4 things you didn’t know were killing your houseplants

4 things you didn’t know were killing your houseplants

Houseplants have many benefits, from reducing depression and anxiety to purifying the air… provided that you don’t kill them. Here are some of the top mystery causes of houseplant death.


By far the most common cause of death in houseplants is simple overwatering. Stick to the instructions given when you buy a plant to avoid drowning it.

Most plants do not like to sit in water unless they are aquatic, so water a plant thoroughly then tip out the excess before putting it back into its outer pot.

If you know that you aren’t overwatering a plant but it’s still displaying all the symptoms, take a look at the environment you’re keeping it in.

With boiling pots of water, dishwashers, and sinks, kitchens can be very humid places and any plants kept in them will naturally absorb water from the air. The same is true of bathrooms and wet rooms.

Humidity-loving tropical plants such as dracaena, spider plants and ferns will thrive in this steamy environment. A cactus or succulent, however, will not be happy and if the plant is also being kept in soil with poor drainage, this can be a recipe for disaster. Consider moving such plants to a dryer area of the house.


Plenty of plant care guides warn houseplant owners never to leave a plant root bound – and it’s true that having densely clustered roots with no space to expand does place stress on the plant. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The stress caused by occupying a limited space can trigger some plants’ instinct to reproduce, meaning that they grow more offshoots and flower more prolifically than they would otherwise.

Plants that grow better when root-bound include:

  1. Spider plants
  2. Peace lilies
  3. Aloes
  4. Agapanthuses
  5. Ficuses
  6. Jade plants
  7. Snake plants
  8. Christmas cacti

These plants may enjoy being root bound, but should you want to repot them to increase their size, do so gradually. Transplant them into a pot no more than two inches bigger in circumference than their existing container.

Other plants that can die as a result of transplantation, such as the African violet or Boston fern, don’t enjoy being root bound per se – they just don’t take kindly to repotting. If you own a root bound Boston fern or African violet, leave it as it is. Repotting is more likely to kill the plant than encourage growth.

If you want to keep a plant that dislikes repotting, put it in an adult-size pot to start with rather than periodically transplanting.  Just make sure that you drain your plant thoroughly after watering – small plants in big pots are more likely to die from overwatering as the excess soil retains too much moisture.

Lack of light

Most plants prefer some degree of light, but can tolerate slightly dimmer conditions with minimum stress. However, some are so light-hungry that even a south-facing windowsill will not provide enough for them during a UK winter. This is particularly true of desert plants such as succulents and cacti.

Lack of light in succulents triggers an intense growth spurt as they desperately reach for any available sunshine. This isn’t healthy and will cause the plant to become etiolated, taking on a spindly, weak and unattractive appearance.

Etiolation as a result of lack of light is especially noticeable in echeveria and other succulents that grow in rosette-like shapes. In some cases, the top-heavy nature of the echeveria combined with the frail stalk can even cause the stem to snap under its own weight and kill the plant.

If you are a succulent lover, consider investing in an LED grow light. Search for a lamp that provides light on both the red and blue spectrums, which will enable them to thrive. Plants don’t need light on the green spectrum – the fact that they reflect it is what gives them their green colour.

If you have an etiolated plant, the best thing to do is to cut off the ‘head’ with a sterile blade and leave it to dry out in a warm place. After a week or so, the stalk will have sealed and delicate white roots will begin to appear from the dried out end. Repot this in a succulent potting mix.


It’s common knowledge that smoking is bad for your health… but fewer people know that it can also have a seriously detrimental effect on your plants.

Cigarette smoke is dangerously high in ethylene, exposure to which restricts vertical growth and causes the plant to swell and drop its leaves. Many other chemicals contained in smoke, such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, are also harmful to houseplants.

The powerful insulation in new buildings offers little opportunity for smoke to escape. This causes accumulation of smoke and other indoor chemicals which can cause extremely high levels of pollution. Although studies by NASA show that many plants are brilliant air purifiers, no plant is capable of reducing the amount of tobacco smoke in the air.

If you’re a houseplant lover but can’t bear to kick the habit, consider swapping to a  healthier alternative such as e-liquids. Your plants will thank you for it – many, such as the Boston fern, English ivy or dracaena, thrive on the humidity that vaping produces. It’s a win-win.

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