How to Revive a Dying Houseplant—and When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

Don't give up on your sad-looking houseplant just yet.

Falling leaves. Drooping stems. Pests. The signs are clear: Your houseplant is not happy. But does that mean it's time to throw in the trowel and call it a loss? Not so fast. Many houseplants are more resilient than you may think and they can recover from rather rough conditions. You just need to understand what ailment your plant is suffering from and take the steps to try to correct it.

So, before you give up on your sad-looking houseplant, give it a good analysis to figure out exactly what's going on. While we can't promise you that you'll be able to save every struggling plant you own, it's worth a shot to avoid saying goodbye to yet another potted friend (and the money you spent on it). Below, learn simple steps to revive a plant—and when to accept that your plant is beyond saving.


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How to Tell if Your Plant Is Dead or Alive

Before you panic, check your plant for signs of life. Often, a houseplant might look like it's dead or dying, but still have plenty of life left in it. Likewise, some plants, such as amaryllis and caladiums, naturally go dormant for part of the year and lose all their foliage. So, while certain signs may look alarming, sometimes it's just part of a completely normal process.

To determine if your plant is still alive, start by inspecting the stems. Living stems will be flexible, not brittle, and will have a green color. For woody stems, use your fingernail to scrape back a tiny section of the bark to look for green tissue below. Gently wiggle the plant out of its pot to inspect the roots. While heathy roots are white or yellow and plump, even plants with browned roots can be revived. However, if all of the roots have gone mushy and rotten, this is a sign that a plant is beyond saving.

How to Revive a Plant

Once you’ve identified signs of life, it's time to focus on reviving your plant. The secret to revitalizing houseplants lies in meeting their unique needs. Not all houseplants require the same amount of sun and water, nor do they thrive under the same temperatures. So, take some time to read about your specific plants needs first, then consider the following fixes. 

Correct Overwatering Issues

Overwatering is one of the most common causes for houseplant decline. When soils are waterlogged, there is no space for air to move through the soil, causing the roots to suffocate. The simple and immediate solution is to reduce the amount and/or frequency of watering. Allow the upper layer of soil to dry between waterings. Check that containers are draining properly as well, and empty catch trays if the water sits for more than 24 hours.

Try using a turkey baster to empty catch trays beneath heavy pots.

Overwatering can lead to root rot. So, if you see browning roots during your inspection, take the time to repot your plant. With sterilized shears, trim off roots that show signs of disease, and replant in fresh soil. Then, start on a more moderate watering schedule to give your plants some breathing room. 

Rehydrate Dry Soil

Underwatering can also lead to an unhealthy houseplant. Wilting or drooping leaves can be a sign of both overwatering and underwatering. To differentiate the two, look for dried or brittle leaf tips, or yellowing foliage near the top of the plant. These are both signs of underwatering.

When soil becomes too dry, it can be difficult to moisten using a watering can. Instead, try bottom watering, which (as the name implies) is a method of watering plants from the bottom rather than the top of the pot. To rehydrate a very dry plant, place the entire pot into a sink, bathtub, tray, or bucket of water. Soaking allows the soil to wick up water from the bottom via capillary action, like sucking through a straw. Allow plants to soak for 30 minutes or until the topsoil feels damp. After soaking, it is important to allow excess water to drain out of the pot. Pull the plug on your sink or tub and allow plants to drain for another 10-15 minutes. If using a bucket, place the plant in a tray to catch draining water.

Bottom watering can be a great way to water healthy plants, too, as long as you pay attention to the time and don't let them sit it the water for too long.

Repot Rootbound Plants

Plants that need to be repotted may show similar symptoms to underwatering, as overcrowded roots cannot take up enough water to support the plant. This may be due to roots choking each other out or because there is not enough soil in the container to hold adequate moisture for the roots to absorb. In addition to signs of water stress, look for roots circling the edges of the container during your inspection to determine the need for repotting.

As a rule of thumb, choose a new container that is only slightly larger (one to two inches) than the original pot. If roots are circling the container or twisted together, gently loosen and separate them. Use fresh, high-quality potting soil appropriate for the type of plant, such as cactus-mix for succulents

Give Plants a Trim

There are several reasons to cut back plant material. Those crispy leaves are never going to return to normal, and trimming helps to remove dead or shriveled foliage that are taking up real estate in your houseplant. Cutting back stems also encourages new growth below the point of the cut, resulting in a denser canopy. For plants that have grown too leggy, cut back stems by one-third, and trim dead stems back to the point where you see green tissue. If a gangly stem already has new growth at the base, go ahead and remove the excess at the end so the plant can focus its energy on that new growth.

Pruning overgrown branches or stems can also help plants recover from root stress. By cutting back the canopy of the plant, the root system has less foliage to support. Removing up to one-third to one-half of the foliage can make it easier on your plant's roots.

Treat Insects and Pests

Look for signs of insect damage when inspecting plants. Some pests are quite visible, while others leave behind evidence such as the webbing of spider mites. Luckily, most houseplant pests are relatively easy to treat. For isolated infestations, simply trimming out the affected tissue may solve your problem. Many common houseplant pests can also be dislodged by spraying the foliage and stems with a spray bottle of water or by running them under a stream of water. You can also safely apply insecticidal soaps and oils to most houseplants to get rid of pest eggs. Just be sure to always check labels for instructions and compatibility before using any new products on your plants.

Check the Environment

Finally, if the cause of the plant failure is not obvious, check the growing conditions. Too little or too much light can keep a plant from thriving, as can the wrong temperatures. Start by getting to know your plant. How much light does it require? What are the ideal growing temperatures? Then check the plant’s surroundings.

Perhaps the plant is too close to a cold window or receiving too much sunlight. If the plant is at your work office, consider what the conditions are like at night and over the weekend. Does the company turn the heat or air conditioning down to save energy? Conditions also vary throughout the year. A plant that is perfectly happy during the summer might need additional humidity in winter due to the drying effects of a nearby heat vent.  

Avoid Fertilizers

While it's tempting to give our plants a nutrient boost, fertilizing a weak plant can lead to more stress. That said, sometimes a failure to thrive can be caused by nutrient deficiency, though it isn’t likely to lead to plant death. Try other revival steps first and wait until plants are recovered before resuming fertilization. And remember that plants generally do not need to be fertilized during the winter months.

In conclusion, be patient with your plant patient. It will take a while to nurse your houseplant back to health. While you may notice signs of recovery within a couple weeks, it's perfectly normal for plants to take a month or more to begin putting out new growth.

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