Bad at plants
August 9, 2020 9:39 AM   Subscribe

I seem to repeatedly run into the same problems with my (beginner-level) indoor plants. They're doing fine, and then all of a sudden they die on me quite abruptly. How can I spot issues with them sooner?

I have a small collection of beginner-level indoor plants. I seem to run into the same issue with them repeatedly. It is that they're doing absolutely fine, and then all of a sudden, whoops they're dead. Examples:

My peace lily which I had had for 2 years was growing very nicely, sending out new little baby leaves, and looking really lush. Then all of a sudden it started wilting. Initially I thought it needed water (as it tended to look a bit sad whenever it needed water), so I watered it and that didn't help. I repotted it into a bigger pot but that didn't help either. It was beyond saving. Lush and alive to dead as a doornail in about 2 weeks.

The same thing happened with my philodendron scandens. It was doing fine - not doing a lot of active growing, but seemed perfectly healthy, then I was touching it one day while watering and the whole thing came out in my hands, roots and all - they seemed to have gone rotten. I saved some cuttings and am trying to propagate them in soil, not really noticing a whole lot of success though.

Then the other day I was watering my perfectly healthy looking tradescantia nanouk when two of the longer stems just came away in my hands. The rest of it looks fine so I am just going to leave it alone and try to see if I can propagate the snapped off stems in some water or soil.

I am now superstitiously worried that any time a plant of mine seems to be doing particularly well, it is getting ready to die on me.

My apartment is quite dark but all my plants are beside the window so are in the brightest parts of the apartment. I water weekly unless the soil seems moist - in that case I leave it. I occasionally feed them Miracle Grow in the growing season.

What am I doing wrong? I feel like I must be missing warning signs with my plants or something. Any ideas?
posted by unicorn chaser to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
agree it sounds like too much water - pulling off in your hands makes me think it was rotting at or below the surface. I had a similar issue with my peace lily where I thought it was thirsty but it was really too wet.
posted by brilliantine at 10:10 AM on August 9, 2020

What kind of pots do you have? I find cachepots and sink watering easiest to keep everything happy with, although they seem like more of a hassle than pots with attached saucers. Also, getting a soil moisture monitor might be useful.

Eventually you won’t need the monitor, but having something to calibrate your senses against while you’re learning might help.
posted by clew at 10:18 AM on August 9, 2020

I recommend a water meter. Using a meter you can tell before you water how dry the soil is & water your plants to the recommended levels. It's been a game changer for my indoor plants as I'm able to be more consistent with moisture and avoid overwatering.
posted by countrymod at 10:45 AM on August 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Second the moisture meter. They reach far below where we would measure with a fingertip.
posted by gryphonlover at 10:46 AM on August 9, 2020

Agreed that overwatering seems to be the culprit. A cheap water meter is a great suggestion while you get to know your plants. I'm not an advanced plant owner by any means, and have a couple hard-to-keep-alive little buddies that I still use the moisture meter on. This one is great!

I would also suggest that you keep those puppies in their pots longer. Most indoor plants like to be crowded and a little rootbound. Not completely, but a little bit. Best advice I got was to just leave them in the plastic pots they come in for at LEAST 6 months, and probably a year, unless they're just so rootbound they crack the pots. Place them in decorative overpots or other vessels. When up-potting, you really only want to maybe go an inch larger each time (there are exceptions to this) but I've killed quite a few plants by repotting them too quickly, or in too large of pots.

Philodendron and pothos buddies like to be re-rooted in water, and you can use some root-growth hormone to help the process.

