Sudden Plant Death: Reasons A Houseplant Is Turning Brown And Dying

Sudden Plant Death: Reasons A Houseplant Is Turning Brown And Dying

By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Sometimes a healthy-looking plant can decline and die in a matter of a few days, even when there are no apparent signs of trouble. Although it may be too late for your plant, investigating to determine the reason for sudden plant death may save time and money in the future.

Why a Plant May Suddenly Die

There are a number of factors that can lead to the sudden dying of plants. Below are the most common.

Improper Watering

Improper watering is often the reason for sudden dying of plants. If you forgot to water for a few days, it’s possible that the roots dried up. However, the opposite is more likely, as too much water is often to blame for dying container plants.

Root rot, a result of wet, poorly drained soil, can be occurring under the surface of the soil, even if the plant looks healthy. The problem is easy to see if you remove the dead plant from the pot. While healthy roots are firm and pliable, rotted roots are mushy, with a seaweed-like appearance.

Don’t be overly ambitious with the watering can when you replace the plant. Almost all plants are healthiest if the soil is allowed to dry between watering. Water the plant deeply until it drips through the drainage hole, then let the pot drain completely before returning it to the drainage saucer. Never let the pot stand in water. Water again only if the top of the soil feels dry to the touch.

Be sure the plant is in a well-drained potting mix – not garden soil. Most importantly, never place a plant in a pot without a drainage hole. Improper drainage is a sure-fire invitation for dying container plants.


If you determine watering issues aren’t to blame for sudden plant death, look closely for signs of insects. Some common pests are difficult to spot. For example, mealybugs are indicated by cottony masses, usually on the joints or undersides of leaves.

Spider mites are too tiny to see with the bare eye, but you may notice the fine webbing they leave on the leaves. Scale is a tiny bug with a waxy outer covering.


Although it is unlikely, be sure your indoor plant hasn’t come in contact with herbicide spray or other toxic substances. Additionally, be sure the leaves haven’t been splashed with fertilizer or other chemicals.

Other Reasons a Houseplant is Turning Brown

If your houseplant is alive but the leaves are turning brown, the above reasons may apply. Additional reasons for browning of leaves include:

  • Too much (or too little) sunlight
  • Fungal diseases
  • Over-fertilizing
  • Lack of humidity

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Read more about General Houseplant Care

My Eggplants Are Drooping & Dying - What Can I Do?

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Drooping is a sign of a serious problem in eggplants (Solanum melongena), but quick action can prevent these slightly fussy plants from dying. Eggplants grow best in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 12, and they bear fruit that ranges from nearly football-sized and deep black to white fruit the size of a grape. On a warm, full-sun site, they grow 2 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide.

Fungal and Cultural Causes

While one of several fungi cause crown and root rot, improper watering and site location allow the disease to take hold. In wet areas, and in poorly drained soil and heavy clay garden beds, the fungus attacks the roots and crown area -- the area at the base of the stem where it attaches to the roots -- causing the wood to get soft and rotten. As the disease progresses, the oregano plant cannot get enough water and nutrients to its canopy through the damaged roots and crown, causing it to look wilted and dead.

Why are some of my vincas dying, but not others?

While Kathy Huber is on vacation, we're publishing online a question from the archives:

Q: I am having a problem with my deep-purple-pink-colored vincas. In May, I planted some white vincas along with the deep-purple-pink variety. Two weeks later, I noticed that the pink ones were drying up and had died, but the white ones in the same flower bed were fine.

I bought some more pink plants from a different garden shop and planted them the last week in May. Recently, these, too, are beginning to die, but the white ones are fine. Do you have any idea what could be causing this?

I planted the same plants at the other end of the flower bed and both pink and white varieties are doing fine. -- K.W., Houston

A: Many have experienced your dilemma. Vincas, or periwinkles, can be infected with a fungal disease called aerial phytophthora. The disease spreads when the fungal spores in the soil are splashed on the plants when you water or when it rains. Some varieties seem more prone to this common fungus than others.

Symptoms of aerial phytophthora include dull, gray, shriveled foliage and deterioration of the upper stems. Symptoms develop quickly - especially during rainy weather. You may detect a brown, sunken lesion where the petioles are attached to the stems. When these spots develop, the stem collapses. If rains or overwatering continues, the fungus can spread to the base of the plant and it can die.

Pull and discard (not in the compost pile) infected plants. To discourage future outbreaks, wait until the soil temperature is fairly hot to plant, perhaps early June. Mulch to prevent splash. Water the soil rather than the plants. Drip irrigation is ideal.

Vincas also may fall victim to pythium root and stem rot, characterized by lesions on stems and roots. Symptoms develop quickly, and infected plants soon die.

Why Do My Plants Keep Dying? - A Guide To Troubleshoot Your Garden

For many homeowners, gardening seems impossible. No matter what, where, or how, their plants keep dying despite their best efforts. For those of us who struggle to keep plants alive, we simply concede we don’t have the elusive "green thumb". But what if I told you the trick to a beautiful garden was more about following a few simple steps rather than having a magical touch. Whether your garden is too dry, too wet, too shady, or all the above, follow this troubleshooting guide to prevent your plants from dying yet again.

Here are the six most common reasons for why your plants keep dying:

  1. Too much or too little water
  2. Too much or too little sun
  3. Poor soil condition
  4. Wrong hardiness zone
  5. Exposure to harsh elements
  6. Disease or pest

But how do you know which is the real culprit? The first step to take is to test your garden. Figure out exactly what conditions your plants are facing when they get placed into the ground.

