How to Revive a Dead or Dying Plant: 10 Simple Steps
Appearances can be deceiving, so even if a plant looks dead, it may not be. Try these expert gardening tricks to revive your precious plant instead of tossing it.
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All may not be lost!
If you’re here, chances are you’ve got a dead plant on your hands. Don’t be too hard on yourself—it happens to the best of us, and sometimes even with the most low-maintenance plants. But we’ve got some good news for you: Your sad-looking plant may be only mostly dead, to borrow a line from The Princess Bride, and you might actually be able to revive it. “Some of the most common reasons for a plant to deteriorate are overwatering or underwatering, not getting the right amount of sun, changes to their environment, bugs and pests, or nutrient deficiencies,” says gardening expert John Valentino, owner of John & Bob’s Smart Soil Solutions. “All of these problems can be fixed, as long as you notice them in time.”
Of course, we’re here to tell you exactly how to do that. From identifying even the most subtle signs of life to correcting the mistakes you’ve made, these simple steps will help you return your plant to its former glory and reap the health benefits of gardening. Once you’re a plant pro, you might want to peruse the best places to buy plants online and pick up a few of the best indoor plants—or maybe these artificial plants that no one will be able to tell are fake.
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Step 1: Look for signs of life
When it comes to plants (including air-purifying ones), “dead” is a relative term. It may look like your plant is a goner, but when you take a closer look, that may not actually be the case. If there’s any green left on the plant, you might still be in business. “Any signs of green on the stem mean there’s a chance you’ll be able to bring it back to life,” says Valentino.
You should also check the roots. As the plant’s support system, they provide a lot of information about the state of its overall health. Translation: Even if the visible parts of the plant are a mess, the roots may still be receiving enough nutrients and water to keep it going. “Healthy roots should appear plump and be white to tan in color with white tips,” says Jennifer Morganthaler, an agriculture instructor at Missouri State University. “The roots should still be alive and have a chance to recover for any of these tips to work to save the plant.” If you do find signs of life, the next step is figuring out what went wrong and how to revive your plant.
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Step 2: Check if you’ve overwatered
Plants need water to survive and thrive, but it’s possible to give a plant too much water. How can you tell? “Overwatered plants will have brown or yellow wilted leaves with moist soil,” says Valentino. “This will affect the roots, which can start to rot.” If you’ve been giving your plant too much water, you will need to make some changes—ASAP. “Move the plant out of direct sunlight and stop watering until the soil dries out,” advises Morganthaler. “If the soil is soggy, you may want to change the soil and the pot.” From there, do a little research. Look up your plant’s watering preferences, and make sure to follow that information to a T in the future.
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Step 3: Check if you’ve underwatered
Just like overwatering, it’s also easy to underwater—and for many people, a likely scenario. What are the signs of a thirsty plant? “The plant will begin to wilt,” notes Morganthaler. “Leaves will start to dry out and brown at the tips, and then turn brown, die and drop off. The soil will also crack and pull away from the edges of the pot.”
Of course, water is the answer here, but you have to go about watering a dying plant in the right way. “If a plant has been severely underwatered, a quick way to revive it is to let it soak in water for a few hours,” says Vickie Christensen, master gardener and plant doctor at Léon & George. “Many plants go from droopy and sad to beautiful, lush and perky in just one day with this method!”
From there, it’s all about regular TLC. “Water more often, and give the plant the same amount of water each time,” Morganthaler advises. “Make sure to give the water time to soak down to the roots.” A soil moisture meter can help you monitor the soil’s moisture—and make sure you’re on the right track for your specific plant. Make sure to check if there are any white fungus balls in your plant’s soil.
Step 4: Remove dead leaves
Plants that are deteriorating will likely have dead leaves, and you’ll need to get rid of them. Be ruthless: If leaves are completely brown, they’re not coming back; you want to focus on new growth instead. To remove them, snip the dead leaves with a pair of plant shears or scissors, or gently pinch the dead leaves with your fingertips. Typically, dead leaves will come off the stem easily, but if you have to tug, use a pair of shears. If you’re looking to add to your plant collection, check out these indoor hanging plants.
