Did I Kill My Plants: Daily and Emergency Care

Emily Hostetter

Did I Already Kill My Plants?

I’m here because I’m a new plant parent and I have a lot to learn. I’m also here because I have owned a lot of plants that seemed to meet an untimely end. The goal of this series is for us all to learn a thing or two about keeping our plants alive - or at the very least, for you to learn enough to avoid the panic and pitfalls that this journey into plant parenthood has brought me.

This week, we’re talking about being a plant killer. Yes, I said it. In spite of a rocky plant-care track record, I was pretty sure that “This time would be different” and “I’m much more aware of what I’m doing.”

Yeah.

I picked up my plants, followed my instructions, and had a grand old time staging and styling each one to blend beautifully in to my home. A few days later, I left for a week-long vacation. Since the none of the varieties I’m growing require more than once-a-week watering, I gave them a nice drink the night before our flight, and figured everything would be just fine.

I was so wrong. So. Wrong.

When I came back after seven days away, all of my plants were mad at me. So. Mad.

My Chinese Evergreen had leaves turning a sallow, pale yellow, like when you are extremely fair-skinned and still try to use too much self-tanner (this is not something that happened to me at any point in college, I don’t even know why you would think that). 

My Snake Plant was looking healthy, but moldy spots were appearing in the soil. I was perplexed - a week without watering should not yield mold-inducing conditions! Just the opposite!!!                                             

My Parlor Palm fared the best, with just one frond looking droopy. I like to imagine that he spent the week giving all of the other plants a pep talk: “Don’t worry! Hang in there! We’ve got everything we need! She’ll be back soon!” He was a good little soldier, but even his stalwart nature wasn’t enough to encourage the Philodendron.

Ah, my poor, poor Philodendron, suspended from a beautiful vintage hook in the corner of my spare bedroom. I’m not sure if I’ll name all the plants, but there is no question in my mind that the Philodendron is named Niles Crane. He was not reacting well. He was a fussy mess. (For reference, please view all 11 seasons of Fraiser.)

He had a few green leaves left, sure, but also lots of dead brown leaves and dying yellow leaves growing more and more pale. In the midst of this distress, new pink shoots were growing up and out. How? Why? New growth in combination with drooping, fading leaves made no sense to me.

Even more important than “Why” was “What do I do now?”I was more than a little upset to find that my plants were this far gone after my brief absence. Why? I had done everything right! I was concerned that I had failed in my new mission and that my plants were unsaveable. Luckily, I was able to connect with Shylah and ask her why this had happened and how to remedy it.                                                                                                                      The first thing she did was reassure me that no, Emily, you have not committed a plant crime. None of the plants were dead and all were most likely salvageable. She shared a few insights that helped me navigate our botanical recovery, and helped me understand why my plants seemed to be in such distress.

It turns out that my plants and I have more in common than I ever knew, because their decline came down to two things: not reacting well to stress, and really wanting to eat a lot.

Plants also like to stress-eat, and light is their snack food of choice. They need a lot of it to thrive, and while my spare bedroom met the low-light requirements for each of my four plants, I had staged some of them in a darker corner and they weren’t getting what they needed. Just like us, plants need some time to adjust to change. When you bring yours home, give them a week or so to adapt to their new environment. My Chinese Evergreen was a great example - the plant was healthy overall, and had actually grown a bit, but the leaves were turning yellow. This change in color can be a sign of stress, and it just means your plant needs a little time - kind of like I need a little time whenever my favorite cast members get eliminated from the Bachelor and I swear that I’m done with the franchise. I just need about a week of time to recover and then I’m ready to be disgusted and heartbroken all over again.

In short, they got hangry and acted out.

More technically, without the correct nutrition (light) and under some distress (new environment), my plants started taking extreme survival measures. My philodendron, Niles, dropped leaves so that he would have less to sustain, and those mysterious new shoots were growing towards the light - reaching for food stay alive and help cope with the change.

Like I said, we have a lot in common.

To begin the recovery process, I brought all four plants in to our well-lit living room for a nice sun bath. I left them there for about a day and a half, giving the Parlor Palm, Chinese Evergreen, and Philodendron an extra splash of water in order to stay hydrated in these warmer conditions.

As the plants soaked up the sun, I also pruned away any dead or dying leaves. If your foliage looks pale and you’re not sure whether to prune, give it a very gentle tug. Dying leaves will pull away easily, but those with a chance of recovery will hold on at the stem.

After a few days, I moved them back to the spare room with some tweaks to the arrangement. Previously, two lived on a shelf against my West wall, but they weren’t getting optimum sun there. Now, the Chinese Evergreen, Snake Plant, and Parlor Palm all live on top of a tall dresser along the North wall, directly facing a window and eating sunlight to their heart’s content. I’m happy to report that they are all very healthy and hardy.

Here is a bonus photo of Niles and I after returning from vacation. It’s hard to say who is more distressed, but pretty easy to say which of us got too much sun.

The most major change was my Philodendron, Niles. After our vacation scare, he has taken up a permanent residence perched atop our stair-step plant stand in the living room. He’s thriving and growing a million new leaves all the time in his new home. Fussy nature and all, I’m glad he didn’t die and I’m glad he found his Daphne. Which is just being in the living room. But you get it.
It’s been a pleasure to care for, almost kill, and eventually recover these new plants. I’ll share one last post in the coming weeks covering everything I’ve learned and a few ways that you can start a little urban jungle of your own.



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