Updated: Nov 18
In this article, our experts share their knowledge about general care and maintenance for all your houseplants. We'll cover common problems and their solutions -- from lighting to watering to pest treatments and lots more. Plus, see the attached handouts you can use as a handy reference.
Editor's Note: This article has been adapted from the video transcript and edited for clarity and readability.
Hello, I'm Eden.
First I'm just going to talk about the basic houseplants, their light requirements and watering needs because some of them don't need water ever, and others need a lot.
I use a 1 to 10 scale (see attached handout). In the first column there are the high-light ones that are hard to keep as houseplants because they want to be outside. And, honestly, even this guy. He's an outside plant and he wants to be in full shade.
Succulents are an outside, full-sun plant. They will never stay alive in your house, year round.
But then there are the lower light plants, like Peace Lilies, the ZZ Plant, and the Aglaonemas. Those work really well inside. I find cacti work really well inside and don't need a lot of water.
So you know the basic North, South, East, West, as far as windows go in your house. And South and West are going to have the most light. North has almost none. East gets morning sun only. So the ones that want the more direct, full sunlight, you're going to want to put them at least in a Southwest facing area.
Succulents through the winter -- Cacti through the winter want to be Southwest-facing.
This one I have growing in my room that has no actual window. There is just an overhead light and it's thriving. Same, with the ZZ Plant. The one that is hanging there -- Cebu Blue. It needs almost no real light other than just overhead lighting. He can work anywhere, like a kitchen or something that's just no windows. Pothos is another one that doesn't really matter that much. It wants some light, but if it's just a bright room, it'll work really well.
As far as watering, most of them are pretty normal.
This peace lily. They'll start to wilt, if you don't water them. And then you water them and they perk right back up. And this guy was actually was dead wilted yesterday, and I watered him and -- thriving.
This one -- oh, he's another one that doesn't need much light at all -- the spider plant. You can put him anywhere, pull up his little babies, and put them places to fill it up.
Some plants are weird with watering, like the maidenhair fern. You can't water that enough. And it doesn't just want water in the soil. It wants you to mist it as well, or have it in high humidity.
But like this one you never have to water. I use this (hand-held tank sprayer) as far as keeping houseplants in there, the ferns and things you can twist the tip to make it either a mist or a full stream. It's really easy to just walk around and spot water.
Let's move on the common pests that you'll find.
The first one is mealy bugs. I actually found this inside with mealy bugs and I'm going to pull that guy out.
Mealy Bugs, Aphids and Scale
All right, so you can kind of see those are the mealy bugs. I have people come in a lot and say there are spots all over my houseplants and so the question is, "which spots?" If it's the white cottony one, the mother will make this cotton and lay her eggs in it. If it's a small plant, you can go over with rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip and clean it out. And then you're going to probably want to change the soil too because their a little larvae get down into the soil. Then you just rinse all the soil off and repot it.
Go over it with rubbing alcohol or -- easier -- you can just spray it with Triple Action, a multi-purpose organic insecticide. It will get rid of any kind of bugs, mites, or fungus that are on there.
Aphids, and scale are another one that you get and they make honeydew like when they bathroom. It gets sticky and it can turn into a black sooty mold. So, if you notice, there's like black speckling on the stem. It's probably that you have one of the sapsuckers: mealy bugs, scale, or aphids. And those you really going to want to drench the whole thing in either Neem or Insecticidal Soap. I like to take the Neem and add Dawn soap to it, shake it up and use that as just a double control.
This poor blessed guy also has spider mites and so you'll notice the leaves kind of curl up and sometimes you'll see webbing, like teensy little spider webbing in there. If you take a white piece of paper under the leaf and just tap it, little black specks will fall off. And if you watch them, they move. Take it outside, far away from everything, and just drench it with miticide or the Neem and soap oil mix. It works really well to get rid of those.
But after you do that, give about 24 hours and then heavily hose it down. You might treat it a second time just because those things are so small, they can easily hide in there and they'll quickly destroy your plant. You'll notice speckling on the leaves where if you hold it up to the light, you can almost see through it.
That's a really bad one for houseplants. I don't know if this has happened to y'all, but I'll be sitting there with a drink and suddenly there's a fly in it and they get all over. You'll notice them buzzing around. Mosquito Bits are the greatest stuff ever. All you do is sprinkle these bits on the top of the soil and water it in and it'll get rid of all of Fungus Gnat larvae in the soil. So you don't even have to repot.
Scale doesn't even look like a bug. It just looks like weird blisters or something on the side of your plants. I notice it a lot on rubber trees and fiddle leaf figs get it. The ones with the more woody stems. As far as these, once they've already hit this stage, it's so hard to penetrate the waxy coating with any kind of spray that you have to scrape them off. And then you use the Insecticidal Soap heavy on there and wipe them down and try and get as much as you can. It also causes the black sooty mold. So this is a good one to also use if it's already progressed to the moldy stage.
