8 Actually Bad Plant Care Habits That Are Killing Your Plants

Dying plant

Octavian Lazer/ iPhoto

Sometimes, good intentions lead to bad results. That is true in everything, even for plant lovers. There is a lot of advice out there about how to best care for your potted and planted favorites, and some of it actually harms them instead. Let’s sort through some basic “tips” that are actually terrible.

1. Have patience

When you bring a new plant home, it has to adjust, says expert Lindsay Pangborn of the plant site Bloomscape. “It’s going through an extreme change in environment,” she says. “This change causes the plant to go into shock, which means it ‘pauses’ all of its systems. The plant has gone into lockdown mode in order to conserve all of its energy until it figures out its new environment.”

This process slows growth and can cause some leaves to fall out. Pangborn says plant lovers should just be patient. “Don’t worry and provide additional stress to the plant by trying to “fix” it with excessive watering, fertilizing, or continuing to move it around. Just give it water only as needed, and leave it alone to settle in. Soon enough, it will perk up and thrive again!”

2. Rocks don’t rock

Many people add a layer of rocks to the bottom of their pots, thinking it will improve drainage. This is not the case, says Florida-based expert David Dekevich (pvplantguy on Instagram and TikTok). He points to an explanatory TikTok video from Andy Matheson on this fallacy. It’s all about science: Normally, water from rain or hand watering seeps down through the soil and the excess drains out through holes in the bottom of the pot. When you add rocks or another layer in that soil, water instead moves sideways, saturating the roots and possibly rotting the plant. This layer doesn’t have to be rocks. Anything that is different, even a different type of potting soil layered at the bottom for drainage, will cause water to behave in this manner and threaten the plant. 

3. Water isn’t always the way

Plant caretakers rely on watering a lot, since it is—if you are doing the bare minimum—the only thing you have to do to keep your plant alive. So when someone sees their plant looking under the weather, often the natural instinct is to add water. There is a better way, says Pangborn. “If you notice a declining plant, first check the soil with your finger, or lift up the pot to see if it is heavy with water. If it is still wet, do not water! Check the plant for other issues, such as low light, exposure to extreme temperatures, and pest or disease infestations.”

Rocks in plants
Nris Xisr Phakdi / EyeEm

4. Water well when you do

Just as some plant owners overwater, others hold back on the drink, thinking they are actually warding off root rot or other calamities. If the plant is getting crisp and shriveling, you are likely underwatering. If that is the case, Pangborn suggests getting rid of the crisp leaves and giving it a bath called the bottom-soaking method. For this, fill a sink or tub with 2-4 inches of water. Set the plant in the water for 30-60 minutes. If the pot feels heavier after this time, drain the tub or sink and then let the plant rest again to drain out some of the water. “Sometimes the roots do not get enough water when watering the top of the soil; I do this with my plants every 4 weeks,” Pangborn says.

5. Staying trim

If you own orchids, you probably remove the blooms once they have lived their life and wait for the next round. Dekevich says that won’t give you the best blooms next time. Trimming the plant all the way back a couple of nodes, or the “bumps,” on the spike (stem) will give you new blooms faster, but they will be small. Trim it back to the first node on the spike and you get larger blooms, but it will take longer. In any case, leaving the plant as is after flowering won’t result in a robust orchid.

6. Tight fit

A cute pot might look great in your living room, but soon, the plant in it might not look as good. Leaving your plant in the same pot for a long time can harm and eventually kill it. Under the dirt’s surface, the plant can become root-bound as its root system outgrows the pot it’s in, and that often moves the soil to root ration out of balance. Panghorn says, “A good indication you need to repot your plant is when you see roots growing out of the drainage holes or above the soil line.” It’s time to repot in a larger vessel and maybe get a new plant to put in the smaller pot.

Plant light
Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision

7. Letting the sun shine in

It is a common belief that plants need to be in the sun, on a windowsill or on the patio. Knowing exactly how much light your particular plant needs is key to its health. “Some plants that thrive in bright, indirect light can be scorched and start to burn in harsh direct sunshine,” says Pangborn. If your plant isn’t doing well in full sun, find a new spot for it or place a sheer curtain over the window and move the plant back a couple of feet. 

8. Liquids matter

As a final note on watering, know that not just any water will always do. Most plant owners fill up a watering can from the tap and go about their business. Tap water often has fluoride, chlorine and salt, which can damage some indoor plants. And any liquid other than water is a bad idea. Some people are tempted to dump the last bit of coffee or seltzer into their pots—don’t do this. It might not kill the plant when done once, but done continually it may. Just stick with water, either with or without water-soluble additives. 

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  1. Missouri Botanical Garden. "How to Water Indoor Plants." Web.