Why is My Houseplant Brown? And Other Common Annoyances

Dying Houseplant

Why is My Houseplant Brown?  And Other Common Annoyances

Dying Leaves
Yellowing Leaves
Drooping Leaves
Sticky Residue

“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.”
      Erma Bombeck

Even the most experienced horticulturist started with a few dead houseplants. The way I see it, killing a houseplant is a coming-of-age experience, a catalyst for that “what-did-I-do-wrong” moment that all plant lovers have had. It makes us want to be better plant caretakers, to learn more and to exercise more discipline. I’m happy to report that it’s been a while since I’ve killed a houseplant, but I’ve also been practising for a long time. I invite you to learn from my mistakes with these tips for keeping your plants alive.

Dying Leaves

When leaves start browning, you know something isn’t right. Thankfully, this situation isn’t the end of the world. The cause is usually easy to pinpoint when you know what to look for.

Have you watered your plant enough? Probably the least shocking cause, under-watering is the easiest way to kill a plant. Some plants only need a day of neglect before starting to look sad. Water is essential for keeping your plant alive, and when there isn’t enough, the leaves are the first things to go. If your soil is dry, just add water.

Have you watered your plant too much? We all need water to survive, but no one wants to live in a swimming pool. Over-watering your plant can cause rotting of the root system, which seriously interferes with the plant’s ability to metabolize soil nutrients. If the soil seems very damp or muddy, give it some time to dry out a little and see how it goes.

Is the air in your home dry? Here in Alberta, this is an especially common issue in the winter. If you’ve noticed the need to reach for the hand cream more often lately, your plant may also be suffering from dry air. Try increasing the humidity by spritzing the plant daily, or putting a layer of pebbles and water in the drip tray beneath the plant pot.

Are you using too much fertilizer? Fertilizer helps maintain the nutrients in the soil, but it can also be high in natural salts that can burn plant roots like a garden slug. If you notice a white residue inside the pot and your leaves are looking worse for wear, save your plant with a generous watering.

Yellowing Leaves

While some plant leaves simply turn yellow on their way to turning brown, yellowing can also be a warning sign for other kinds of ailments.

Is the temperature okay? A tropical plant may not be living its best life seated next to a drafty window at the height of our Alberta winters. Keep plants looking their greenest by keeping them in a climate that’s as similar as possible to their native environment.

Have any pests moved in? Yellow leaves combined with other damage may be an indicator that you’ve got some unwanted company in your plant pot. Spider mites leave behind small, pinprick-like holes and mealybugs leave behind a waxy, whitish residue. If you have reason to believe that pests are afoot, prune off the affected areas, rinse your plant with water in a spray bottle and apply an insecticidal soap.

Is your plant getting enough light? Especially during these colder months, it can be hard for your plant to get enough sun. If you don’t have very many windows, a sun lamp can help your plants get the light they need. Plants near windows should be rotated from time to time to make sure all the leaves get their chance to photosynthesize.

Dig in with Alberta’s Best Gardening Blog for more great insights on houseplant care!

Drooping Leaves

Wilting is another common issue, and is often caused by the same problems that cause leaves to change colour. If your plants are looking wilted, check for soil that’s too wet or too dry and examine the amount of light your plant is getting.

Sticky Residue

I’m not talking about sap, either. I’m referring to a mysterious stickiness that seems to appear out of the blue on your houseplants. The good news is, it can be fixed. The bad news is that it’s caused by a pretty gross pest.

Does your plant have a scale infestation? These little suckers leech onto the undersides of plant leaves and leave behind that sticky substance. They have a hard shell and look like dark bumps glued onto the leaves. You can use neem oil, or any similar horticultural oil, to gently get rid of them. Gentle to your plant, that is. Use lukewarm water to clean off the stickiness.


It’s gross in your refrigerator, and downright horrifying in your beloved plant.

Did you find grey mold on your plant leaves? Grey mold is a symptom of a fungal disease and often happens when dead plant matter starts to decompose on a live plant, in damp or humid conditions. Keep the moisture content of your soil in check and make sure to clip off those deadheads promptly.

Did you find white mold on your plant’s soil? Soil is mostly organic matter, and leaving it too damp will eventually grow a different kind of indoor garden than you were going for. Monitoring soil moisture is the key. This issue sometimes develops due to a drainage problem. Make sure your pots have holes on the bottom and your soil isn’t too compacted.

If you encounter any of these issues, don’t fret. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad plant parent. With this troubleshooting guide, your plants will be back to their original glory before you know it.


Read through our Growing Guides for tips to enrich your garden! 

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