Those are the most common pests I find on the houseplants. I don't really notice a lot of other things.
If you take your plants outside in the spring when it's nice and you'll bring them back in and they'll get centipedes or rolly pollies and stuff up in the bottom. That's why I brought the Sluggo Plus Snail Bait. This is really great. Again, you just kind of sprinkle it on the top. Water it in, and that will get rid of anything down at the bottom.
They're mostly at the bottom or on the outside of the root ball. So if you take a tray like you would use when you water from the bottom, then fill that with water and add some of the Sluggo Plus in there, that'll help you get the ones at the very bottom.
Other Common Problems
A big one is if your plants start stretching where the leaves are distanced further apart than they were. It looks just really long and awkward, it's not enough sun. It just needs more sun. This one, talking about these not being indoor plants, we have this directly under a plant light in there and he's still doing it. They just want very full all-day hard sun.
That can actually be a multitude of things. It could be lack of water or inconsistent watering. It could be a fungus caused by bug. Spider mites is the one I usually notice it on. They are curling up from that.
And then the inconsistent watering is not like "every Tuesday at 10 a.m." but water it when it's about the same level of dryness. Sometimes that'll be three days later depending on the heat and dryness of your house. Sometimes, it's two months later.
Or like I found with these guys, sometimes it looks like it needs water once a month, sometimes it might go eight months between waterings. Their roots are like potatoes. They don't have like stringy roots. They have a potato-like ball that they grow out of. And it absorbs all the water out of the soil, and the they just live on that. But if you over-water, then that thing just mooshes and they go out. So with those, I try and stick my finger in and try to feel it. And if it wrinkles up a little bit, it probably needs water.
Yellow leaves can be normal. If it's just a few of them, it may be just the circle of life. If there's a lot of them, it's usually an over-watering or not enough light.
Brown Leaf Tips
Brown Leaf Tips like this, are usually due to inconsistent watering. Again, just check and try and keep watering it. Some of the ones that are easier don't do that. But the fiddle leaf figs and rubber trees and stuff. I noticed they do it a lot. Or the big leaf plants like this. He's doing it. That's my bad inconsistent watering.
Another big thing is root rot. Yellowing leaves could indicate the beginnings of root rot. And if you pull it out, and the roots are dark, dark brown, and spongy, and, like smooshy, you can, you can pretty much tell the only way to get rid of it once it'd got to that point, is you would take the whole root and then get sterilized scissors, because it can spread really easily and cut off any of the brown rotting roots. And then trim the plant up really well to where it's just got its main part. Keep some big leaves on there but take any of the unnecessary looking ones off so it doesn't struggle as much coming back with the smaller roots. And then completely bleach the pot it was in and use new potting soil entirely. And it can come back from it.
One that it won't come back from, and I find it with the succulents and peperomias a lot, is soft rot. It'll get a wound somehow and the bacteria will get into that stem and it just slowly starts turning everything black along the stem. And then you'll notice, it just falls over and rots.
And with this, like with succulents, you can take these leaves and propagate those, but there's no saving that stem. Once it's soft rotted there's nothing you can do.
If you catch it when it just got the wound before it's actually starting to turn black. you can treat it hydrogen peroxide or a fungicide just with a Q-tip over the little wound and that can help prevent it going into full soft rot.
Another one, mostly with Ficus -- any kind of Ficus plant you get, if they are dropping their leaves constantly either they're not happy where they are or you just bought it and it's still in shock because they don't want to be moved.
There are a lot of plants that are really sensitive to just being moved. Even from one side of the kitchen to the other. Ficus are like that. If you accidentally kick it with your foot two inches, it panics. It's like, I did not want to go there, and it'll lose all its leaves. It could also just be a light issue. We had some Ficus inside that they were losing their leaves non-stop.I didn't know what to do. We brought them outside and now they're thriving. That was just a light issue and they were happy to have moved.
This is less likely to happen indoors, but if the leaves start turning really white -- like on something like this -- if they start turning really, really white and pale, that's too much light.
They're getting almost a sunburn where the sun is bleaching them. So that's what that would look like, is sun scorch.
That's a common issue, but that could be anything from the root rot to you just need to water it.
If you have an issue, you can just take a picture of it and bring it in here and most of us will know the answer and what to treat it with.
Also with the yellowing leaves: Another thing could be that it sapped all the nutrients out of the soil. Houseplants can't get that from the ground like outdoor plants. So you have to constantly be fertilizing them. And they're usually planted in a medium that's already powered up with fertilizer. So the first two months or so that you have a houseplant, you really don't have to fertilize. But then after that, you want to kind of get into a consistent, every-other-watering schedule at least, and give it a little fertilizer.
