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How to Revive a Plant (‘Cause, Yes, You Can Bring Back the Dead)

You love what houseplants do for your interior, but when it comes to caring for them you’re more of a grim reaper than a green thumb. As such, it appears that you didn’t intuitively understand your plant’s needs and now it’s at death’s door. Before you throw the baby out with the bathwater, read our guide on how to revive a plant, courtesy of plant whisperer and editorial lead at The Sill, Erin Marino.

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What are some signs my plant is dying?

The leaves of a plant tell you a lot about how well it’s doing. In general, leaves that are yellowing (or browning) and either dropping or turning mushy are strong indications of a plant that isn’t thriving. Yep, it’s actually pretty easy to identify a dying plant; the harder part is determining the nature of the problem—namely because “plants can have similar symptoms for entirely different reasons,” says Marino.

Still, Marino tells us that the worst thing you can do when your plant is dying is to panic and throw the book at it, as “this reaction usually does more harm than good.” Instead, her advice is to “look at all possible scenarios, and see which one has the highest probability” before you proceed with one of the rescue strategies described below. If your plant starts to bounce back after a little while, you guessed correctly; if not, you can try another strategy and start deducing the problem through a process of elimination. With that in mind, here are some steps you can take to save your plant before it’s too late.

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1. Remove the unhealthy foliage

Here, a rescue strategy that holds up regardless of the specific problem with your plant. Per Marino, “Always remove the non-healthy leaves and/or stems after you've used them to help you guess what the problem is. Unhealthy foliage won’t bounce back, [so] it’s best to cut all that off completely to give your plant back energy for new, healthy growth.”

To do this, use a sharp pair of pruning shears to snip away the unhealthy leaves, cutting as close to the stem as possible without damaging it (assuming the stem itself is in fine condition). Dead leaves will fall away quite easily, so you can also use your fingers to gently pinch them off the stem. Stems that have rotted at the root can be pulled out in their entirety.

2. Allow the soil to dry out

Yellow (possibly mushy) leaves and very wet soil suggests you’ve got an overwatered plant on your hands. Another telltale sign that your plant is overwatered is if the leaves towards the bottom of the plant are the unhealthy ones, since “lower leaves are the first to be flooded.”

Depending on the severity of the situation this problem can be resolved by giving the plant a break from watering until the soil is bone dry and relocating it to a spot that gets more light to make this happen faster. Once the plant has had a chance to reset, so to speak, you can adjust the watering schedule accordingly (i.e., less than what you were doing before). For more severe cases of overwatering—soil that’s so wet it’s unlikely to start drying out in a couple days—your best bet is to repot the plant in fresh, dry soil. Just keep in mind that this might stress the plant out further, so repotting an overwatered plant should really be a last resort.

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3. …Or saturate the soil

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have under-watered plants. These thirsty guys typically have yellow leaves that are curling at the edges. The solution here is fairly straightforward: simply “give the potting mix a thorough drink—saturating it, but not to the point where it becomes muddy.” Roger that.

4. Give it more light

We mentioned relocating a plant to a light-drenched area as a way to rescue an overwatered plant, but insufficient light can be a problem in itself: “If your plant is receiving lower light levels than it is usually accustomed to, it might not be producing enough energy to maintain all its current leaves. Your plant will then make an executive decision to drop some leaves, to save some energy,” says Marino. If your plant is dropping leaves randomly in an attempt to think itself out overall, insufficient light might be the problem. The solution is (you guessed it) more light. If there’s not a sunnier spot in your home that you can move the plant to, Marino suggests investing in a grow light to restore your houseplant to its former glory.

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5. Apply fertilizer

If none of the aforementioned scenarios seem likely, because you’ve had your plant for quite some time and made no changes to its care routine, nutrient deficiency may very well be the reason why your plant’s lush green foliage has started to turn yellow. When nutrient deficiency is the problem you can either repot the plant in fresh, nutrient-rich potting mix or feed the plant with an application of fertilizer. That said, Marino tells us that the question of whether to use fertilizer vs. repot comes down to the time of year—namely because “fertilization should follow plant growth…[and be done] during the start of the growing season, spring, when those vitamins will really come in handy.”

That’s all there is, friends…so godspeed and may your plant once again prosper.