13 Mistakes You Might Be Making With Your Houseplants

Whether you are a Are you making one of these 13 common but easily avoidable houseplant mistakes? Whether you are an first time plant owner, or own several, there are some common mistakes indoor gardeners make. Houseplant expert Madison Moulton breaks down some of the most common houseplant mistakes, why people make it, and how you can avoid falling victim to them.

Houseplants With Mistakes on Shelf

In recent years, millions of people have joined the club of ‘houseplant parents’, buying at least one indoor plant to keep them company or decorate their homes. For those who are only recently jumping into indoor gardening, you may have encountered a few problems along the way. You may have even made a few mistakes that have cost you a plant or two already, even if it was a beginner friendly houseplant.

Many common houseplant mistakes are completely avoidable, and are also easily corrected if you act promptly after identifying the problem. Some houseplants will show distress earlier than others, which makes it even more important to catch problems early on.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes many newbies and even experienced indoor gardeners make. By avoiding these, you can make sure all your houseplants live long and happy lives!

Watering Too Much

Overwatering
If you are overwatering your plants, you may notice leaves beginning to turn yellow.

We all have good intentions when we bring a new houseplant home, trying to ensure it remains as perky as it did on day one. In our efforts, we often overdo it on certain aspects of care and preempt tasks that aren’t actually needed at that time. One of those tasks is watering.

Not only is this mistake one of the most common when it comes to houseplants, but it is also the most damaging. Excessive moisture in the soil causes the dreaded and difficult to treat condition we all want to avoid – root rot. Mushy and soft roots aren’t able to draw up water or nutrients, resulting in the common symptoms of yellowing leaves or wilting we may see in our houseplants. And some plants, like the pothos – will display yellow leaves faster than others, giving you an indication of a problem early on.

This is a good time to clarify that overwatering does not relate to how much water you add to the soil. You should always water the soil thoroughly and evenly until water runs through the drainage holes. It actually relates to how often you water the plant overall, in terms of watering it again when it’s not actually required.

On average, you should only be watering your plants around once a week. This depends on the type of plant, its size and age, and the environmental conditions it is in. Before watering, test the soil with your finger. If the top layer is still moist, wait another few days.

In fact, if you’re a chronic overwaterer, a good tip is to take note of when you think you need to water and give it another day or two before you actually do. Your plant is far more capable of surviving underwatering than it is overwatering.

Using a Pot Without Drainage Holes

Pot with Drainage
Be sure to choose a pot with proper drainage.

Sometimes, excessive moisture in the soil is not only about how often you water. There are external factors that could lead to overwatering and root rot without any direct action from you.

The first of those is using a pot without drainage holes. We’ve all been there. You find a gorgeous pot for your plant that perfectly complements its shape and matches your interior design, only to find it has no drainage holes.

But whatever you do, don’t plant in it anyway and hope for the best. This is one way to stress a plant out and make sure it has a much shorter lifespan.

In this case, you have a few options. You can keep your plant in its plastic pot, resting it inside the decorative one as a pot cover. If you go this route, make sure you take the plant out of its cover to water and only put it back when it has drained completely. You can also drill your own drainage holes if the material allows. Or, you can simply stick to the many pots available that do have built-in drainage.

The same can be said for leaving your plant in a drip tray full of water. Drip trays make watering indoors so much easier, but they do need to be emptied after watering. Any leftover moisture will soak into the soil, resulting in waterlogging and ultimately, root rot.

About 30 minutes after watering, walk around to each of your plants and empty out the drip trays to stop them from sitting in water.

Waiting Until They Wilt to Water

Wilting Plant
Try your best to water your plant before it begins to wilt.

Although less damaging than watering too soon, waiting too long to water your plants is also a crucial mistake to avoid. This is one many forgetful plant parents (myself included) are guilty of.

Rather than checking the soil frequently and watering just as the soil begins to dry out, we wait for the plant to start wilting, indicating that it’s in need of water. This could either be because you often forget to water and use the wilting as a visual clue, or because you’ve decided to use that as your indicator of when to water.

However, no matter the reason, this practice should be avoided. Yes, plants that are wilting certainly need water. But, once they’ve become so dried out that they’re showing visible signs of struggle, you’ve already waited too long.

Houseplants that are left without water for this long are normally under stress for long periods, impacting their growth and lifespan. They are likely merely holding on, rather than growing to their full potential. Some plants also take longer to start wilting than others, meaning they may have been left without water for weeks before drooping over.

