Home Ec

Home Ec: How to Save Your Plants (and your Money!)

by Grace Bonney

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is to invest in things that last. Whether that’s well-made furniture or textiles that won’t shred after the first wash, waiting and saving to get something that will last for years has been worth it. When I was younger I was an impulse buyer, scooping up little things here and there in what was probably a misguided attempt to build an insta-home that felt filled and finished immediately. But I’ve learned that that most homes are never “finished” and most of the spaces we look at and love right away took decades to evolve and get there. So these days I’m all about finding ways to preserve the things I already have and fix, rather than replace, pieces around the house to not only save some money, but teach myself some new household skills. So for the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on how to fix things around the house.

A few weeks ago I did a post on how to know which plants will do best in which parts of your home, and I got a ton of follow-up emails from readers asking, “Yes, but how do we keep them alive after that?” It made me think about my own struggles to turn my black thumb into a green(er) one and the lessons I’ve learned from making sure my plant investments stay alive. So today I’m going to walk through some of the common problems with houseplants and how to fix them. In every plant’s life a little over-watering, aphid and bug and mold drama might fall, but you don’t have to toss your plants — you can save them (and your money!) by bringing them back to life and health. xo, grace


This post and the Home Ec section are brought to you by Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day. Visit the Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Home-Grown Inspiration section featuring 20 DIYs, including seven from Design*Sponge!

OVER-WATERING: Let's start with the error I'm most guilty of - one too many visits with the watering can. I treat plants like members of the family and like to visit them throughout the day to see how they're fairing. No matter what they look like, I'm always convinced they need more water. Usually, they don't. HOW TO TELL IF YOU'VE OVER-WATERED: The leaves of your plant will look wilted even though the soil is moist. They'll also start to look pale yellow or have brown tips. Those are classic signs of over watering. TO FIX: If you notice these signs, back off of watering your plants a few days until things dry out. Then slowly ease back in, making sure you water slowly and let the plant absorb, rather than flooding it. [Photo Anna's Home Tour]
UNDER-WATERING: Do your plants' leaves suddenly look crispy and dried but they're not burning up in too much light? You're probably not giving your plant as much water as you need. Even the crispiest and saddest of plants can be brought back to life with a little love and water. TO FIX: Depending on your plant type, introduce your plant to small doses of water, waiting for it to thoroughly soak through. I like to fill up a sink and let the whole pot and plant sit in it (especially for terra cotta pots) so it can absorb moisture from the bottom of the plant, too (through the hole in the pot bottom). Let your plant fully absorb as much water as it can before it starts to release excess water from the bottom of the pot in a steady stream. Then place back in its spot and keep an eye on the leaves to make sure they don't get crispy again. [Photo from Nina's Home Tour]
APHIDS: Ugh, I hate aphids. If you turn over your plant leaves and see tiny clear/white bugs crawling around, you've got 'em. I once grew lettuce in my window, grabbed a handful to eat and didn't realize the bottom was covered in aphids. Not my finest moment. TO FIX: To rid your plants of aphids, physically remove as many as possible by brushing or shaking them off. Then use a spray bottle with water to spritz off any hangers-on (they're sticky). Then fill that spray bottle with 4 cups of water and 4 drops of dish soap. Spray the leaves (make sure to get the under sides!) with the solution and rinse it off with clean water after 2 hours. Repeat every few days until your infestation is under control. [Photo from Amy and Erich's home tour]
POWEDERY MILDEW: I've lost more than a few wonderful plants to powdery mildew (RIP, Blackberry bush) because I didn't know how to properly manage it. But here's how to tackle the problem if you see spots of powdery mildew pop up on your plant leaves. TO FIX: First, isolate your infected plant before it spreads. Outdoors, ideally, if that's an option. If the mold is only on one section, you can prune it off to prevent major spread. Then mix 1 tbsp of baking soda + 1 tbsp of neem oil + 1 tsp of liquid soap + 1 gallon of water. Spray down your plant every week until the mold is gone. (You can also buy commercially-made sprays for this) [Photo from Michelle's home tour]
FUNGUS GNATS: The name alone sounds gross, but these little gnats can crop up and destroy the root of your plant, killing it for good. TO FIX: To keep them from killing your plants, if you spot gnats hovering around your plant, it's probably due to over-watering, as they love moisture. Swat away and kill any adults you see flying around and then, to kill the larvae in the soil, let the plant dry out and sit in as much sun as that type of plant can handle. Let it dry out until you can stick your finger in at least an inch and feel that the soil is barely moist. You want to really dry it out so the larvae die. This is the most common issue I deal with and I promise you can beat the gnats! [Photo from Andrew and Gemma's home]
OUTGROWING ITS POT: If you're lucky and your plant grows for a long time, it will probably outgrow the pot it originally came in or was potted in. You can tell when this is happening when it looks like it's busting at the seams and when the plant gets fully watered by still wilts (it doesn't have enough soil to pull moisture from). TO FIX: To fix your growing plant, water it well a day or two before and then re-pot it in a pot that is slightly larger (here's a great how-to), making sure you're gentle with the plant and give it plenty of fresh soil that is already moist. [Photo from Michelle's home tour]
OTHER COMMON ISSUES AND THEIR CAUSES: -Spindly Plants: Typically caused by the plant not getting enough light. Move to a brighter space. -Weak/No Growth: Usually this is an issue of not enough light or too much water. Move to a brighter space to dry out. -Dropping leaves: If your plant is losing leaves, it usually needs less water and more light. -No flowering: If your plant is supposed to flower and isn't, it's often because it needs more light. [Photo from our DIY hanging planter project]
Have any other questions? Leave them in the comment section below and I'll tackle them one-by-one! :)

