Rehab for House Plans: Techniques to Recover from Overwatering and Over-Fertilizing

As Pinterest often shows, house plants are a great way to liven up and add style to any room. From tropicals to succulents, there are many different varieties of plants to choose from, and many are perfect for the novice plant parent. For the first-time plant owner, you will probably want the low-maintenance varieties, which are easier to care for and will usually tolerate a few mistakes. However, be aware that the two most common errors of overwatering and over-fertilizing made repeatedly over time can make it harder for a plant to bounce back.

The best advice is always to follow the watering and fertilizing recommendations on the tag when you buy the plant, but in case you were a little over generous with the food and water, here is how to diagnose and treat your plants.

Did I Overwater?

Overwatering is quite possibly the leading cause of house plant death. It is an easy mistake to make, and for novice growers, it can go unnoticed until the problem has progressed too far. Since they are often located indoors, most house plants have low-water requirements, and the fact that we see them throughout our day makes it easier for us to give them more water than they need. The catch-22 is the fact that an overwatered plant looks just like a plant that is neglected and under watered. This is for good reason because in both situations the plant actually needs water.

When most people see a droopy plant, their first reaction is to water it, only causing more harm in the end. When the growing medium is allowed to stay over-saturated, the water will become stagnant, and the dissolved oxygen that is part of the water molecule will dissipate. Roots need oxygen to survive, and when the oxygen is depleted, they will die and begin to rot giving way to diseases like Pythium that thrive in such an environment. Without healthy active roots, the remaining moisture will not be taken up by the plant or evaporate quickly enough, and the plant will most likely die.

How to Treat Overwatering

The first step is to diagnose the severity of the problem. For less severe cases where overwatering only took place for a short time and the plant is still relatively healthy, the fix may be as simple as poking some aeration holes into the medium to allow the moisture to evaporate out. In this case, once the medium is dry, resume watering but only in small amounts.

Severe cases of overwatering will require more drastic measures. The best way to deal with drastic overwatering is to repot the plant with fresh potting mix. While repotting, remove any part of the root system that is visually discolored and affected. Roots that are dead or dying will be brown in color and perhaps even a bit slimy to the touch. These roots will not grow back, and by leaving them, you run the risk of developing disease that can overtake the stressed plant. Also, remove any top growth or foliage that is dead or dying. This step may include the removal of quite a lot of the top growth. The key is to focus all of the plant’s energy on the production of new growth.

At the time of transplanting I also directly apply a dose of beneficial microorganisms and liquid kelp extract to the root zone. These two products combined will help create a healthy environment for new root growth to become established more quickly. After the procedure is complete, the plant will need to be closely monitored for at least a month and watered lightly, but frequently, to avoid damaging the fresh roots. For the future, remember that the key to proper watering is to keep the soil moist but not soaking.

Did I Over-Fertilize?

House plants usually have low fertilizer requirements and on average could use a feeding every month or so. When fertilizer is readily available, and the plants are always there, it is easy to apply excessive amounts accidentally. Tell-tale signs of an over-fertilized plant will include discolored leaves that are usually losing their green pigmentation and misshaped leaf or stem growth.

How to Treat Over-Fertilizing

The first step to take for any plant that is suspected of being over-fertilized is to try and flush out any remaining fertilizer from the soil medium with water. Over-fertilizing most often results in an overabundance or buildup of fertilizer around the root zone, resulting in fertilizer lockout, imbalances, and a disruption of water uptake. By removing any residual fertilizer remnants, you can create a clean slate and start over.

Flush the medium with purified or filtered water such as RO (reverse osmosis). RO water is void of dissolved solids and will not register on an E.C. (electric conductivity) or ppm (parts per million) meter. Take an initial water E.C./ppm reading which is zero, and then flush 1 gallon of RO water through the growing medium at a time. Next, collect the last parts of the runoff through the bottom of the pot and measure the E.C./ppm again. With severe over-fertilization, the runoff reading will be rather high. Continue to flush and check the runoff solution until the E.C. readings are below 0.4 or 200 ppm.

After flushing out the residual fertilizer buildup allow the medium to become almost completely dry before watering again. Then water with RO water allowing a slight bit of runoff to help once again clear the medium. By this time, the plants are usually beginning to look healthy again and are regaining their natural green color. When it is time for the third watering after the initial flush, apply a general purpose, high-nitrogen fertilizer that is designed for vegetative growth at half or quarter the label strength. This helps to supply the medium with a small amount of nutrients that the plant is ready to utilize. For the entirety of this process, keep a close, watchful eye on how the plant is progressing, and after about the fourth watering, the plant should be recovered. Make sure to follow the fertilizer’s recommendations from this point forward.

By the way, if you have successfully managed to bring back overwatered or over-fertilized back from the brink of death, give yourself a pat on the back. You are no longer a novice.

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