6 common houseplant problems and how to solve them

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6 common houseplant problems and how to solve them

Keeping your houseplants in great shape should be every indoor gardener's top priority. 

But what happens when you notice worrying symptoms like wilting, yellowing leaves and breakage? Diagnose the problem with Whitaker’s guide to common houseplant problems. Today, we’ll tell you exactly what to look out for and how to solve the issue. 

1. Poor lighting 

An all-too-common problem for indoor gardeners is light conditions. The symptoms of poor lighting can manifest differently depending on whether the plant has been overexposed or is suffering from a lack of light. 

Plants that receive insufficient light may exhibit weak, spindly growth and may have pale leaves, which can lead to poor flowering. 

On the other hand, too much light can cause leaves to develop scorched, brown patches and give them a washed-out appearance (particularly if the light is direct and intense). 

The solution? The first step to ensuring ideal light conditions is to better understand the requirements of your specific plants. 

The Parlour Palm, for example, is known for its elegant appearance and undemanding nature. It thrives in bright, indirect light conditions but will burn if placed directly in the sun. 

That’s why, during the brighter months, indoor gardeners should avoid placing sensitive plants in direct sunlight to avoid scorching. 

When winter rolls around, moving plants closer to windows or supplementing with artificial light can help maintain their health. 

2. Overwatering

Overwatering is one of the most frequent yet harmful mistakes made by houseplant owners. It can lead to issues like root rot, yellowing leaves, wilting, and eventually plant death.

When plants receive more water than they can absorb, the excess moisture suffocates the roots and prevents them from breathing properly. 

The waterlogged condition inhibits the roots from delivering essential nutrients and oxygen to the plant, which can cause it to weaken or die over time. 

The solution? You can prevent overwatering simply by refining your understanding of proper watering practices and drainage: 

  • Check the soil moisture: Water your plants only when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch: this method prevents excessive moisture at the root level. 
  • Use well-draining soil: Opt for a soil mix designed for houseplants, which typically includes components like perlite or sand that enhance soil drainage. 
  • Ensure proper drainage: Choose pots with drainage holes and avoid leaving water in saucers or trays under pots, as standing water can lead to root issues. 
  • Monitor plant needs: Be aware that watering needs can vary with changes in the environment, such as light levels, temperature, and humidity. Adjust your watering habits accordingly and be particularly cautious during the cooler months when plants require less water.

3. Underwatering

Equally important to houseplant health is the issue of underwatering. Not providing your plant with sufficient water can lead to symptoms like wilting, leaf yellowing, stunted growth, and even leaf drop. 

Wilting occurs when there is insufficient water to maintain turgor pressure in the plant's cells, causing them to appear limp or lifeless. 

Yellowing, especially starting at the tips or edges of the leaves, typically indicates a lack of adequate water, though it can sometimes be confused with nutrient deficiencies. 

Stunted growth is a result of the plant conserving energy and resources due to limited water availability. 

The solution? As with overwatering issues and light conditions, it’s important to do your research about the plant species you’re currently caring for. 

Succulents, a common, well-loved type of houseplant, do not need as much moisture as other houseplants. Why? They store water in their leaves! However, plants like Ferns need wet soil and damp conditions to survive. 

4. Insufficient humidity 

In the UK, particularly during winter, indoor air can become very dry due to heating. Improper humidity can significantly impact houseplants, especially those that thrive in humid conditions like tropical species. 

Symptoms include browning leaf tips, leaf curl, and the drying or withering of foliage. 

The solution? To combat low humidity levels, there are several strategies you can use:

  • Grouping plants: Placing several plants close together can create a micro-environment with higher humidity. If you own several plants that thrive in high humidity, grouping them in one area can kick-start a process called ‘collective transpiration’, where moisture is released from the leaves. 
  • Humidity trays: Placing your plant pots on trays filled with pebbles and water can increase local humidity as the water evaporates. However, you should make sure the pot does not sit directly in the water to avoid root rot. 
  • Misting: Regularly misting plants can temporarily boost humidity. It's best to mist in the morning so the leaves have time to dry out during the day (thereby reducing the risk of fungal diseases). 
  • Invest in a humidifier: An evaporative humidifier can help maintain a consistent humidity level in your home and will likely be beneficial for most houseplants. 

5. Diseases 

Fungal diseases are a significant concern for houseplant enthusiasts, as they can drastically affect plant health and may seemingly come out of nowhere! 

Common symptoms of fungal infections include discoloured leaves, typically yellow or brown spots, wilting, powdery mildew, or a fuzzy mould appearance on leaves and stems. 

These symptoms usually arise from environmental factors that favour fungal growth, such as excessive moisture and poor air circulation.

The solution? The management and prevention of houseplant diseases involves taking proactive steps: 

  • Fungicidal treatments: For plants already showing signs of disease, fungicidal sprays can be effective. Choose fungicides that are safe for indoor use and apply according to the manufacturer's instructions. Be cautious, as overuse can harm the plant and environment. 
  • Regular cleaning and inspection: Regularly inspecting your plants for early signs of disease and removing any affected leaves can prevent the spread of fungi. Keeping the plant area clean from fallen debris also reduces disease risks.

6. Pests

Houseplants can fall victim to various pests like mealybugs, spider mites, and thrips. 

These insects typically feed on the plant sap, leading to symptoms such as yellowing leaves, stunted growth, and the appearance of fine webbing or sticky residue. 

Mealybugs, for instance, appear as fluffy white accumulations on plants, while spider mites cause fine webbing between leaves. Thrips, however, leave behind silvery speckling and small white patches due to their sap-sucking habits. 

The solution? To combat these pests, you’ll need to take a multifaceted approach depending on the pest in question. 

Start by physically removing visible pests using a cotton swab or a soft brush. For spider mites and thrips, a spray of water or a mild soap solution can dislodge these pests from the plant. 

Applying neem oil or insecticidal soap can help eliminate any remaining pests and protect against future infestations. Similarly, using yellow sticky traps can be effective in monitoring and controlling the presence of flying pests like whiteflies

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  • Daniel Corlett