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  • I keep having an issue with cacti and succulents where I think they are doing fine, and then one day a huge chunk falls off or the entire plant keels over. Often it appears that they have no roots. Is this due to overwatering, maybe?

    I have a horrible black thumb. I just hate doing this to those sweet little cacti.

    • Brittany

      Hm…that’s odd. So they’re failing to grow any root structure at all? When you bought them, did they have a root structure in tact?

      It sounds like it could be root rot from over-watering.


  • Thanks for this post! So helpful. I constantly have issues with mold /mildew / fungus (it’s white) growing in the soil (not leaves) on my plants. Not only is it unattractive, but I find it smells a bit and also can cause fungus gnats. I’ve tried the no watering thing and haven’t had any luck (I’ve seriously let them dry out for two week stretches). I’ve also tried spraying the soil with Thieves. Any suggestions? Anything I can spray on the soil? I live in an apartment and prefer not to have to repot or deal with lots of potting soil…Thanks Grace!

    • Susanna

      I had what you did. The main culprit is bad soil or overly fertilized soil. What sort of soil are you using?

      I had this issue and solved it with a funny, but natural, solution: cinnamon! You remove the top 2 inches of the potting soil, then cover the top in a dusting of cinnamon.

      If that (plus removing the top layer and letting the rest dry out) doesn’t work I would suggest moving your plants to a drier part of your home or adding a dehumidifier.

      Let me know if that doesn’t work- we’ll get to the bottom of this ;)


  • Brittany, sounds like overwatering. I was doing this to succulents for a long time. Succulents need to completely dry out and then get a good soak. The soil should be dry all the way down (get a moisture meter for $10, I found these to be super helpful). Another good test is picking the pot up and feeling the weight. A dry pot is significantly lighter than one with moisture in it.

  • I have dealt with fungus gnats a lot in Oregon. The best thing that I have found to deal with them is a soil cover of sand or rock so that the gnats can’t get into the soil and lay eggs! It’s been so helpful and has allowed me to grow more than just succulents indoors.

  • Oh…and I do have a burning question! I currently do not have any hanging plants in my house, but want to desperately. However, the dilemma is: how do I water these plants without any water draining and ruining a pretty hanger (ie. macrame) and getting all over the floor? I suppose I could pull the plant out each time, but many plants such as “string of pearls” are delicate. It’s an enigma.

    • Hi Summer

      Sadly I’ve never had any luck watering from above with those sorts of plants, but if you have the patience, you could water them SLOWlY a little bit at a time so they don’t have water gushing out of the bottom. It might be easier to do that and put a bucket underneath to catch anything that falls if you don’t want to take the planter down.

      I have a few and I just take them down to fully soak them. It’s a pain, but I can’t reach high enough to water them from above.


  • I have a very hot apartment, both in the summer and winter, which I don’t mind but my plants certainly do. It lacks summer air circulation and has cast iron heaters directly under the windows, meaning I can’t put plants on the window sill where the temps are super high in the winter. All my plants have died over the years, even air plants and succulents and I blame this heat. Any ideas or suggestions on plants I could potentially keep alive? Thanks!

    • Hi Dewey

      Oh man, I’m sorry to hear that. We had something similar but ended up getting some old (and not very nice) slabs of marble to put on top of the heaters to mitigate the heat. They got warm, but never more than luke-warm and it allowed me to put plants on top.

