How To Stop Killing House Plants

Houseplants add a beautiful, natural ambiance to home decor, but many people give up on them because they think they have a “brown” thumb.

They become discouraged when they buy lovely plants that have been raised in ideal greenhouse conditions, only to have them wither up or die after they bring them home.

Raising houseplants requires a basic knowledge of their ideal living conditions, and is not difficult to do if you take care to make your home comfortable for them and give them proper care in watering and feeding, and the right amount of light.

Temperature And Humidity

Most houseplants are hybrids of plants that grow naturally in the wild, usually in tropical climates where it is always hot and humid. You don’t have to turn your home into a jungle to have beautiful, healthy house plants! Plants do best with the relative humidity at 50-70%.

In the winter, dry heated rooms rob the air of moisture your plants need. Use a humidifier in the rooms that have plants, or place pans of water in the room to evaporate into the air. You can also place the pot of the plant in a shallow tray filled with pebbles and a little water. (Keep the bottom of the pot above the water level).

Grouping plants together will also increase the humidity they receive. Drastic temperature changes will cause tropical plants, used to a consistently hot environment, to suffer. They can tolerate cooler temperatures (never below 50) if the humidity is adequate.

Try to keep your house as cool as possible and still be comfortable. Above 67, the humidity drops drastically. Plants suffering from too much heat and inadequate humidity may have leaf edges that turn dry and brown. Mist the plant occasionally with room temperature water (cold water will leave spots on leaves) and mist lightly enough that the leaves will dry quickly. Misting will also clean dust off the leaves and help the plant resist pests.


The most common mistake plant owners make is over or under watering their plants. Some plants do require more water than others, but a general rule is to not water a plant until the top 1″ of soil is dry to the touch.

Plants that are consistently over watered will develop root rot, which usually will result in the plant dying. Under watering is also a problem, but a plant that is under watered will usually recover if it has not been left dry too long.

When watering a plant, water slowly, a little at a time, and wait for the water to drain into the soil before adding more. Stop when the soil begins to resist the water.

Sign of over watering are a droopy plant (crown, stem, or root rot) and spotted foliage.

Under watered plants will turn brown and dry around the edges of the leaves, the bottom leaves may fall off (although some plant species will naturally lose their bottoms leaves as they grow).

Some chemicals in tap water, like chlorine, fluoride, and sodium, can be harmful to plant roots. Keep a watering can filled and let it sit a day or two before watering your plants, to allow the chemicals to evaporate, or use filtered or distilled water.

Potting Your House Plants

When you bring home a plant from a nursery, they often are beginning to outgrow their pots. When replanting, use a pot only slighter larger than the original container. A plant that is in a pot that is too large can be easily over watered. The plant will not have adequate roots to absorb the excess water in the pot. The best choice is a pot that has drainage holes in the bottom, with a saucer.

When repotting a plant, remove the plant from its original container by gently tapping around the edge of the pot to loosen the soil. Remove the root ball, holding the plant at the bottom of the stem, and gently brush it to loosen the roots around the outside edge.

Put a layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot, an inch or two depending on the size of the pot, to keep the roots from sitting in water. Fill the new pot with enough potting soil to bring the plant’s original planting depth about 1″ from the top edge of the container. Fill in with soil around the outside of the container and gently press the soil down.

Water lightly: This will help the soil settle in, and you may need to add just a bit more soil to bring it back up to the plant’s original planting depth. If you use a good quality potting soil, fertilization is not necessary at this point. Always handle the roots carefully and do not expose them to air any longer than necessary.

After repotting the plant, keep it out of bright or direct sunlight for about a week to allow the roots to adjust, then move it to a spot with the lighting it prefers. Tropical plants contained in pots will not grow as vigorously as their wild cousins.

Fertilization And Soil

Fertilizing plants repotted in new, good quality potting soil is seldom necessary; it will contain all the nutrients a plant requires for several years. When fertilizing more established plants, dilute the fertilizer beyond the manufacturer’s directions. Over fertilization will burn the roots.

Different species of plants have different light requirements. Consult a plant guide for the particular light requirements for your plant. Plants that love direct sunlight will do best in a window with a southern exposure. East and west windows are also good spots for plants that like bright light, but not necessarily direct sunlight.

Plants that tolerate low light or shade can decorate a corner or hallway. If your home doesn’t have much light coming in through the windows, supplement the sun with fluorescent lights, which are less expensive than grow lights.

If you fear you are truly death to plants, but prefer live plants to artificial ones, some hard-to-kill house plants are the spider plant, snake plant (also known as mother-in-law’s tongue) and the common philodendron. They can take a fair amount of neglect and still spring back to life.