How to Care for Houseplants and Troubleshoot Problems

Light and Temperature

  • Some houseplants tolerate lower light than others, but almost all do best in a bright window or room. Don’t allow the plants to touch window glass. In summer, the plants touching glass could get scorched or sun burned. In winter, the plants could be damaged by the cold.
  • If plant growth is weak, small or scraggly, it usually means too little light. Trim off weak growth and move the plant closer to a window or other light source. Flowering plants usually need more light than those that don’t bloom.
  • Houseplants are susceptible to damage from hot and cold temperatures. When buying houseplants in winter, protect them from cold temperatures by using paper sleeves or they will suffer freeze damage. In summer, protect them from excessive heat and sun, or they will get scorched or burned.
  • When moving houseplants outdoors in summer, place them in a shady area for a few days to get them acclimated to the brighter light. Placing them in full sun right from the house will cause them to burn.

Water and Humidity

  • Most houseplants can have soil that is allowed to go dry between waterings. If the top inch of soil feels dry, water the plant. Some houseplants prefer soil that is evenly moist, but not wet. Water thoroughly, making sure it runs freely from the bottom of the pot. Dump what collects in a saucer when watering after about an hour.
  • If water seems to gush from the pot, it could be one of two problems. The soil could be overly dry and unable to absorb the water quickly enough. The remedy is to place the pot in a saucer, bucket, sink, tub or other container filled with a couple of inches of water. Allow the pot’s soil to soak up the water from the bottom to the top. When the soil surface feels moist, remove the pot from the water. Or, the problem could be a root-bound pot. That means the roots have displaced the soil in the pot as the plant has grown. Transplant the plant to a larger pot, but one that is not more than two inches wider. If the new pot is too much larger than the old one, the plant will spend more energy developing roots than top growth. Use a sterile potting mix when transplanting houseplants. Don’t use soil taken from the garden because of possible insects and diseases.
  • If a plant’s leaves are yellow or brown, it usually means irregular watering or too much or too little water. More houseplants are killed by overwatering than under watering.
  • If a plant’s leaves have brown tips, that usually means the humidity is too low. Most homes are too dry in winter for tropical plants. To compensate, group pots together. Grouped plants produce higher humidity than solitary pots. Houseplants also can be placed on a bed of gravel in saucers. Add water until it is slightly below the top of the gravel. The water and gravel add humidity.
  • Some people spritz their houseplants every few days, but research seems to indicate that this practice increases humidity for just a few minutes.
  • Avoid using softened water for houseplants. Softened water contributes to a build up of salts in the soil.


  • Fertilize houseplants when they are actively growing. Hold off fertilizing in winter, when plant growth has slowed. However, flowering plants may need fertilizer no matter what the season. Use a water-soluble product formulated for houseplants and always read and follow the label directions.
  • Too much fertilizer may cause the tips of leaves to turn brown and dry out. Also, over time, a white film or crust may develop on the soil surface. This is the accumulation of fertilizer salts. Proper watering reduces or eliminates this problem.

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