      Could you try plants stands near the window, but far enough away from the heaters to avoid the burn? Then perhaps doing trays under the plants with rocks that you could add water to so they’re always able to absorb water from below if they get dry?


  • This post is so helpful! Any suggestions for leafroller caterpillars? I have a dwarf meyer lemon tree in my apartment and it seems to have just gotten infested by these things. I’ve been picking them off the leaves as soon as I see them, but they just keep coming!

  • I love this round up of tips! I just went to the greenhouse yesterday and may or may not have come home with ten new green companions…! Oh, spring.

  • Any advice on ficus trees? Bought two from a big box store last month and they keep dropping leaves. They look pretty skimpy. The leaves that train look healthy…no spots, yellowing or crisping. I know they can not be watered at roots and have been misting every other day to keep moist. How can I tell if they are diseased?

    • Hi Kim

      If they’re dropping but the leaves aren’t crispy, it might be overwatering or root rot- have you checked the bottom to see how it’s doing?

      I would let it dry out a bit and see how it responds to that- and give it more light.


      • Ficus will respond to ANY change in light by flinging their leaves off and sulking. They often come straight off trucks from Florida into the big boxes, with no time to adjust.

        Water only when the soil has dried out quite a bit, do not feed till you see a burst of new growth, and speak to them soothingly whenever you pass by. Make sure they’re getting really bright indirect light, and be patient.

  • for Brittany:
    are your plants indoors or outdoors?
    succulents LOVE the outdoors though we all try to bring them indoors. If indoors make sure that your pot has a drainage hole, this helps a lot. and make sure you have the right soil.
    it does sound like you are over watering. good luck.

  • I save the tags that come with the plant so when something works I can actually find the same plant again. I will say after a couple of years of what I deem success with my succulents I do have a problem with them becoming leggy which isn’t that cute. Also knowing what works together in a pot is always a challenge.

    • Hi Jenn!

      That’s really smart- I do the same thing and keep a little chart taped inside the cabinet next to the watering pitcher so anyone babysitting the plants knows how much to water them ;)

      If they’re leggy, it sounds like not enough sun. Are they in direct bright light?


  • Any tips on caring for orchids? I think they’re lovely but can never keep them alive for longer than a month or so!

  • Jean,
    Orchid blooms naturally die off, but return annually. After your stalks last bloom has dropped, cut the stalk with a clean knife to the base and cover the wound with cinnamon or a cutting-healing powder. At this point you may choose to remove the plant from it’s pot and trim the dried-out dead roots. Move your plant to a filtered lit area and continue to water throughout the year- most orchids tend to go dormant for the winter when humidity and light taper off. Orchids are a tropical plant and LOVE humidity. Also be sure your orchid is potted in a well ventilated vessel with lots of moss, bark, and perlite, NO SOIL! As your plant mature’s it’s roots will wind themselves through the holes of it’s pot-or if you’re like me and plant them in branches of your tree, these roots will attach themselves to the tree bark! A new shoot should likely appear in the spring and will bloom a month or two after that!

  • I’d love to see a guide for simple propagation along with recommendations of plants that are easy to propagate and hearty. Thanks!

  • Jean, I have a friend who collects orchids and hers bloom like crazy over and over again although she manages to kill of any other type of plant in her house including my favourite cactus (she ‘looked after it’ for a whole 2 weeks!). anyways, she recommends to water orchids by completely immersing the pot in water for about 20 minutes (she does this once every 2 weeks) and she uses these ‘orchid fertilizer sticks’ to feed them. it seems to do the trick.

  • I have a little fern that is very finicky. It has some yellow at its tips, leaves dropping off (dry!), and brown spots on his leaves. Help!

    • Kelly

      Is it a maidenhair? Those are like the holy grail of plant-keeping tome. They are SO FINICKY and notoriously hard.

      I’ve found watering them less is always the key- and giving them less sun than I think they need. But it depends on the type- could you let me know and I’ll look into it?

      When the leaves fall off, are they crispy and dry (not enough water) or soft and dry (too much water)?


  • I have managed to keep several orchids alive for years and reblooming by doing these two things…moving to a south facing window in the winter to get sun. And not watering, but adding an icecube to the pot once a week rather than watering (or two if it is a large orchid).

    Also, if you can manage to water your plants with rain water they prefer it to tap water! and buy cactus potting soil for your succulents, not regular potting soil.

