top down close up of houseplant leaf

Plant Parenting, Part 2: Leaves Edition

Welcome to part two of our Plant Parenting series. (Read part one here!

Leaves are the next destination for this learning train, and there is so much here to unpack. We offer a starting point for each symptom, but ultimately, you are in the role of the observer. Use your senses to engage with your plants, applying common sense to your care routine. Most plants need different care in the winter; if they receive less sunlight and they are in a less humid environment, they’re less likely to grow very much. They’d be in winter mode, conserving energy and nutrients until the days get longer again. Therefore, they’d require less water and fertilizer from you. Below, we interpret the following indicators that leaves commonly display, and offer guidance on what to do.

Problem: The entire leaf is turning yellow.

Interpretation: Yellowing leaves can mean several things, so embrace the process as you begin solving the mystery. They can turn yellow when:

  • They’re getting watered too much, or not enough. As you’re figuring out which one applies to your plant, use the aforementioned finger check method. If you did this and feel like it is getting enough water, try rotating it where it stands. Expose the other side into the light. Observe how the leaves react; if that side turns yellow as well, it indicates that the plant is…
  • Not getting enough sun. Another way to determine a lack of light is to note where the leaves are coming from. If the leaves near the base turn yellow and drop off, that indicates that your plant needs some sunshine. Put it a bit closer to the window, or move it to another window that gets heaps of sunlight. If you don’t get enough sunlight at your house, consider installing an artificial light.
  • Your plant could be aging. The plant may simply be letting go of old leaves in order to grow new ones. This is normal! Support it by watering and fertilizing regularly. 
  • Have you checked your tap water? It could contain sodium carbonate (in softened water) or chlorine, and these are harmful to plants. Try changing your water filter, or flush your plant monthly by putting it in a sink and dousing it, letting it drain out. Letting tap water sit uncovered for 24 hours releases chlorine, making it safer for your sweet plant-mates. 
  • Using fertilizer incorrectly can result in sad, sunset colored leaves. Refer to this great article on houseplant fertilizing. We love their view of sunlight being a plant’s main food source, and fertilizer serving as their multivitamin.
  • For a tropical plant with yellowing leaves, consider whether it is too cold. Perhaps it is next to an AC unit or a frigid winter window. Adjust its temperature by moving it to a warmer part of your house. 

Problem: Patches of brown.

Interpretation: Your leaves could be harboring pests such as aphids, spider mites, mealybugs or scales, or diseases like Leaf Spot, A.K.A. Fungal Rust. After confirming that your plant has appropriate watering, light and climate, clip off a leaf or two and take it into your local nursery. They can diagnose it and help you bring your plant back to optimal health.

Problem: The tips of the leaves are brown.

Interpretation: Your house may not be humid enough. Tropical plants typically need more humidity than other varieties. Try moving the plant to an area of the house that is more humid (like the kitchen or bathroom), or place a small humidifier near your plants. You can even cluster plants together to mimic a greenhouse effect. A fun way to add moisture to their lives is to take them in the shower with you when they seem extra thirsty; put them on a shelf where they won’t get water directly on them. They’ll be able to drink in all of that steamy moisture and perk right up. Brown edges of the leaves can also be from your tap water being full of sodium carbonate, chlorine, fluoride, or whatever other chemicals are found in it. Lastly, plants need fertilizer when they’re growing, or producing new leaves. Over fertilizing can mean that the plant doesn’t absorb all those nutrients, and the salts will collect in the soil. This can burn the roots, and turn your leaf tips dark. One solution to over fertilizing is to dilute the fertilizer to about half the recommended dosage. 

Problem: Leaves are dropping faster than usual. 

Solution: Your plant could be in shock. Maybe you recently moved it, or changed the lighting around it. Give it time to adjust to its new environment, and take note for future plant transitioning: gradual changing of anything (temperature, watering, humidity, sunlight) in the plant’s environment is the best way to help it acclimate!

Problem: The plant is wilting from bottom to top, and foliage and stems are turning brown, yellow or black. The entire plant can start turning to mush.

Interpretation: Your plant could have root rot. This happens with too much watering and/or not enough drainage. Unfortunately, fungal pathogens thrive in soil that doesn’t drain completely, or is wet too often, meaning that root rot is actually a virus. Check to see if you have root rot by gently lifting the plant out of its container and taking a gander at the roots. If the roots are white, you are in the clear! However, if they’re mushy or brown/black, you have a case of root rot. There may also be a rotten smell from the roots or affected parts of the plant. Once it is displaying these symptoms, it is often too late and the best course of action is to throw it in the trash. If you want to try and rescue it, quarantine it from your other plants because viruses can spread!

  1. First, carefully trim the rotted parts off. 
  2. Clean the remaining roots by gently rinsing them off. 
  3. Repot it with fresh soil and proper drainage. 
  4. If you had to trim a lot of the roots, trim a few leaves away to help the plant conserve energy.  
  5. Put the plant in a bright area and water it when the top inch of soil is dry. 

Going forward, prevent root rot by using the finger check, having a regular watering schedule (sporadic watering can mean the roots sometimes get too wet for too long), and aerating the soil. Simply stick a chopstick through the top of the soil. This is an easy way to make sure that the roots are slightly loosened up, allowing air to flow freely around the plant. When buying new plants, make sure they’re healthy. Only put plants in clean pots with drainage holes on the bottom.

Whew! We know this is a lot to take in – but it is worth it. The more time you spend getting to know your plants and their preferences, the more joy and vivacity they bring to your life. Don’t be afraid to do your own research, and send us a message. We are here to support you and your plants.

Until next thyme,
My Thyme Gardens

close up sunlight on houseplant

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