Before you can address what ails your plants, first evaluate the situation. “When you’re looking at a plant and you think, ‘Gosh, this doesn’t look like it did when I bought it,’ the first thing to consider is how old it is,” says Clarke de Mornay, senior buyer at San Francisco’s Flora Grubb Gardens. “If it’s just a couple months or less since you bought it and it’s having issues, it probably has to do with light, air circulation, or watering.” If you’ve had the plant for more than a few months, the issue might be nutrition, pests, or other problems.
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Here’s what to look for to diagnose the problem, plus ways to fix things with simple, sustainable steps that will help your little sprouts bounce back in no time.
Symptom: Soft, yellowing leaves
Too much water
Check the soil–if it’s especially damp or wet, water less frequently. Make sure the pot has proper drainage holes in the bottom, too.
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Symptom: Brown, crispy leaves that are falling off
Not enough water
Try watering until liquid runs out of the pot’s drainage holes, and do that whenever soil is dry to the touch. But, adds de Mornay, don’t overdo it.
“The most common mistake is to either under- or over-water in the beginning and then to switch gears and do the opposite,” he says. “It’s about consistency and getting water to plants on a timely basis.”
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Remember that houseplants need different amounts of water in different seasons. If you’re running the air conditioner or furnace, for example, soil dries out faster. While you might not need to water more often, you should up the amount of water you’re pouring into the pot each time.
Related: 10 Houseplants You Hardly Ever Have To Water
Symptom: Fine webbing and tiny insects
Three pests that commonly attack houseplants are mites (look for very tiny insects and silky webbing), scales (small, dark, waxy insects attached to leaves and stems) and whiteflies (tiny white or yellow insects clustered under leaves). These itty-bitty insects can spread from infested plants to healthy ones, so isolate a sick flower as soon as you see a problem.
For a basic, organic pest-fighting solution, dilute rubbing alcohol in water and gently wipe down all leaves and stems weekly for at least three weeks in a row. To avoid stressing the plant even more, keep it away from sunshine and heat as you apply the solution.
Stir one teaspoon of alcohol into two cups of water for small plants; for bigger ones, try no more than half a cup of alcohol in a gallon of water. Don’t have rubbing alcohol on hand? Vodka makes a cheap and sustainable substitute.
Related: 7 Reasons Your Houseplants Keep Dying
Symptom: Tired leaves and low soil levels in the pot
Potted plants live in a limited amount of soil, and the nutrients in that soil disappear over time. Plus, some dirt gets washed out of the pot each time you water a houseplant. When leaves look hungry for extra nutrition, you might apply one of de Mornay’s favorite natural alternatives: sprinkling tea leaves or coffee grounds on the soil. The simplest alternative is to add fresh potting soil. “Lift the plant and the root ball entirely out of the pot and add a little soil to the bottom, or, alternatively, just add a thin layer to the top,” says de Mornay.
Related: 8 Houseplants That Can Survive Your Neglect