    • Mims

      Great tips! Can I ask- have you ever had mold problems with the ice cubes? I tried that trick on another plant (not an orchid) one time and I ended up with moldy soil in those patches :(


  • Hi Summer-just wanted to add in here. I have two hanging wire cloches in my workspace window. There’s no easy way to water these as the plants are growing through the gaps, so here’s what I do. Grab a tea towel and get up on a sturdy chair, use a jug with a spout that doesn’t dribble and slightly tilt the pots so that you can add the water, catching any spills with the towel. It’s a bit funny to watch but works for me. I also use succulents that love light and heat (radiator underneath). Hope that helps!

  • I’m having trouble keeping my Opuntia cacti healthy. Does anyone have any tips for this guy? Some of you may know it better at the bunny ear cactus.

    I have this problem where the pads start to curl up and then eventually it shrivels and dies. Originally there were 3 separate ones growing in the same pot – I’ve managed to kill 2 of the 3. One remains, but I feel like it’s going to die too. There has been no new growth of any new pads, and definitely no flowering.

  • I have a tip for keeping Orchids alive. Never water them late in the day. Always before 2-3pm. There is a fungus that likes to grow in with orchids, that will take their water away. The fungus is hard to find, but it only feeds at nighttime. If you water it early in the day, the orchid will actually get the water. If you water it late in the day, the orchid will dry out and die. I have kept orchids healthy for years by only changing this one thing.

  • Summer-

    I’ve solved my hanging plant problem by getting planters with attached overflow dishes like these


    At my nursery they have hanging versions of these (seen at the bottom of the page). It’s nice because I water until the dish fills up, let the plant sit for a bit and later I’ll come and tip out the excess water so there isn’t any sitting water. If it’s summer and they need a good soak I can still take the plant down easily. Maybe you can find something similar near you or online?

  • What a great article! I’m definitely an over-watering culprit, but I’ve reined it in and my peace lily is thriving. However, my three-stemmed tall, flowering-when-I-bought-it orchid isn’t faring so well. I know they are very particular re light, temperature and water and I fear none of the above suits it. The guy who sold it to me at the market said use three ice cubes per week, but within 10 days the stems were turning brown and the blooms withered and died. I cut back and haven’t watered in two weeks and it’s still here, though one stem is brown and looks poorly. The house is very warm and there’s not a lot I can do about that and my room faces east. I’ve moved it so it doesn’t get much direct sunlight, but it still doesn’t look happy. When will it bloom again and how often should I be watering it? Thanks.

  • I had to move to be able to grow orchids again – Phaleonopsis, the moth orchids we normally think of when we say orchids, are really sensitive to light levels, and my last flat, which had huge windows but was north-facing, never got enough light for them to flower.

    They like it bright but (certainly in the UK), out of direct afternoon sunlight, which can be too strong and burn them.

    Happily my new flat is much brighter, and orchid numbers are creeping up again :)

  • Thanks for the article, I currently have whitefly on my beautiful sunflower seedlings and don’t know how to get rid of them. I have tried a few things but they are still eating my plant. Any suggestions? :)

  • Hey, Dewey: in regards to your hot apartment, here are a few thoughts- water them more frequently, and try misting them daily. PLANTS LOVE BEING MISTED! Get hardier plants- ferns and ficus are delicate and I’ve killed a few. Or maybe create a little humidifying tray by placing your potted plants in a tray with a thin layer of water, like what you see for orchids, or try terrariums. And, air plants are basically weeds that hang off trees in humid places. I’ve had success just drenching them under running water every 2-3 days and placing them on a dish to dry/ look pretty. I managed to even grow pups!

  • There are great tips here on managing the amount of watering to a plant. I would like to add that the humidity of the room is important too. Maidenhair ferns are from humid habitats (not all ferns are, however) and most houses will have some seasons when they are too dry. A bathroom or terrarium would be the best bet.

    For watering hanging pots, yes, as others have mentioned, use a hanging system that includes a saucer, when you water, add a little water, wait 30 sec, add more etc. Otherwise with the lag for the water to move through the soil, you can end up with a lot of water running out the bottom, and by biggest help at home is to put a rag-bath towel under the area of the hanging plant while watering and for the minutes afterward, to soak up any drips.
    For the Opuntia, water less. Like every 2-3 weeks. You can let them even start to shrivel/pucker as the pads shrink with loss of water, but that’s a clear signal then to give them a drink. They are normally pretty low maintenance.
    For a hot home with radiators, try Sansevieria, (they come in a lot of variations) among other succulents. I recommend not putting them over the radiators, but on plant stands or other surfaces away from the heat. The Sansevieria can handle low light as well as heat and dry humidity.
    Happy Green homes to all!

