Can your sickly houseplant be revived? Here’s how to tell and what to do.

It happens to all of us at one time or another. We look at a favorite houseplant and notice all the leaves seem dead. Uh-oh. Usually this happens when a plant is grown outdoors all summer and then is taken inside. Or, it happens when you come back from a vacation. What to do?

My first step in such a situation is to determine if the plant is still alive and thus savable. I knock off all the dead leaves to see if there are any that still cling to it. Do these look like they might revive?

Then I check the soil to see if it is dry or if the plant is drowning. If it is dry, I water it to see if those clingy leaves can come back to life. If they do, I leave the plant alone for a few days to photosynthesize and help revive the plant.

If the soil is really damp, then the plant probably “drowned.” There is little you can do except hold off watering and making sure there is adequate drainage. Maybe a few of those remaining leaves will perk up and lead the rest of the plant to recovery.

If none of the leaves are alive, I snap a tip branch, or at least attempt to. If it doesn’t snap off there is hope the plant is still viable. I scratch a bit of bark off a branch to see if there is green underneath. If I don’t find any, I move further down the branch or find a new one to fool with. Lots of snapping and no green showing? Time to decide if the pot (and possibly the soil in it) is worth keeping after you toss the plant.

If you do find green growth under the bark, so to speak, your plant is probably salvageable. The science is pretty easy to understand. The plant will have to take up nutrients from the soil in order to build new leaves. Give it some indirect light. There will be a limited amount of photosynthesis which will produce the energy the plant needs.

The plant drips out root exudates and the “poop loop” of the soil food web begins to operate. The bacteria and fungi that use the exudates for carbon are eaten by nematodes and protozoa which “poop out” what they don’t need. This is plant food in useable form, and the plant takes it up.


The rhizophagy cycle also goes into high gear. Some of the attracted bacteria move into the roots of the plant, fixing nitrogen and causing root hairs to form which are very thin-walled, making it easier for nutrients to move into the plant.

If the reviving plant is large or if it has lots and lots of bare branches except for a few leaves at the tips, then after these leaves do their thing for a few days to ensure some exudate production, trim the whole thing back. New leaves will appear and your plant will be much better off for the haircut. Pretty soon, a plant that is barely surviving operates as it should, growing new leaves and growth tips.

Of course, the trick is to prevent your plants from drying out in the first place. When you move a plant from outdoors to indoors, make the adjustment to the warmer indoor temperatures gradually. Move it first to a cool room or the garage and let it acclimate. This is sort of the reverse of hardening off. It should take a week or so and your plant should do fine.

If your plant was in bad shape because your house sitter neglected his or her duties, well, there is a remedy for that too. Obviously, leaving explicit instructions will help. So will an occasional text asking how the plants are doing!

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Alaska Botanical Gardens: Check out the events and classes at On Nov. 25, all members are invited to preview and experience Anchorage’s best light display for free! You can join now before the event.

Thrips: ‘Tis the season. Cover soil with newspaper. Lighten up on watering.

Flies on windowsills: These flies sneak in creaks, live in the walls and in the spring go back out and lay eggs in worms! They are really harmless.

Snow: I told you to get a snow “stick” to knock heavy snow off hanging branches and bushes. If you didn’t, now you know. Go get something for the next storm.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.