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When is it time to say goodbye to a plant?

Posted by Ema Hegberg on

A calathea ornata that has one curling and one yellowing leaf.

How do you know when it’s time to say goodbye to a plant? We got this question lately and it’s a good one. I think just about anyone who has dabbled in plant care some has come to a point with one of their plants where it’s not clear what the next right step is. Is this plant on death’s doorstep or is it salvageable?  

It can be a tough call to make.  

Here are some ideas to help you figure out what’s up with your plant that looks less than lively. 

 

First of all, is your plant 100% brown or black, with no leaves or flowers in sight? Does it smell funny or look slimy? 

If yes, we regret to inform you that your plant is dead. You may begin to plan the funeral. 

If no, there’s hope yet. Keep reading!

 Three houseplants—two succulents and one basil plant—in small ceramic containers on a windowsill.

Is it cold and dry outside? 

 If it’s fall or winter and you’re asking yourself “Is my plant dead?!”—hang tight. Many house plants go into a period of dormancy during this time, just like a lot of the plants outside. Even if you keep your house or apartment at a balmy 75° F in the winter, your house plant is still keenly aware of the seasonal shifts happening beyond your windowsill. 

 One thing is for sure: this is not the time to be repotting your plants! Even if you’re worried about your plant, let it stay in its current container until spring comes. If your plant is dormant, it won’t like being disturb and may not take to its next container well. So don’t risk it. 

Plants can also go into a period of dormancy after a traumatic event. Did you just move? Did you go away for two weeks and forget to ask someone to check in on your plant? Did your cat knock your plant over and it had to lay on the cold kitchen floor for hours, unsure you would ever swoop in to save it? These things happen. If your plant was recently under some stress it may just be taking time to lay low (good advice, we say).  

A dormant plant might look a whole lot like a dying plant. The leaves might be fading and dropping off. Your plant might look pretty sad. Stay calm. 

 A somewhat brown, scraggly looking succulent in a white container.

What to do if your plant isn’t looking so great.

If your plant isn’t looking good, this might be the time to double check that you’re caring for it properly. We have little care cards for most of the plants we carry on our website. You can also seek out info about how best to meet your plants needs on one of the many plant blogs and YouTube channels, or get a house plant care book out from the library. Double check that you’ve been doing everything you can to give your plant a good life. If you’re not, forgive yourself and shift your habits. 

If you can, take a look at your plant’s roots. Do the roots look healthy? Are they thick and fleshy? Or are they pale and stringy? This will give you an idea of your plant’s health status. If the plants are tightly woven together and protruding from the pot, your plant might be root bound and need a bigger container. 

Yellow and brown leaves aren’t going to turn green again (or whatever color the leaves originally were). If your plant has some faded leaves, gently snip those off. 

If you’ve figured out that your plant is dormant, great! Let it chill until the seasons turn. When spring comes, your plant may need a different watering schedule or some new nutrients. If it doesn’t start to perk up perhaps also assess if your plant needs a larger container, a container that drains better, or a new spot for better light. You might also consider repotting the plant back into the pot it’s already been in, if the size is right, but with some new soil and/or compost. 

 

“Cool, but I really think it’s dying.”

If you really think your plant is dying, and it’s winter, please don’t do anything too hasty. Again, read up on how best to care for your plant. If you repot it in the spring and see no improvement by the summer, it may be time to say au revoir. 

If you really think your plant is dying, you’ve made sure you’re caring for it correctly, and it’s spring or summer, try repotting it. Give it time to settle in and see how things go. 

 A green succulent in a small, terracotta pot filled with some stones, sitting on a wooden kitchen table.

Finally, ask yourself: “Why do you want to save this plant?”

This might be something to consider before you put time/energy/money into saving this plant. Why do you want to save it? Make sure that you’re invested before you get going on this project—chances are you’ll have better results this way. Ask yourself: Was this plant a gift? Do I have a sentimental attachment to it (i.e. did this plant help me get through a global pandemic)? Is it exotic and hard to replace? Did I grow this plant from seed or propagate it myself? 

If you are only looking to save this plant because you feel guilty about killing a house plant, give yourself some grace. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. Becca and I have both worked on farms, and we know that there are seedlings (sometimes whole flats of seedlings) that never make it into the ground, plants that get chomped by deer or stepped on before they can produce anything useful. It’s part of the circle of life. 

So if you’re looking at your sad little house plant and you realize it’s time to say goodbye, please don’t feel bad. Really. Give yourself time and then consider whether you want to bring another house plant into your life. We’re here for you when you’re ready. 

If you look at your plant and think, “I really love this plant and I want to keep this plant specifically in my life,” we wish you all the very best! Follow our tips above and reach out to us with questions!

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