6 Common Houseplant Care Mistakes You're Probably Making, And How to Avoid Them

These houseplant care mistakes are the fastest way to kill your plants, according to experts.

Shelf with houseplants

Jacob Fox

Houseplants calm your soul, lift your mood, and bring color and life to your home. That is, until you make a few common houseplant care mistakes and struggle to keep them alive. Watching your favorite fern turn brown, your snake plant leaves fall over, or your rubber tree drop its leaves is enough to make you give up and buy artificial plants. To help you keep your indoor garden thriving, here's what experts say are the most common reasons for unhappy houseplants, plus their best tips on how to avoid making these mistakes.

Justin Hancock is a horticulturist and brand marketing manager with Costa Farms, a family-run houseplant grower based in Florida.

Maryah Greene is a plant stylist, consultant, and owner of Greene Piece, a boutique plant service in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Emily O’Gwin is a medicinal and tropical plant gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

Mistake 1: Overwatering

The top mistake houseplant owners make is going overboard with watering. According to Justin Hancock, a horticulturist with Costa Farms, a family-run houseplant grower in Florida, most people overwater because watering a plant is a way to give it attention. So essentially, “people give their plants too much love,” he says. We mean well, watering our plants every time we walk by them. But the truth is most houseplants need less water than we realize.


To avoid killing your plants with too much love...er, water, check your plant's moisture levels before you grab your watering can. The easiest way to do this is to stick your finger in the soil. If the top inch feels dry, water the plant, advises Maryah Greene who owns Greene Piece, a boutique plant service in Brooklyn, N.Y. Or you can use a moisture meter if you won't want to get your fingers dirty.

Another way to see if your plant needs water is to just pick up the whole pot, says Emily O’Gwin, a gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington D.C. “If it’s really, really heavy, your plant is probably too wet.”

Set up a watering schedule and stick to it, Greene adds. “Don’t water on whim. Sticking to a schedule is key to giving your plants the right amount of water.”

Mistake 2: Wrong Light

All three experts agree that after overwatering, giving plants the wrong amount of light is the second most common mistake. “Think about the light you have before you bring the plant into your house,” O’Gwin says. “Once you get the plant in there, you cannot move the sun.”


“Pick the right plant for your space,” Greene says. “If you want a plant for your dining room table, take the time to figure out how much light your table gets. Then pick a plant that works in that light.”

To determine how much natural light a room gets, pay attention to what direction your windows face, O’Gwin says. South-facing windows get direct sunlight for almost the entire day, which may be too much brightness for a shade-lover like a heartleaf philodendron but is ideal for an aloe plant. North-facing windows generally won’t get any direct light, while western-facing windows will get steady, indirect light all day.

Mistake 3: Too Much Fertilizer

Much like water, many people have the best of intentions when giving their plants too much fertilizer. But many fertilizers are salts, which can burn the plant’s roots. “I think we are so obsessed with growth and productivity that if our plant isn’t pushing out a new leaf, we think something's wrong with it,” Greene says.

We’re especially bad about overfeeding houseplants in the winter, Greene says, when they are growing more slowly or may even be dormant, depending on the species. “A lot of plants want to rest so they can shoot out new leaves in the spring and summer,” Greene says.


Less is more when it comes to fertilizing houseplants. Most houseplants are tropicals that grow more slowly indoors than they would in their natural environment. That means they don't need as many nutrients to fuel their slower growth in your house as they would need out in the wild. Plants in low-light environments especially need very little fertilizer because they grow so slowly.

For houseplants that get more light, feed them monthly during their growing season, which is early spring to late summer for most types of indoor plants. Always follow package directions for the quantity to use.

Mistake 4: Letting a Plant Get Rootbound

“There's a myth out there with a lot of plants that they like to be rebound,” Hancock says. We’re looking at you, peace lily. The truth is that while these plants will tolerate being rootbound, they don’t prefer it. That's because a rootbound plant is basically a starving plant. Very little soil space means very little nutrition or access to water.


“Your plant will be much happier, it will grow faster, and it will grow better if you repot when it becomes rootbound," says Hancock. How do you know when a plant needs to be repotted in a larger container? ‘My general guide is if you slip the plant out of its pot and you see 75% roots/25% soil, you’re at the tipping point and you need to repot,” he says.

Mistake 5: Incorrect Potting Mix

The wrong potting mix can cause your plant to struggle. “There are lots of different types of potting media, and you have to choose the right one for your plant,” O’Gwin says. She points out that plants often come from a nursery in a potting mix that was great for a commercial greenhouse but is not great for homes.

Hancock says to beware of coarse potting mixes with lots of bark chips and perlite. “These chunky potting mixes are really popular with tropical plant enthusiasts right now,” he says. These soil mixes imitate the native soil of tropical plants, which is often thin on nutrients and doesn’t hold water well. The problem is that a home environment is a world apart from a tropical plant’s native home. “Chunky mixes have a lot of air spaces, which means a plant’s roots are going to dry out a lot faster,” Hancock says. “You will need to water a plant a lot more if it’s in a chunky mix.”  


"If you tend to be an overwaterer, then a chunky mix might be perfect for you,” Hancock says, but otherwise recommends using a general-purpose potting mix. “As long as you water properly, you’ll be fine," he adds. And if you are growing a type of indoor plant that needs a more specialized media, such as orchids or succulents, use a mix that is designed for these plants. Whatever plant you are growing, O'Gwin recommends you consider repotting it when you buy it rather than keeping it in the mix it came in.

Mistake 6: Not Knowing Your Plant Personality

There’s a psychological component to houseplant success: Know thyself. “A lot of people don't think about their own temperament when they're choosing a plant,” O’Gwin says. “If you're the type of person who wants to nurture your plants, get a maidenhair fern that needs your attention daily,” O’Gwin says. “If you just want a bit of green for a dark corner in your house and you only want to water plants a few minutes a month, get a snake plant.”


Before you bring a plant home, be honest about how much attention you want to give your plants. For example, if you don’t have the time or patience for a houseplant that is a diva, don’t buy it, O’Gwin advises. “Plants are supposed to make you happy, not stress you out,” she says. “Pick plants with care needs that fit your personality and your schedule, and you’ll be more successful with them.”

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