Real Estate

How To Save a Dying Plant—and When To Let It Go to That Greenhouse in the Sky

Confession: I can’t seem to let go of the potted stick in my dining room that was once a thriving money tree. A friend gave me this beautiful evergreen 10 years ago, when it was only yea-high, as a housewarming present. I toted it across the country when I moved from CA to NY, and then to several apartments before finally buying its forever home. Or so I thought.

Somehow, this past summer, what was once a thriving, 3-foot-high plant with a braided stem and bright green leaves slowly started to—well, I can’t even say it. I know the time has come to say goodbye. Yet, I’ve been living with what is basically a stick for weeks now.

Given the recent plant craze brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown, I fear other plant Moms and Dads may be facing the same struggle. So I reached out to experts about how to let it go, let it go.

How to (try to) save a struggling plant

A dying plant will often have yellow, dry, or brittle leaves, and no longer produce new growth.

But reviving a dying plant is possible.

“A plant is never truly dead unless the roots are dead,” says Michael Dean, co-founder of Pool Research, which provides expert advice on pool building and general landscaping.

If the plant stems are green or have some white color, then your plant still has life in it. Trim back the dead foliage to free up plant energy, and it might possibly achieve new growth. 

“If your plant’s leaning to one side, move it closer to that light source and rotate it,” says Courtney Brown of the horticulture industry marketing firm Garden Media Group. 

Yellowing or browning leaves are signs that the plant’s being over- or under-watered, so check its watering needs online. If the foliage is otherwise discolored or has spots, there’s likely a pest or fungal issue. Give it a good spray with neem oil to kill pests.

Know when the time has come

To check your plant’s pulse, there are two key vital signs to eyeball. First, examine the stem, which should be firm and pliable. If the stem is squishy, check the roots. If those are also squishy or brittle, the end is nigh.

“This means the plant’s vegetation is rotting, due to excess moisture,” says Mindy S. McIntosh-Shetter, the “Outlander Botanist” and author of three gardening books. “At this point, there’s not much you can do.”

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Watch: These Houseplants Are So Over—Here’s What You Should Have Instead

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Saying goodbye to your green friend

If your plant dies despite your best efforts, things will be hard for a while.

“But acceptance is so important,” says Brown. “Every single plant parent—expert or beginner—is going to kill a plant.”

The hard truth is: Plants die. It’s part of nature’s process. So go easy on yourself. And remember that all life follows the same cycle.

And that cycle is especially obvious in the case of plants.

“It’s why we have annual, biannual, and perennial plants,” says McIntosh-Shetter. “When a plant has moved on, return it to the earth by way of composting it or burying it in your yard. Doing this will keep the good vibes and memories going of your departed plant.”

Acceptance and moving on

It’s completely normal to feel sad about the loss of a plant.

“I’ve dealt with plant loss more times than I would like to admit,” says Michelle Keldgord, co-founder of BakingHow.com. “While it’s unfortunate, I realized that something went wrong, and I need to figure out how to do better next time.”

Keldgord adds that while parting with a dead plant is rough, she gets to work thinking about how to improve her green thumb.

“I will go out and buy the same plant and a few different ones,” she says. “Some plants are just easier to work with than others, and sometimes it’s a game of trial-and-error to find what works for you.”

To prepare for the next plant death, remember that a majority of plants have short life spans. And that’s OK.

“Plants reproduce,” says McIntosh-Shetter. “And buying new plants is a wonderful way of honoring your plant loss.”

Still, new plants will never be substitutes for your lost plant baby.

“Instead, they should be viewed as an extension of the love and respect that you have for your lost plant,” adds McIntosh-Shetter.

Keep your new plants healthy

“Do your research,” says Andrew Griffith, owner of GardenFurniture.com. “It’s easy to water a plant and put it in the sun, but just how much sun and how much water is a tricky balance.”

Griffith recommends downloading a plant app that can tell you about your plant and what it needs to survive.

“I also encourage setting reminders for yourself of when to water certain plants, as I always used to forget,” he says. 

And so I will bid farewell to my once glorious money tree (Pachira aquatica, or Guiana chestnut) by composting it. In a few weeks, maybe I will buy another to keep in bright to medium indirect light. I will remember to turn it every time I water—deeply but infrequently—so it grows evenly. And together, we’ll make some new plant memories.

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