Diagnosing Houseplant Problems Related to Poor Culture

Growing indoor plants is a rewarding hobby that yields beautiful results.  But when problems arise with your indoor plants, it can be difficult to determine how to fix them.  

When encountering a houseplant problem, ask yourself, Are the environmental conditions appropriate for this species?wilted dracaena adobestock_340702208

If problems arise, start by understanding the needs of that particular species for light, soil, water, humidity, temperature, and fertilizer.  If these environmental conditions are not ideal, they must be changed, or the houseplant must be moved to a location where they are ideal.

A single factor does not cause many problems – they result from several factors coming together to cause an unhealthy or unattractive plant.  Always look for more than one factor contributing to the issue and correct all of them to solve the problem.  It is also important to identify the primary issue.  Some problems are caused by other factors, and while you can address the problem, if you don't solve the primary issue, the problem will always return.

Issues Related to Poor Culture

Because all environmental conditions can be controlled indoors, improper conditions are often intertwined with issues of poor care.  If the environmental conditions are off, it is up to the gardener to change how they care for the plant.
As with improper environmental conditions, poor culture or care leads to stress.  This stress makes the houseplant much more likely to be affected by other issues, including pests and disease.

Overwatering  |  Over-Fertilization  |  Using Leaf Shine  |  More Information  |  Back to Main Page


Overwatering is a common reason houseplants fail.  Plant roots that sit for long periods of time in wet soils develop root rot. This can lead to wilting, prompting you to water even more, exacerbating the problem!
Symptoms of overwatering include yellowing or browning of leaves, leaf drop, wilting (due to a damaged root system), crown rot, fungus gnats, and death.
Investigate the following potential care practices and correct them, if needed:

  • Check for water on a schedule, don’t water plants on a schedule.  Always check soil moisture before watering.  If it is wet or damp to the touch, wait to water.  If it is dry down an inch or two, then water.  If you question it, wait at least one more day.
  • Establish a wet-dry cycle for the soil.  Houseplants benefit from the soil being on a cycle where the root ball is thoroughly wetted and then allowed to dry completely before watering again.  Ensure this cycle happens by only applying water when the soil is completely dry but before the plant begins to wilt.
  • Use the proper container and the right potting soil.  Soil conditions and containers can contribute to accidental overwatering.  Make sure the container is the appropriate size (not too big), has a drainage hole, and is not allowed to sit in saucers or outer pots/sleeves full of water.  If the soil is old, broken down, and compacted, it will hold more water.  Repot with fresh, well-drained potting soil.


Houseplants that receive too much fertilizer typically have abundant but lanky growth.  Salt built up from the excess fertilizer can damage roots and, in extreme cases, can be seen as a crust on the soil surface, in saucers, or on the outside of porous clay containers.  This leads to symptoms such as browning or yellowing of leaves, leaf drop, wilting (due to a damaged root system), spindly and rapid growth, and potentially death. 
Investigate the following potential care practices and correct them, if needed:

  • Water thoroughly.  When watering, supply abundant water so excess fertilizer salts can be flushed from the soil.  Make sure to apply clear water until it runs out of the drainage hole so excess fertilizer can be carried out. 
  • Reduce frequency and concentration of fertilization.  Most fertilizers are formulated for applications outdoors in conditions that encourage much more growth.  Indoors, these fertilizer rates are too high, so use them at half or quarter strength.  Do not apply fertilizer with every watering.  Watering with clear water will help to flush and reduce the salt build-up from fertilizers in the soil.
  • Fertilize only when plants are actively growing.  When they are not growing, they are not using the fertilizer, and excess salts can build up in the soil.
  • Consider repotting.  If conditions are severe and there is an extensive build-up of salts on the container and soil surface, repot in fresh soil to help remove the excess salts.

Using Leaf Shine

Several products can be purchased that are promoted to enhance leaf luster.  They can affect a plant’s capacity to harvest light and photosynthesize. While these products may temporarily make the foliage more attractive, large amounts and frequent applications can plug leaf pores (stomata) and create a sticky layer that collects dust. 
Consider the following actions to improve plant health:

  • Don’t use these products.  While they may look good for the short term, they often lead to leaves collecting dust and dirt making them less attractive later.
  • Clean the leaves with a damp cloth or gentle shower instead.  Removing dust from leaves can reveal the natural shine most houseplant leaves have. 

More Information About Diagnosing Houseplant Problems

weeping fig dropping leavesImproper Environmental Conditions

orchid with scale on leavesInsects & Pests

houseplant with black spotDiseases 

wilting peace lily

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Last reviewed:
January 2024