And try to be kind to yourself. Plants are great, but sometimes they just go sideways. I avoided plant tending for years because i was afraid of killing them. It's okay! You're okay! Plants are okay!
posted by furnace.heart at 10:52 AM on August 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

Where do you get your plants? I agree that over-watering is a common problem, but I'm also wondering if you're inadvertently bringing home plants with issues.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:18 PM on August 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

IME the best way to water plants that don't like too much water is to put the whole thing in a sink filled with a few inches of water for a half hour or so. That way, they can drink whatever water they want without risking them getting too wet. This method, of course, assumes that the plant is in a pot with a drainage hole.
posted by DrGail at 12:18 PM on August 9, 2020

My watering tip is to leave them in their plastic pots, and then *slowly* water them in the sink with a small stream of water as you hold the pot in the air to let the water drip out the bottom, stopping when the dripping slows. I can tell that my plants have enough water by their weight. I have a bunch of houseplants and haven't killed one yet! I water ~once a week, but sometimes less often. Less water is definitely better than too much.
posted by pinochiette at 12:35 PM on August 9, 2020

If your place is dark then it's very possible that you are overwatering, even if you don't think you are. That's because there's likely not enough time for the soil to completely drain or nearly dry out before it's resoaked. If it's also cool in there, then bacteria-thriving, rotting conditions are likely.

Are you letting the water sit for a bit before putting it in the soil or going straight from the tap? Even if it's just 20 minutes, letting the water sit means all the flouride and other things in the water will evaporate off and not get into your plant's food supply.

Also, make sure any changes you make to the plant are gradual and in small increments. That means miracle grow, repotting, moving to a new place, all of these things slowly and in small amounts and with lots of time in between. Each plant is its own special snowflake and any changes you make will show gradually too. If you try something, wait a few days to observe before trying something else.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:05 PM on August 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Do you live someplace with high humidity? That can make overwatering easier to do. In a situation with low light + high humidity, I would recommend using a cactus soil, or mixing the cactus soil in with the regular potting soil. Make sure you use a pot with some good drainage, and use the moisture meter before watering.

Also, don't feel too bad about the peace lily - they're not really a beginner plant. Experienced plant owners kill those things all the time. I suggest a sansevieria/snake plant. They do well in low light and thrive on neglect.
posted by SamanthaK at 2:44 PM on August 9, 2020

It helps avoid overwatering if you make sure your pot has drainage holes. If it doesn’t, you can keep the plant in the nursery pot and just set it in the more decorative one. I water by touch—if I can put a finger into the pot an inch or two down and it’s dry, I water. If it’s damp, I wait.

I also agree with SamanthaK’s advice about cactus soil. If the soil your plants are in is holding a lot of water then it will be easy to overwater. Good luck & happy growing!
posted by incountrysleep at 8:51 PM on August 9, 2020

Plants need a lot less water when they get less light. They have some energy in reserves but without enough light, even the lowest light plant will go kaput. And too much water leads to root rot. Surviving but not showing new growth isn’t really surviving. Tiny leaves and legginess might also indicate not enough light.

You could put them under some bright LEDs to boost the light they get. You should cut back on watering — check with your finger and don’t water til it’s dry an inch or two down into the soil.

Some plants that can manage okay in lower light include the cast iron plant, snake plants, and zz plants.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:22 AM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Too much water doesn't directly cause root rot; lack of air does. It's just that the first often causes the second, but the root cause is frequently over-compacted spongy potting soil. If you fix the soil/drainage issues, you'd be amazed by what will grow happily with tons of water around.

Aside from watering less, one of the best things you can do for any plant is to make sure your soil mix is highly aerated and doesn't hold too much water by including a lot of large chunks of stuff (orchid bark, rocks, LECA) that don't absorb much and mixing in coconut coir, perlite, or even just sand (exact things to use depend a little bit on the plant, but honestly almost all of them benefit from having some mix of those in there). The stuff straight out of the bag is fine for a while, but almost always compacts down to a solid brick after a while.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 5:01 AM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're consistently not doing great at watering, i highly recommend the Sustee watering indicators. You need one per pot, but then it's failproof. It doesn't measure the humidity in the soil, but the amount of resistance for the roots to get the water. Since getting them i haven't killed another plant, even the tricky ones like orchids or ferns.
And i second checking your light levels, you can use free apps on your phone to get an estimate of the amount of light they get in their current spot.
posted by PardonMyFrench at 6:13 AM on August 10, 2020

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