I prefer the liquid fertilizer like the Arber. It's just easier to control how much you're giving it. Water it down in there and be done with it. Slow-release granules are also great, though, because those you don't have to do every other watering. You just put them in and they last up to like sometimes six months. You don't have to even think about it again.
Back to wilting leaves for a moment. Soil can become hydrophobic, where it doesn't matter how much you water, it does not hold the water. It's just going to run out and be dry again and that's just from having sucked up the nutrients for too long and so that you just repot it in different potting soil.
Too Much Space
Some plants don't want extra space. They want to be kept in their tight little spot and keep their cozy roots. And so those are hard when they start becoming hydrophobic. This guy (a hand-held pump when you turn it on that full stream that can water all around and get those little chunks of mulch and bits that are in there that still can hold water. That can help with that.
So this can be multiple things from spider mites or bugs to a fungus. Another big one is bad air circulation. Like if it's just in an area with too much humidity.
Roses get it really bad when they're too humid But you just you can take a hair dryer on the cold setting. Dry in between there. If you need to move it to an area where there's a fan and just better circulation that can help with a lot of the fungus build up, and bacterial build up too, because they want that moisture and humidity and if they don't have it,
they won't thrive.
Powdery Mildew is another bad one that's just due to too much moisture. When you are watering, you want to try and water at the base. I take it as standard practice across all houseplants not to water on the leaves. Except for the Ferns. The Ferns -- even the Staghorn Fern wants to be watered on its foliage. The Bird's Nest Fern there actually wants you to water it down into its little nest. But for the most part you want to keep it off the leaves because there's bacteria in water that would just burn little holes and spread to it to where it will cause the beginnings of soft rot. Any kind of undistilled water can just put bacteria in there and rot them.
When I was talking about root rot, And you cut all the roots off and you have it all rinsed off, soak that in a fungicide first before replanting. I skipped that. That's a very important step. You take it just dunk it in fungicide and shake it off and then repot. That helps.
When we're talking about watering, if you don't want to have to think about it. This Plant Nanny is great because it has a terra cotta bottom and so it's slowly leeches the water out and you just put a wine bottle in the top. There's a prettier one if you don't
want wine bottles in your plants.
So sometimes you'll over fertilize. The Brown Leaf Tips -- those can also be burn from over fertilizing and if you -- It's usually a buildup of salts in the soil and things like using tap water. That puts salt in the soil and once it gets so much, it starts burning the roots to where their little tips burn off. So this stuff (Sledgehammer) actually breaks down the salts in the soil if you've over fertilized, it's really great to just water it in. It breaks that stuff up so that it can work effectively. It's called Sledgehammer by Fox Farm.
Potting soil is another important thing. Depending on what you have, you want the moisture holding qualities. So cactus, you don't want it to sit there and hold water on that. So for that you want a really loose, aerated soil. But if you get something like this, that wants water constantly, you're going to want a heavier potting soil that holds the moisture in a lot better. So that you don't have to repot as often.
The growers also sometimes adjust the fertilizer in there for them. Like, we have one for African Violets, one for Orchids, and it just is kind of specific to that plant's needs.
But as far as fertilizing, one thing I did want to talk about is the little three numbers on the front (known as the NPK). As far as houseplants go most of the time you're not buying them for flowers. Usually there's a few that you can get for flowers, but for the most part, you're going to want the first number and the last number to be your highest numbers for houseplants because -- Nitrogen (N) is the first one. That's for their leaves, for foliar growth. Potassium (K) is the third number. It's for stronger root systems And so those are the two that you look for.
If you have an African Violet, I would go with the more specialized African Violet fertilizer. But as far as fertilizing your houseplants, you just want the first number and the last number to be the highest numbers. And read the back for instructions.
Can you use Garret Juice as a houseplant fertilizer? Yes, you can. I've heard it smells. I mean, they might all smell. I can't smell. So, it's not an issue for me, but some people don't want things like liquid fish in their house. That's my mom. She won't liquid fish anything in her house.
You don't have to get a specific one, especially for just the basic leafy ones, but for the most part, I just use anything with a Nitrogen in it because as long as your water regularly and you're checking your roots, you should be okay. Sometimes I'll throw a little root fertilizer something with the Potassium in there. Banana peels are good. But the Nitrogen is the biggest thing so that you don't lose all the bottom leaves while they're trying to put out the new.
These Dracaenas are ones that we had in our house for a long time. We had them in our living room, North facing, very dark all the time. And we kept these going in huge pots in there for so long. And just maybe once a month I would take it into our kitchen, which has light, water it, and let it hang out in there for 24 hours and it was perfectly fine.
So those are really great low light plant. Any of the ferns are good, low-light plants if you can keep the humidity up. This -- some of these have just done so well without much. Like this guy, in my room is taken off. I don't even look at him most of the time. He's just there.
Cacti. If you have a really bright hot dry area, cacti do well. We have so many cacti in our house and they're just there living for years and I don't water them. They're just there.