f there’s one thing that nearly every plant parent has experienced at one time or another… it’s the shame of having a beloved plant die. Even those with the most plant luck and expertise have likely had a houseplant die on their watch. And while every single plant and plant owner is unique, there are a few common causes of plant fatalities. I asked plant experts — plant shop owners, plant influencers, and just folks who successfully keep a lot of plants alive — to share the BIGGEST reason why they think house plants perish. Out of the eleven experts interviewed, three reasons were repeated over and over again!
1. You’re overwatering them (and have other bad watering techniques).
Darcie Young Tashey, who’s a marketer by day and a plant parent to over 100+ plants in her Chicago home around the clock, says the number one cause of houseplant death is “absolutely from overwatering. And even after I knew this, I STILL continued to do it, so it’s important to understand what overwatering really means. Overwatering is when the soil never dries out enough between waterings and just continues to build up more moisture leading to root rot (which very literally means the roots rot from the constant moisture). This is common in plant containers that don’t have proper drainage holes, and also in plants that are too far from a light source to encourage quick drying. When you’re watering a plant, be sure to water it until it has saturated the soil and seeps out of the drainage holes. Wait several minutes so it has time to drain through the soil and then empty the tray or dish so the plant isn’t sitting in water. You can also move your plants into the sink or shower to water, and leave for several minutes to drain before moving back to the pot in place.”
Cyril Sontillano‘s Monterey apartment is full of green plants, and he agrees overwatering is a big plant killer, especially when it comes to watering relative to how much light a plant gets. “The type of plant, is it one which likes to dry in between watering? Is it the type that needs to be consistently moist but not soggy? I feel that as you go along with your plant journey you would be more familiar with the specific needs of the plant.”
Donovan Ho‘s San Francisco home is filled with fun colors, textures, eclectic home decor, and lots of plants. So many plants, in fact, it’s impossible to decide what’s cuter in this sunny apartment, the pretty plants or the adorable dog. “I would say overwatering is one of the biggest reasons for houseplant deaths. People tend to ‘overcare’ for their plants and over water. Overwatering can ‘drown’ your plants and lead to root rot. I would definitely under water than risk overwatering a plant.”
Marita McCausland, owner of interiors and indoor plant store Into the Wild (and whose Australian home is full of gorgeous plants) has had a lot of conversations with customers about why their plants aren’t doing well, and she says it “almost always comes down to watering,” and in particular, the watering technique. “There is so much advice out there that mentions ‘Water your plants every two weeks, or when the top inch of soil is dry’ but no one says how much water or actually how to water. So when people think they are watering their giant fiddle leaf by tipping a cup of water on it every two weeks, they are actually not watering the plant at all and they’re only watering the topsoil, and then it evaporates leaving the root system dying of thirst and then the leaves go brown and start dropping.
My question to my customers isn’t always, ‘How often are you watering’ but more importantly ‘How are you watering? What’s your technique?’ This always tells me a lot… then I ask how often. We have an extraordinary amount of customers that have gone from tipping small amounts of water frequently on their plants to doing a really big drench every couple of weeks and the feedback is incredible. Pretty much everyone goes from having sad, struggling houseplants to happy, thriving ones. It’s my best advice I could give, and the proof is in the pudding.”
Asia Babbington, who offers interior design and plant incorporating services through her business Salvaged Sanctuary, LLC (and just recently let Apartment Therapy tour her mural-filled Chicago rental), also advises against drowning your plants with water. She says the two biggest reasons she sees plants dying are “[o]verwatering and incorrect lighting for your plant to thrive indoors.” Her advice? “Some people get water meters (a budget-friendly and helpful tool).”
2. You’re not matching the plants to your home and your personality.
Alessia Resta, also known as the Apartment Botanist, lives in a 750-square-foot NYC rental apartment with over 175 plants and says one of the most common reasons she sees houseplants die is that the plant, the plant parent’s personality, and the environment are not meshing well together. “I think you have the best luck with plants once you understand the type of plant parent you are (whether you are more hands-on or carefree), the general care the plant needs, and the kind of environment your space has to offer. Once you get a good understanding of all three, you’ll find way more success with plants and can start to gain plant confidence and flex those plant parent skills!”
Gabriel and Victor created Planta, a plant and housewares shop, and their Buenos Aires’ home is full of plants with needs they’ve made sure to consider. “One of the reasons why plants do not survive is because they are selected for their ornamental value or the way they would look in a specific corner of our room, without considering their needs (like light, moisture, watering, sun exposure, etc.). Overwatering is also one of the most common reasons (it’s actually preferable for the plant to have periods of drought than overwatering it). If we learn about their specific needs and the conditions of their natural habitat and try to recreate it at home, there’s almost no chance of failure.”
Sophia Kaplan is co-owner of Sydney-based indoor plant and pot delivery service Leaf Supply (and her Australian home is stunning). She also agrees it’s important to consider the match between plant type and home. “Choosing the right plant for your space is key. Desert dwelling cacti will not make it in a low-light apartment, and conversely, a shade-loving fern will shrivel up and die in a sun-drenched window. It’s important to do a bit of research before purchasing. Suss out the light levels in your home, and get your hands on a plant that will thrive in the conditions you have on offer. Win-win for you and your plants.”
3. You’re not getting the correct instructions and info for your plants.
Lauren Camilleri is the co-owner of Sydney-based indoor plant and pot delivery service Leaf Supply with Sophia Kaplan. For Lauren, information is vital to making plants thrive. “I think a lack of confidence when it comes to indoor gardening has led to the untimely demise of many a houseplant. People are often convinced they have a black thumb (no such thing) and often end up freaking out and accidentally doing the wrong thing, like watering their plants every day (which is way too often by the way!). Arming yourself with some of the basics is so vital in building confidence and will allow you to not only select the right plants for your space but can also take some of the pressure off and allow you to give them the right care without overthinking it. It’s supposed to be fun and enjoying the process, which includes learning to accept the quirks, imperfections, and even the losses, can help immensely.”
Bj Stadelman, who owns the shop and plant truck, Hægur, and who shared his plant-filled Charleston home in 2019, says that the “why is my plant dying” question is a common one for both novice and expert plant parents. His advice? “Don’t be afraid to ask your plant shop to write down care instructions for you. A lot of times, new plant parents aren’t given the most accurate information or proper care instructions. This is step one, and often the most skipped, to plant parenthood.”