It’s alive—no really, it probably still is
So, you’ve killed your houseplant. Even avid gardeners miss the odd watering, causing their most fragile plants to dramatically wilt in protest. The good news is that, while a brown leaf is dead and gone, most plants that are seemingly dead have some life left in them. Learn how to save a dead plant with these simple tricks.
1. Check for Any Signs of Life
The truth is that most house plants that look dead aren’t actually dead. Some even go dormant in the winter like that seemingly dead tree in your backyard that blooms every spring (hello, purple shamrock and marble queen pothos).
So, how can you tell if your plant is dead or salvageable? You need to look for signs of life. You can probably revive your plant if there’s:
Stems that are pliable and firm
Roots that are pliable and firm
Green anywhere on the plant
Even the smallest sign of life will do. Most houseplants (except for the odd finicky fern) are quite resilient.
2. Trim the Damaged Leaves
Unfortunately, yellow or brown leaves can’t be saved. In this case, your best bet is to give your plant a haircut. Trim your plant’s leaves, removing all the dead or damaged foliage to help save your dying plant.
This will give your plant more energy to focus on new growth because it’s not trying to maintain dying leaves.
3. Move Your Plant to Get Better Light
Better light doesn’t necessarily mean more light. Plants can get a sunburn just like you. Most house plants thrive in medium to bright light, but some house plants like calathea require low light.
So, how do you tell if your plant is getting the right amount of light?
Plants with too much light develop bleached or yellowing leaves right around where the sun hits the foliage.
Plants with too little light drop leaves along the bottom of their stems and grow long and spindly. In other words, they’ll look like they’re reaching out for more light.
If your plant shows signs of sun damage, trim the damaged leaves, and move your plant away from the window or to a window in your home that gets less light (like a north-facing window). If your plant needs more light, either move it to a sunnier part of your home (like a south-facing window) or purchase an artificial grow light.
4. Overwatered Plant? Get Rid of the Root Rot
Native plants to arid climates (like succulents or cacti) don’t need a lot of water—but it’s not hard to accidentally overwater a tropical houseplant that thrives in humidity, either.
So, how do you know if your plant is overwatered? It has yellow leaves, moist soil, and sometimes, a little visible mold or fungus.
To save an overwatered plant from dying, do the following:
Remove the plant from the overly saturated soil
Look for root rot—if it’s present, a portion of the roots will be mushy and brown
Remove the damaged roots, carefully rinsing them clean with water
Repot your plant in a well-draining pot with fresh soil
Trim back any yellow or brown leaves
Since overwatering tends to flush out nutrients in the soil, feed your plant with fertilizer to promote healthy (and lush) new growth.
5. Underwatered? Water Your Plant From Below
Underwatered plants wilt. Their leaves may become thinner, softer, or even wrinkled and curled. You’ll probably notice crunchy brown leaves or stems. If your plant shows signs of underwatering (or worse, drought stress), give it water:
Make sure your plant is in a pot with a drainage hole
Water it evenly, so the soil is moist but not sopping wet
Put the pot in a small tray of water so it can absorb water from below
Drought-stressed plants will take longer to recover with steady watering, so don’t worry if your plant doesn’t immediately perk up. After your plant does perk up, you can assess the damage. Remove the dead foliage and wait for lush new growth.
6. Banish Pests With a Soapy Spray or Neem Oil
You may think pests only infect outdoor plants like milkweed or roses, but indoor plants can catch various pests—from aphids and spider mites to mealybugs and scale.
Visually inspect your plant for pests. You might see brown eggs, tiny insects, or nibbled leaves. In the case of mealybugs, it’ll look like spiderwebs or cotton.
To clear the infestation:
Dip a cotton ball in an alcohol solution (no more than 70% isopropyl alcohol)
Test the solution on a leaf to make sure it doesn’t burn your plant
Use the cotton ball to remove all visible pests and eggs
Once you remove the pests, you need to prevent a future infestation. Make your own insecticide with:
A solution of dish soap or insecticidal soap (1 to 2.5 teaspoons per gallon of water)
Neem oil (available at most garden centers)
Repeat this process every four to seven days until you’re sure all the pests are gone.
7. Treat a Fungal Disease
Plants need water to survive, but moisture attracts fungus. How do you know your indoor plant has a fungal disease?
Some common plant diseases include (but aren’t limited to):
Powdery mildew: a white, powdery coating on foliage
Downy mildew: top of leaves will have yellow spots; bottom will have white or gray mold
Black spot: Black spots on yellowing leaves
Rust: Reddish orange spots on leaves
Fusarium wilt: Browning, crispy edges on foliage
While fusarium wilt is incurable, most other fungal diseases can be mitigated by using a fungicide and/or cutting off the affected foliage.
Quarantine your sick potted plant away from your other indoor plants, repot it in fresh soil, and let it dry out between waterings. You want to remove as much of the fungus as possible and limit the moisture so it doesn’t have an opportunity to grow.
8. Propagate a Healthy Stem
Sometimes, the best way to save a dead plant is to start fresh. If you’ve got a healthy leaf and a little bit of stem, you can grow a new plant. For most houseplants, you can do this two ways.
This method is for vining plants. You’ll have to first find the node, which is a little bump on the plant’s stem that the leaf grows out of.
Take a cutting of your plant, retaining a node and single leaf
Place the cutting in water (make sure the node is submerged)
After a few weeks, roots should grow out of the node
If your plant doesn’t have nodes, you can use division to separate a piece of the plant at the root.
Take your plant out of the soil
Use a sharp tool to separate a piece of the plant from the larger plant
Make sure this piece has roots
Plant the piece in fresh soil
Additional Questions to Save a Dead Plant
How can I prevent overwatering and root rot in my house plants?
When caring for your indoor plant, avoid regular water schedules. Instead, water your plant when the first inch of soil is completely dry. Use pots with drainage holes or put a layer of lava rocks or terracotta chips at the bottom of your pot. Avoid glazed or plastic pots, which prevent evaporation. Opt for terracotta, which is porous.
Which plants are best for people who keep killing their plants?
Some of the most practical plants include spider plants, snake plants, pothos, and philodendrons. They’re resilient and tolerate infrequent watering and low light, though they’ll thrive in bright indirect light.
Will yellow or brown leaves turn back to green?
No. These leaves are dying or dead. Cut them off and let your plant focus on new growth.