5 questions to ask before you give up on a sad houseplant

Decluttering inanimate stuff has always been easy for me. That old scratchy but unique sweater I wore in the early 2000s? Donated. The dried rose I got from a charity bike ride? Composted. Vintage but rickety tools we inherited from my dad-in-law? Recycling bin.

But as a professional gardener, letting go of houseplants has always been torturous. Once, I rigged up a whole system to regrow a two-inch cutting of a schefflera after my cat used its container as a toilet. Years later, I hung onto a sad, bug-infested African violet because the friend who gave it to me died of cancer. In both cases, I felt guilty about my failures and confused about the plant’s future.

Since then, I’ve realized some questions are key in deciding the fate of a little green friend.

1. How sick is the plant?

Take a close look. How many leaves are brown, or branches black or stems mushy? Does it look like it belongs in a haunted house? If the plant is mostly green, you may be able to cut off the dead material, switch the light or change the soil to save it. Environmental conditions are relatively easy to improve.

Pests and diseases are trickier. Suzanne Wainwright-Evans of Buglady Consulting says some pests, such as spider mites and aphids, can potentially be managed by wiping, pruning or spraying with water. But thrips, mealybugs and scale are harder. They can multiply quickly and/or hide easily. Diseases may be the toughest to solve. “Once you start getting into diseases, there are very few products to treat with,” Wainwright-Evans says. “And especially any root diseases, which are often misdiagnosed. If the plant has a disease, I’d probably pitch it.”

Overall, if you have an ailing plant which, with a new light, water or soil situation, has lifted its leaves or sprouted new growth, keep it. If you’ve switched those conditions and more than half the plant is dying or dead, toss it.


2. Do you realistically have the time and knowledge to nurse it back to health?

There’s a lot of plant information online but you’ll need to wade through muck to find accurate advice. Then, even if you track down proper treatment methods, you may not have the budget to apply them. Bug sprays, grow lights and humidifiers can be expensive. What’s more, you may not have the time to devote to the plant’s care.

Ask yourself if the plant is worth your energy. The answer may actually be yes, like with my cat-abused schefflera. (It’s now two feet tall.) Or if you adore the plant but don’t have time, you can compost the sick specimen and buy a replacement. If you don’t have strong feelings either way, part ways and enjoy the freedom of having one less thing to care about.

3. Is it a high-maintenance plant anyway?

Some plants are easier to bring back from the dead than others. If you have a wilted peace lily with several brown leaves, a generous watering should perk it up. But if you have a lemon tree whose main stem is rotted, it probably won’t recover, especially if you live in the northern United States.

Tovah Martin, author of “The Unexpected Houseplant,” says citrus, ficus, hibiscus, gardenias and some orchids are challenging. Many ferns, such as Boston ferns, are difficult, too. But if you have a pothos, snake plant or peperomia, you can switch its conditions and the plant will forgive you. Do a little research before deciding.

4. Are you hanging on because of its history?

How we obtain a houseplant plays a big role in our feelings about it. If you picked up a prayer plant from the grocery store for 10 bucks, you won’t endure much loss. But if, like me, your first roommates gifted you a hoya that lived happily for 18 years while you got married, switched jobs, bought a house and had kids, you’ll feel anguish when one day the cat chews it to a nub (yes, naughty cat again). After doing everything short of standing on your head and spinning around to revive it, you’ll have to admit it’s about the memories the plant represents, not the actual plant. Buy a replacement and enjoy the symbolism.

What if you spent a bunch of money on a plant? Like ordered a rare orchid online with a hundred-dollar price tag? If it’s not doing well, you may kick yourself for impulse buying. “The greater the amount of money you invest in the plant, the greater the heartbreak,” Martin says. “If I really want a plant and it’s beginning to not look great, what I often do is take a cutting or divide off a little section that’s still looking good and pot that separately.” If you can’t do that, chuck it and pretend the splurge never happened.

5. Does it ‘spark joy’ in your life?

If you’re like me, you may have bought a houseplant (or six) during the pandemic that you no longer want. They may be healthy, but you yearn to simplify your life. So, put on your Marie Kondo hat and ask if the plant sparks joy for you. Do you enjoy having it around? Would you miss it if it were gone?

Martin recommends digging into the feelings that pop up at the sight of the plant. “Does your houseplant make you feel happy? Or when you walk by a sickly or diseased plant, does it make you feel bad? That’s not healthy for you. It’s not fair for you. A lot of people get saddled with a plant that someone gave them but they don’t treasure and they feel terribly guilty. So just regift it.”

A houseplant may not be an old sweater, but, as Kondo says, you can thank it for the joy it gave you at the time. Then, after you say goodbye, you’ll feel lighter and ready to move on. And if you keep it, you’ll feel peaceful knowing you’re holding on not out of guilt or obligation, but because it makes you happy. And isn’t that what having houseplants is all about?

Karen Hugg is an ornamental horticulturalist and the author of “Leaf Your Troubles Behind: How to Destress and Grow Happiness Through Plants.”