, and I don't know why, or what to do about it! Do you have a few minutes to kind of walk me through what's happening here?"
Think of it this way - if you were babysitting someone's kid, and the kid suddenly broke out in weird spots or something, you would call their parent first, right?

(Personally I wonder if they are too close to a chilly window, since the house temperature is probably lower than normal, with the occupants gone on vacation?

I have lost a few plants to being chilled this way. Tropical plants can be fussy about severely non-tropical temperatures, like in the 40s to low 60s.)
posted by ErikaB at 4:54 PM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here are one, two web sites to help you identify house plants.

If you look, you can probably find symptom guides online, too, to help you figure out what's happening and how to describe it.

Other places to check: local plant stores / nurseries. Sometimes there are experts there who are very willing to help. Bring in a sample of affected plant, and know what the plant is called before going.

Maybe a neighbor or friend of the owners will know the type of plants?
posted by amtho at 5:00 PM on February 23, 2012

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