Instead of waiting for a visual cue, set a reminder on your phone to check the soil every three days. If the top layer of soil is dry (depending on the plant), it’s time to water again.

Equating ‘Low Light’ With ‘No Light’

Best Lighting
Most plants do best in bright spaces.

The most common question on the internet when it comes to houseplants is – which plants are suitable for low light? While these plants do exist, they generally grow best in brighter areas and have a certain threshold under which they will not survive.

One vital mistake many make is to confuse the term ‘low light’ with ‘no light’. Low light areas are not rooms without any windows, or that empty corner under the stairs that never sees the light of day. They are areas in rooms with large windows, simply placed further away from the light source or in an area obstructed by other items in your home.

To get technical, the minimum requirement for low light plants is around 100 foot-candles (1000 lux). Anything below that can be classified ‘no light’, under which your plants will not survive. They may hold on for a couple of months, with some being more resilient than others, but they will certainly have shorter lifespans.

Leaving Plants In Midday Direct Light

Burnt Leaves on Fiddle Leaf Fig
Be sure not to place your plants in harsh direct sunlight, as it will burn the leaves.

While houseplants have a certain level of tolerance for low light, they equally have a tolerance level for direct sun. For most, that number is close to zero, depending on your region and the time of day.

That’s because most houseplants come from tropical forests where they are accustomed to dappled shade. Much like humans, exposure to intense UV rays can lead to burning, causing unsightly brown spots on the foliage that won’t ever turn green again.

Some can handle an hour or two of direct sun and may even grow better in these conditions. However, it can only be the early morning, gentle direct sun that isn’t too damaging. Leaving your plants in midday or afternoon direct sunlight – even for as little as an hour – can cause irreparable damage to the foliage.

Only opt for direct gentle early morning sun, and only for two hours at most. If you live in an area with more intense summers, or aren’t sure about the light intensity, it’s best to keep them out of the sun altogether.

Using Garden Soil To Repot

Garden Soil
Outdoor plants and indoor plants have different requirements, so be sure to use an indoor potting mix.

Although this mistake is not often made when it comes to houseplants, it is still one that is vital to avoid if you want to keep your plants alive long term.

When repotting time comes around, you may grab a new pot and consider simply fetching some soil from the garden to fill in the spaces. Many think that since plants grow well in that soil outdoors, there is no harm in using it in containers. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Plants grown in containers have very different requirements from those grown in the ground. While water can drain slowly away from soil and into the ground below outdoors, it has much more limited movement in containers and needs to drain well to stop the roots of the plant from sitting in water.

Garden soil also carries many different lifeforms, including potential pests and diseases, that can end up infecting plants in containers. Avoid using any regular garden soil and opt for specialized options designed for houseplants.

Using Regular Potting Soil To Repot

Proper Soil Mix
Be sure to purchase a specialized houseplant potting soil, or make your own at home.

If you can’t use garden soil, you may wonder if any regular potting soil is suitable as a replacement. While this is certainly better than garden soil, it’s also not quite right for houseplants.

Regular potting soil is generally designed for outdoor container plants. It drains far better than garden soil and often contains the right ratios of nutrients needed to grow plants, but it does hold on to quite a lot of moisture to combat the quicker evaporation that occurs in full sun outdoors.

Indoors, the plants get far less sunlight and evaporation is much slower. In these cases, regular potting soil often holds on to too much moisture, quickly resulting in root rot if not managed carefully.

To allow your houseplants to truly thrive, you need to repot with a specialized houseplant potting mix with amendments that allow it to drain well and deliver oxygen to the roots.

You can also mix your own by combining two parts potting soil with one part perlite and one part coconut coir (or peat moss if you already have some around). Adjust the mixture as necessary based on the needs of your specific plants.

Repotting Too Soon

Time to Repot
If you notice roots beginning to come out of the drainage holes, it is time to repot.

Speaking of repotting, it’s time to talk about those excited plant parents that bring a new plant home and immediately repot it. Or those that feel they need to repot all their houseplants at least once a year. While it is certainly needed in some cases, most of the time, it’s not.

Repotting is a stressful experience for your houseplants. Their roots are disturbed, they are in a different environment, and it may take them a long time to adjust, slowing growth and facing some potential damage in the meantime. Limiting this stress is helpful for long-term growth, meaning you should only repot when absolutely necessary.

This is even more important when first bringing a plant home. It already takes a new plant several weeks to adjust to its new environment inside your home. Repotting immediately only adds to that stress and makes it harder for the plant to acclimatize.