  • Hi Kelly – most, if not all, ferns need humidity levels higher than most homes in winter. My Boston fern was really suffering this winter until I moved to a warmer spot and started running a humidifier right next to it. I also mist it a few times a week but go easy on the watering otherwise.

  • Hello! A very useful column indeed. We have successfully kept most our plants alive in a small London apartment (lots of natural light helps) but have a poinsettia that has grown since last Christmas (2013…) and has become really tall with lots of leaves. It gets a lot of sun, and recently, for the first time, it’s shedding leaves like crazy. Any suggestions? I’ve got the watering under pretty good control I though, because it lived so long with the routine we established…

  • For Kim
    Some varieties of ficus are particularly fickle when it comes to changes in the lighting situation. Relocating from one location to another almost always triggers leaf loss even when given ideal care.
    Given time and proper care, healthy leaves will reappear adapted to the new lighting situation.

  • i recently moved this winter and all my plants got slightly frozen, and now they are all wilted and look dead. can they be saved or do i need new plants??????

  • As far as the frozen plants go, they need TLC! What kinds of plants are they? Find a warm spot for them. You could give them a little water w/a little fertilizer in it. They may be plants that need indirect light. I found that bhg.com has some great plant info in their gardening section. Good luck!

    Ferns need moisture & indirect light. Make sure there are no hearing vents nearby that will scorch the fern’s delicate leaves. You can trim off the branches w/brown leaves. Don’t repot it until it’s root-bound (roots coming out of bottom). I have a fern I bought in a 4″ pot in 1991. I still have it! The one time it looked it’s best was when I put it in the shower & misted it w/the hand held shower head. It could be done in a kitchen sink also. It looked so great for a few days & then back to light green & kind of crunchy! Mine needs to be divided. Just remember that you don’t go up in pot size very much. They like to be snug. :) good luck everyone!

  • Super helpful column. My plant collection exploded this winter because the weather was so terrible here in Boston. I was taking weekly trips to the local greenhouse, just because I needed the balmy air and earthy smell. I would be ever grateful for a comprehensive, creative post about pet-safe plants with photos. Most online resources tell me what I can’t bring in the house or they list the same cat-friendly ones over and over, often without any visuals. Digging the indoor tree trend, but it seems like I’m limited to palms a la 1986. Cacti in high places and enclosed terrariums have been my friends.

  • The whole succulent thing is so confusing. I always treated them like cactus and they always died. Then I moved to Pacific NW and they grow absolutely everywhere, all kinds! Mostly no sun, tons of rain. Then comes summer, all sun and no rain for 2 months. And they still thrive, amazing

  • Thanks for the information. It can be pretty intense trying to move your plants. Like you said, it’s fairly easy moving relocating house plants, but it’s a bit harder when you’re trying to move plants that are outside. That’s when it’s important to hire a professional to help you out.

  • This is such a great and helpful post! I know most of my plants would looove more light, but I live in a small house with not too many windows, and the few windows I do have don’t give off much light for one reason or another.

    So my question is what to do if you need more light but can’t get it naturally. Are there good/safe lights that help? Any other tips? I know I’m late commenting on this post!!

  • Hello. I went away for 10 days and did not water my plant (I’m honestly not sure about its type). It’s grown as much as 15 years now, really tall in my living room and I travelled away for these ten days. When I returned I found the plant bent a little, so I gave it a lot of water as much as it could drink and when ther was extra water I removed it. I left it for some hours but someone told me if it’s still alive it should be better by tomorrow morning and grow to its normal size. Is there anything else I could do to save this plant? I’ve never been attached to a plant before like this and I’m really worried. Please help me.

  • Thanks Grace for your article,
    when we got back from our vacations some of our plants did`t survive. Not because they did`t have enough water, but they had to much…

  • Oh no! I absolutely love it.. I found this article that might be of help. It sounds like it might be best to leave them alone unless they’re really swarming.

  • Thank you so much for this post! I love my plants. The specific Q&A here is great.

    Does anyone have tips for growing full, lush avocado plants from seed? I’m growing them as indoor houseplants (not trying to get fruit). I’ve experimented growing a couple; but, the leaves don’t appear until the plant is 12 – 18 ins high. What must be done to have a full plant? When I trimmed one of them back, another branch sprouted from the side & the same thing happened (no leaves before 12-18 ins).

  • I love this post and the comments! I don’t think I’ve ever read comments to the end before. Does anyone have any tips for watermelon pepperomia? When I got it from the nursery it was perky and now it always looks droopy. It’s leaves are small and the leaves at the bottom tend to keep on breaking off :( I keep it in semi shade indoors and only water once or twice every two weeks.