Happy Houseplants

Learn how to avoid the most common problems that can afflict houseplants.

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Most plants are easier to maintain than you might think. In fact, you may even be giving some plants a little too much attention. Once you know a plant's light, water, nutrition and humidity needs, the most common problems are easy to avoid and remedy.

  • The No. 1 reason houseplants don't thrive is overwatering. Soil should be moist but not soggy; don't leave water standing in the saucer, unless you let the pot rest on pebbles so that the roots aren't in contact with the water.


  • Irregular watering results in burned tips. When the soil dries out between waterings, salt builds up in the soil, burning the tips of plants. Take the plant to the sink and run water through the soil, flushing out built-up salts. Consistent watering is very important for maintaining plant and soil health.


  • Yellow and brown leaves: these result from either over or underwatering. Feel the soil to determine if it's too wet or too dry.


  • Sunlight is the other critical component to successful plant growth. Before buying a plant, be sure you understand its light needs so you can place it appropriately in your home. Plants need either direct sunlight or diffused light (as through a sheer curtain), but the quality and quantity of each may vary, depending on the type of plant.


  • Too-little light: plants will get dull, scraggly leaves or spindly growth when they are grown with too little light. Cut back plants that have been in a too-dark area and place them in brighter light, depending on their needs. The plants should soon respond with new growth.


  • Sun scorch: Leaves have brown spots surrounded by yellow when they get too much sun. Equivalent to a sunburn, sun scorch can happen when a low-light plant is placed in direct sunlight, or when an indoor plant is abruptly placed outside in direct sunlight and left there. Plants need time to build resistance and adapt. It's better to leave indoor plants inside all year long rather than moving them outside during warm months because they have adapted to indoor conditions.


  • Pests: mealybugs and scale, a living insect that looks like a brown spot on the stem, can be controlled with rubbing alcohol and a Q-tip. For mealybugs, rub an alcohol-soaked Q-tip deep down in the center of the plant, at the base of the leaves to remove the white, cotton-like substance produced by the pests. For scale, touch a soaked Q-tip to the brown spots on stems, and the insects will dry out almost instantly. Wipe the stem clean.


  • To add nutrients to houseplants: try watering with cooled cooking water. The unsalted water used to hard-boil eggs contains calcium, which encourages African violets to bloom. The lightly colored, cooled water used to cook veggies also provides a nutrient-rich water for houseplants.

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