Wait until you notice roots circling around the bottom of the pot or growing through the drainage holes. Wilting and stunted growth are also signs that your plant may need some additional space. Repot quickly and return the plant to its home as soon as you can to limit shock.

Choosing an Incorrectly Sized Pot

Repotting in Larger Pot
Choose a pot that is one to two times larger than your plant.

When repotting time does come around, there are a few potential mistakes you need to avoid, from soil choice to watering. However, the mistake that can have the biggest impact on long-term growth is the size of the pot you choose.

Some houseplant owners believe that repotting into a much larger pot will leave more space for the plant to expand, ultimately making it bigger in the long run. While that can be true for quick-growing and spreading plants, it’s not the case for all plants.

Most houseplants prefer to be slightly rootbound. This results in faster stem and leaf growth rather than root expansion and development. If given a pot that is too large, slower-growing houseplants will take much longer to spread into the new spaces and may slow growth above the soil during this time. This excess soil can also hold onto too much water as there are no roots to wick it away, leading to potential problems with root rot.

When repotting, it’s generally best to choose a pot only one to two sizes up at most. There are, as always, exceptions to the rule, but this practice will be suitable for most tropical houseplants.

Overfertilizing

Fertilizer Burns
Beware of overfertilizing, as it can cause burn marks on the leaves of your plant.

Similar to people believing a larger pot will lead to better growth, many also equate fertilizing with faster growth.

Rather than reading the instructions, you may fertilize too often or add too much, believing that it will make the plant grow quicker or better. Even worse, you could be adding fertilizer when the plant is stressed in an attempt to revive it, only ending up making the problems worse.

Regular fertilizing is an important part of your houseplant care routine. However, it needs to be done carefully and sparingly. When you overfertilize, additional salts build up in the soil that end up burning the plant rather than improving growth.

Always fertilize according to the instructions on the packaging. Even better, only apply fertilizer at half strength if your plants are growing well, upping the dose only when they need an extra boost.

Not Cleaning The Leaves

Cleaning Leaves
Wipe down your leaves with a damp cloth every few weeks.

Like anything in your home, plants can also gather dust and debris that settles indoors. Besides making the previously glossy leaves look dull and unsightly, this dust can also impact the growth of your plant by restricting its ability to photosynthesize. This is especially true for big-leafed plants like the Monstera, which may need this done more often.

Photosynthesis is the process plants use to make their own ‘food’ for growth. Using water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to fuel the process, plants are able to grow and sustain themselves. Dust limits the absorption of sunlight and ultimately photosynthesis, causing slow or stunted growth in your houseplants.

It may seem like an unnecessary or purely aesthetic task, but wiping down the leaves every couple of weeks can go a long way to improving the growth of your plants. And, with a damp cloth and a few free minutes, you’ll be done in no time.

Not Understanding Your Plant’s Specific Needs

Unique Plant Needs
Be sure to research each of your plants, as care is not one-size-fits-all.

All these points are general to most common houseplants. However, not all houseplants are made equal. As we already know, some are more difficult to care for than others, some have certain requirements that set them apart from others, and so on.

For example, some indoor gardeners with very bright homes choose to grow succulents or cacti indoors. The requirements of these plants are far from the standard tropical houseplants most newbies start with. Applying the same care will quickly lead to their demise, so it’s important to understand their needs specifically.

Variegated plants are another example, needing slightly brighter light (depending on the type of variegation) to maintain their color and growth. Without doing your research, you may treat them as you would any other houseplant, causing further growth problems.

Before you buy any plant, start by checking the label. Then, do your research on that exact species to manage its needs. While most don’t differ from standard houseplant care, many do and missing that can end up being a big mistake.

Fussing Over Your Plants

Overcare
If a problem arises with one of your plants, make necessary changes in care and give it time to recover before trying more solutions.

And finally, the biggest mistake we all make at some point is to fuss over our houseplants. You may have the best intentions, but giving your plants too much attention and worrying about their every need usually causes more problems than it solves. Overwatering, overfertilizing, stresses from changing environments and many more issues are caused by caring too much.

Even for so-called ‘black thumbs’, your houseplants will generally be happier with more neglect than too much attention. They are more resilient than you may think, so avoid killing them with kindness.

Final Thoughts

So, now that you know the most common mistakes that most house plant owners make, you can start to avoid them! If for some reason you’ve seen some of these mistakes happen to your plant already, the good news is that many of them can be remedied if you identify the problem and act quickly. Overall, proper care and maintenance is important, so just watch out for signs of distress, and do your best to care for your houseplant as soon as you see them!

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