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Step 5: Trim back the stems
Of course, green is good. Anything else? Not so much. To that end, you’ll want to trim stems back to just the green tissue. “Trim back the dead leaves, and then take off dead bits of the stem as well,” says Valentino. “Ideally, you want to take it all the way back to the healthiest bits of the plant, but if the stems are dead, then leave at least two inches of them above the soil.”
This is also a good time to change the soil—and even the pot. Morganthaler recommends repotting the plant in a larger container or pot at this time. And be warned: You likely won’t see a change for the better right away. Depending on the plant, it could take a few weeks or longer till the plant is in a better state of health. Speaking of health—check out these toxic plants you may already have at home.
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Step 6: Look at the lighting
Let there be light—or maybe not so much of it! Lighting is an important factor for the health of your houseplants, so you’ll need to make sure that your variety is getting the optimal amount. Once you know if your houseplant prefers full sun, partial sun, direct sunlight or indirect sunlight, then you can move it to a more suitable area of your home. “If your plant isn’t getting enough light, moving it to somewhere it will can help,” says Christensen. Depending on its state, a seemingly dead plant might perk up sooner rather than later with just this simple tweak. Don’t have a lot of light in your home? Consider these low-light houseplants that thrive in near darkness.
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Step 7: Determine if your plant needs more humidity
If your plant came from the tropics, it may be dying to get back to that type of environment—literally. Although the amount of humidity depends on the plant, there are some indicators that a plant may need more moisture in the air. “If the humidity is too low,” says Morganthaler, “the plant can show signs of shriveling, browning and wilting.” If more humidity is needed, try misting your plants regularly or grouping them together to help increase humidity.
Of course, too much humidity will be a problem for some plants. “If the humidity is too high, the plant can develop mold or mildew, fungal infections and yellow leaves,” says Morganthaler. In general, she notes, plants with thicker, waxier leaves tolerate dry air better, and that’s the situation in most of our homes. Still, Christensen adds, “while houseplants have been acclimated for life indoors and don’t necessarily need very humid conditions, most won’t like sitting next to a heater or air vent, as this can be too dry for their liking.”
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Step 8: Provide additional nutrients
Feeding your plant is especially important during the growing seasons of spring and summer. A malnourished plant, says Valentino, will exhibit weak stems or discolored leaves, so to revive a dying plant, you’ll need compost or fertilizer. Two good options: Dr. Earth’s liquid food, which contains only organic ingredients and no synthetic chemicals, and the brand’s all-purpose organic fertilizer for all types of plants. Simply repotting your dying plant can also help. “Soil can become depleted of nutrients over time, so repotting every few years is always a good idea,” says Christensen.
If, however, your plant is in bad shape, it’s a good idea to start out slow. You don’t want to make a number of sudden changes all at once since the plant is likely to already be in a state of shock and more susceptible to problems. Over time, keep up the good habits. “Most plants do best with a little fertilizer, usually once or twice a month, during the growing season,” Christensen adds.
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Step 9: Wait at least a month
It can be easy to lose hope when it looks like your efforts aren’t paying off. But remember: It took a while to nearly kill your plant, and it’s going to take a while to nurse it back to health. The key is to be patient. Keep tending to your plant for a few weeks and then reevaluate. “Once you’ve taken steps to revive a dying plant, it can take up to a month before you start to see an improvement or new growth, so don’t give up on it too soon,” says Valentino. You may also need to do some troubleshooting before figuring out the exact problem and the subsequent solution, so the process may take longer than expected.
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Step 10: Compost it
If you’ve tried everything, including waiting a minimum of a month, and your plant hasn’t made any progress, it’s possible that it’s time to say goodbye. But instead of tossing your dead plant in the trash, place it in a compost bin. When you compost your plants, even if they’re dead, the remains can be turned into nutrient-rich soil that acts as a natural fertilizer that can benefit your other houseplants or garden. That means your dead plant can have new life—and contribute to the health of your future plants while also helping the environment.
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Additional reporting by Carly Zinderman.
- John Valentino, owner of John & Bob’s Smart Soil Solutions
- Jennifer Morganthaler, plant expert and agriculture instructor at Missouri State University
- Vickie Christensen, master gardener and plant doctor at Léon & George