Have you ever noticed how lush and healthy plants look in the store, their shiny vigorous foliage inviting you to take them home? You pick the healthiest plant of all, find a decorative pot to transplant it in, grab a bag of soil and head for home. Once potted up and placed in the sun, expecting to see the plant thrive beyond imagination, it begins to wilt or turns yellow. For some people this is a common issue and leads to the belief that they have a black thumb unable to grow anything. Well it is just not the case.
Do not give up.
Having a green thumb really just means you are interested and take the time to figure out what your plants need to be healthy. Just as relationships need nurturing so do the plants in our homes and work environment.
Common houseplant problems can be simple to identify and inexpensive to solve. Problems may be avoided by being proactive and knowing the proper environment in which a plant should be grown. A little research goes a long way. Sometimes though, in spite of our best efforts, houseplants frequently exhibit yellow foliage, droopy leaves, inadequate growth and a variety of other sickly symptoms. Keep in mind symptoms can be due to a number of reasons and troubleshooting is important.
Stunted growth (small leaves) and yellowing leaves may indicate nutrient deficient soil (shortage of nitrogen), insufficient light, root rot (too much water), and/or the roots are bound. Trial and error is a good method to figure out which of these will rejuvenate your plant. Try adding nitrogen to the soil (fertilize 1-2 times per month), transplanting into a larger pot and/or moving the plant to a sunnier location. Keep in mind, bottom leaves that turn yellow and drop off is a natural occurrence in older plants.
If the entire plant is wilting it is either thirsty or has root rot. Jade plants are a succulent and require much less water. Mine died last year from over watering and exhibited severe drooping shortly before all the leaves fell off and the stems wilted over. Upon examination of the stalks, it was apparent they had rotted from too much water. An excessively moist soil also favors the development of fungus gnats.
Browning leaf tips or margins is an indication of hot and/or dry air. This is more common in winter months, as humidity in the house drops from heating the home. Avoid placing plants near heat ducts or vents. Plants that require a humid environment can be grouped together and a humidifier placed in their environment. Fern and tender leafed plants are especially sensitive to dry air; daily misting will perk them right up.
Brown leaves can also indicate a nutrient deficiency (shortage of potash) or accumulated salts. Plants that grow in the same pot for a long time may form a yellow or white crust on the surface of the soil and plant stems. This is an accumulation of unused salts from hard water or fertilizers and can inhibit plant growth. At least once a month, to thoroughly leach all excess salts to the bottom of the pot and out the drainage hole, thoroughly water to the top of the soil. Remove any excess water from the saucer as well. This will prevent the plant from soaking up salt. In addition, a loose porous soil allows salt to leach out easily and decreases accumulation build up. Perhaps transplanting to this type of soil will be best for the plant.
A change in environment may result in the sudden loss of leaves. I moved a beautiful begonia my mother-in-law gave me to a different location in my home and all its leaves fell off within a few days.
She gave me another begonia start. I placed it in the same location, as the other, prior to moving it. I have a happy begonia now and it is definitely staying put right where it is.
If you find spots on the leaves, perhaps the plant has water spots. African violets are prone to severe spotting when cold water splashes onto the leaves. I learned this the hard way and killed several beautiful African violets years ago. Had I listened to my wise stepmother, in the ways of watering African violets, they quite possibly would still be alive. Imagine what they would look like today! I do have several more now, a Mothers Day gift from her and my dad this year. I water them from the bottom and they are healthy and free of water spots.
Spots on leaves may also indicate fungal leaf spot. Commonly seen on newly purchased plants, it is prudent to keep them away from established ones for several months. The spots may vary in size, will often have a distinct margin, and flecked with small black dots. If the spots enlarge, diseased areas may come together and form irregular blotches causing infected leaves to wither and die.
To prevent fungal leaf spot, keep the foliage dry when watering, as most fungi require moisture on the surface of the leaf before infection can occur. If the infection is mild, pluck off the affected leaves.
Increase air circulation by spacing plants so they are not crowded and be sure to keep diseased plants isolated from healthy ones.
Spider mites, mealy-bugs, fungus gnats and scales are common pests of houseplants. Colorado State University offers a printable or downloadable fact sheet: Managing Houseplant Pests. To access their website go to: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/insect/05595.html
If all else fails and you find yourself stumped, the University of Idaho, Ada County Extension office at 5880 Glenwood St. in Boise has a team of master gardener volunteers, on hand, to research your plant problems. The diagnostics lab is open from April through September, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more details, call (208) 287-5900.
Armed with information that will help you decipher what is ailing your houseplant(s) and simple steps to help them thrive again will turn your black thumb into a confident green thumbs-up!
This is first in a two part series about houseplants. Look for my next bi-weekly article to learn how plants purify the air we breathe in our homes and workplace. You might be surprised what you learn.
For ideas and questions for this column, contact IdahoGardenGirl@gmail.com