For Architectural Digest, by Lindsey Mather.
Photo: Douglas Friedman
We've all been there: The houseplant that was so vibrant when you brought it home from the garden center is suddenly shriveled and sad-looking. Perhaps you forgot to water it, or watered it too much, or overdid it on the sunlight--but don't give up. "Even in the saddest of cases, a plant can be brought back from near death if it's got something left to photosynthesize with," says Zenaida Sengo, the interior styling director for Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. First things first: "If there are no leaves left, cut off a portion of the stem to examine the inside. If it snaps off dry like a stick, it's dead. If it is green or moist and fleshy on the inside, then there is still life left in the plant," she says. Avoid repeating your past mistakes and ask a professional about your plant's growing requirements, including light exposure, soil preference, and water needs. Once you know those, follow Sengo's easy steps to revive your houseplant.
Upgrade the pot
A perfectly healthy plant can begin to decline if the roots outgrow the pot. Does your plant appear to be toppling over? Do you need to water it much more frequently? These are signs that you should move it to a new, more spacious home--just make sure to use the appropriate potting soil when you do.
Find the right place
Often, people keep their plants in a spot with too little (or, less frequently, too much) light, says Sengo. "Improper light can lead to overwatering issues due to the plant's inability to process the water given or the lack of sun needed to properly dry the soil in time." Choose the perfect location based on those plant preferences you already determined.
Feel it out
With so many factors in play, such as pot and plant size, soil type, and heat, there's no way to schedule an exact time to water your plant. Instead, Sengo recommends touching the soil and watering according to your plant's needs (some like to be constantly moist, while others prefer the soil to dry between waterings). If you accidently overwater your plant--you'll notice drooping, yellowing leaves and the smell of rotting roots--pull it out of its container and expose the root ball to fresh air until it dries out. Rip away any fully rotted roots, then repot the plant in fresh soil.
Ensure adequate drainage
"Make sure there is nothing clogging the hole in your pot, thus not allowing excess water to leak out," Sengo says. "Roughly 10 percent of the water you pour in should be exiting your container." If water rushes out the bottom, the soil is likely too dry; drench it for several minutes to let it rehydrate and add more soil to the sides if there are gaps from soil shrinkage.
Give it a trim
"Remove all dead or unsightly portions of plant matter left on your patient," says Sengo. "Dry, crispy leaves, shriveled leaves, leafless stems, or mottled, discolored leaves are never going to return to normal." Cut back those leafless branches and stems toward the base of the plant where you would like new growth to appear.
Provide a nutrient boost
Newly potted plants and varieties like cacti and succulents don't require fertilizer, but if you have a plant that needs it, wait until it has been thriving for a few weeks. "Fertilizer can be intense and shocking for plants and should not be administered to plants in desperation," says Sengo. Apply the fertilizer to your plant when it's been recently watered, before the soil becomes too dry.
Look out for creepy-crawlies
Houseplant pests, such as mealybug and scale insects, are more likely to show up when the plant isn't cultivated right, so reevaluate your care regime if you see them. But first: "Treat it with an insecticidal soap and repeat the process in consecutive weeks to kill new emerging insects," says Sengo.
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