Plant problems: how to figure out what’s wrong with your indoor plant

indoor plant problems

What's wrong with your houseplant?

Here are things to look for so you can troubleshoot the issue.

No matter how good you get at growing indoor plants, there will come a time when one of your houseplants becomes sick and you have to figure out what’s wrong. 

As I mentioned in 7 common houseplant myths, I want you to first resist the urge to overreact. Less is more when it comes to dealing with a problem plant. 

You’ll find that if left alone for a few days they are quite good at tending to their own ailments. 

Yet, if after a week or so your plant is not stabilizing here’s how to troubleshoot and figure out the problem. 

How to Troubleshoot 

  • Too much water
  • Too little water 
  • Too much light
  • Too little light
  • Too move movement
  • Needs repotting
  • Problems with repotting 
  • Not enough fresh air 

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Too much water

I’ve found that houseplants start to wilt, turn yellow, or drop their leaves when overwatered.  Overwatering leads to root rot which can kill the plant because the drowning soil makes it hard from them to pull air and nutrients.

Overwatering is one of most common rookie moves that lead to sickly and dying plants. You may have a set schedule for checking up on your plants (say weekly) but absolutely should not automatically water at a pre-determined time.

Instead, every week check the soil by sticking your finger into the pot at least an inch deep. If it’s soggy don’t water. If it’s slightly damp you can water for plants that like to stay moist. If it’s completely dried out then you can water for any plant.

Access my plant care worksheet in the resource roundup. It’ll tell you the general watering and other needs for 50 of the most common indoor plants.

And if you are heavy handed with the watering can then opt for indoor plants that like to be watered a lot. Also please make sure your planter has holes at the bottom so water can flow out and not stay stagnant around the roots.

Too little water

Plants that have too little water may also yellow or drop their leaves (particularly towards the bottom of the plant) but you’ll also notice that the leaves are dry or crispy to the touch.

Moreover, you can tell an unwatered plant by its soil — especially if it’s super dry or almost rocky to the touch.

Underwatering is likely the result of changes in the outdoor weather or indoor temperature of the house which impacts your plants’ watering needs without you realizing it.

There may also be an issue with the container absorbing too much of the water. I notice this with terra cotta pots (which are technically best for outdoor use).

Too much light

It’s not technically too much light but too much heat from the suns rays you need to look out for. If that’s the case, you’ll eventually notice either the leaves turning a bit pale or, if the sun is extremely aggressive, even outright scorching of the leaves.

Keep in mind that many of the common houseplants, which the exception of cacti and succulents, need bright but indirect light.

Note the sun exposure in your home and try not to place your houseplants directly in front of a window. Otherwise use a sheer curtain to filter the rays.

Too little light

When a plant isn’t getting enough light you may notice that there’s no leaf growth, leaves grown looking sickly or flimsy, the stems starting to lose their firmness and droop, or the plant growing (almost stretching) in the direction of any available light.

In my experience, the stretching is the most obvious sign. If you have a light issue you will need to relocate the plant to an area of your home with more sun to correct the problem.

Too much movement

Believe it or not some plants, like the weeping fig (aka ficus tree) hate being moved around. If you notice that your plant is becoming fussy for no reason after a relocation, then leave it be and keep that in mind before you think to move it next time.

Usually what will happen is that many of its leaves will suddenly turn yellow and drop off almost without warning. The good news is that if you leave it be, it will likely calm down and revive itself.

Before you bring a plant into your home — particularly if it’s a fussy species — try to be mindful about the best place for it to sit beforehand. That way you cut down on any future tantrums!

Needs to be repotted

If your plant starts to wilt or you notice extreme slowness in growth, it may be time for a repotting.

Other signs are that the roots are crowded and start to circle around the pot or even push out of the bottom holes of the pot.

You may need to repot your plants every 1-2 years for two main reasons: proper space for the roots as well as enough nutrients in the soil.

Problems with repotting

If your plant looks sick not long after a repotting it could mean that the process put it in a state of shock, the new soil is not suitable for its needs, or the new pot is too large.  

First, check that the pot isn’t too big. It should be no more than 2-3 inches larger (in diameter) than the previous pot it was in. A too big pot inclines you to water more and will hold that extra water leading to root rot.

Second, double check that you chose a potting soil that was appropriate for your species of plant. For instance, succulents and cacti have drastically different soil requirements than your tropical plants.

Third, think about how you repotted it: were you gentle with the plant and its roots? Did you cover the roots properly? If you suspect stress then leave it alone for a while and allow it to adjust and revive itself.

Not enough fresh air

If you were locked in a room with stagnant air for several days on end you’d begin to show signs. Perhaps your complexion would get pale or you’d be perpetually drowsy and irritable.

In fact there’s a disease called Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) that refers to the range of ailments that people experience when they stay indoors for too long, because of over exposure to indoor toxins.  

Well poor ventilation impacts your plants in much the same way! Just like you, they absolutely need fresh air on a regular basis to thrive. So open the window a few times a day and let a gust of air in.

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