It Must Need More Water, Right?

Most amateur gardeners make the assumption that if their plants look bad, it must be because they aren’t getting enough water. The knee-jerk reaction is to dump loads of water on the garden and expect the plants to perk right up. But what if the plants aren’t struggling because of a lack of water? What if the plants are actually struggling because they are receiving too much water? A great way to check if plants need more water is to check the soil. Dig down a couple inches with your hand and feel if the dirt is dry or damp. If the soil is moist but the plants still look bad, you may need to consider a different cause. Read how to Properly Water Plants.

Will My Plant Grow In Minnesota?

The Twin Cities hardiness zone is 4, but depending on where you live in Minnesota that number could be higher or lower. Micro-climates also play a factor in determining the hardiness zone of a garden. Micro-climates are small isolated areas effected by nearby buildings, heat sources, etc. that can influence the temperature and frost exposure within the space. A plant with an incorrect hardiness zone won’t thrive and may die over the course of a cold and harsh winter. There's a few steps you can take to help winterize your plants , but there's no guarantee.

My Yard Is Too Shady

How much shade is too much shade? Full sun plants require 6-8+ hours or sunlight per day. A mistake many homeowners make is assuming the sun stays the same all day. Just because there is full sun at 4:00 pm doesn’t mean there was full sun at 10:00 am. To better understand the light conditions in your yard, you can make a sun table that looks something like this.

Draw a diagram of the space and observe where the shadows hit during the day. You might be saying “How am I supposed to know how many hours of sun my garden gets? I work all day!” You can make some inferences based on tree coverage, nearby structures, and the path in which the sun takes over your garden from East to West. If your yard is very shady, refer to the University of Minnesota's Best Plants for 30 Tough Sites .

Happy Dirt, Happy Plant

Unless your soil is very bad or the plants require specific conditions, quality black dirt should be sufficient for most plants. However, it’s not always known whether black dirt or compost was amended into the soil. Acidity levels can vary within the same yard too. Certain shrubs like Rhododendrons like more acidic soil while others won't perform as well with the same conditions. Learn more about the Best Type of Soil For Plants . Try visiting the USDA Web Soil Survey website to get a general idea of what soil classification your yard meets. If you've confirmed the amount of water and sun is appropriate for the plant and it still looks bad, you may want to consider getting a sample of your soil tested by the University of Minnesota Soil Testing Laboratory . Unless you have very bad soil, first rule out the other factors in the list like sun and water before investing too much into soil testing and amending.

Supportive Surroundings

The last item to test is if there are any harsh conditions or elements effecting the plants. Make a quick observation to see if any AC units or laundry dryer vents are nearby. These heat sources could be constantly blowing hot air on the plants and drying them out. Is the garden exposed to high winds? Constant winds can place a lot of stress on plants that aren’t sturdy enough. Do you have any sidewalks or driveways that get salted during winter? Too much salt can have a negative effect on many plants including shrubs.

Can I Still Save My Plant?

Once you’ve observed the conditions in your garden, you must verify that the plants within the garden are suitable. If a plant requires 8+ hours of sunlight but you’ve discovered your garden only gets 4 hours, that might be a reason why it’s not growing. If a shrub is zone 5 but your garden is exposed to direct wind, and you live in a zone 4 region, that might be a reason why it’s dead in the spring.

If you purchased the plants yourself, there should have been a tag included with all kinds of information about the plant. The provided tag and a quick Google search will reveal what soil preference, sun and water requirement, hardiness zone and other growing notes about the plant. If you don’t know what type of plants you have in the garden, there are several mobile apps that have been created to help identify plants.

At this point, it should be easy to cross reference the plant’s needs to the garden’s conditions and determine what the problem is. If a plant is planted in the right location with the correct amount of sun, water, etc. there should be little reason for it to die. However, every plant has unique diseases and pests they are vulnerable to. Without knowing the plant or the symptoms, it’s difficult to diagnose those diseases. That is when you may want to consult a landscaping company, plant nursery, or arborist. If you went through this list and STILL couldn't identify the root cause of your brown thumb, then rock gardens may be in your future.

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Citrus Root Damage from Chickens and Gardeners

Citrus tree roots don’t run very deep, only about 50cm (20”), and they have a lot of feeder roots just below the surface. Chickens love to mess up the surface of the garden, looking for things to eat, they scratch and dig very effectively, enough to severely disrupt the delicate surface roots. When this happens, the tree may show drooping leaves the next day. Yes, your chickens can kill your lemon tree, or any other citrus tree for that matter.

How to Protect Citrus Tree Roots from Chickens

Citrus trees roots can be protected from chickens scratching up the soil by placing plastic or galvanised wire mesh flat on the soil surface around the root area, and covering it with mulch so it’s not visible. The mesh can be effectively fastened in place by using weedmat or irrigation pins,

Overzealous gardeners can be equally dangerous to citrus trees. Only plant very shallow rooted plants under citrus, such as thyme for example, don’t dig around the root zone if possible, one plant added every now and then and the tree has time to recover from the root damage, a mass planting on the same day will cause too much root damage and kill the tree.

Be careful when people ask if they can ‘help’ in the garden without supervision. Ten year old Lisbon lemon tree dead, no surface roots evident – this is what happens when the area under the tree is cleared and planted up all at once with small annual flower seedlings… thanks mum.

Replacement lemon tree planted, I’ve selected a Eureka lemon this time, smaller growing tree with no thorns which produces medium-sized lemons all year round, the perfect backyard lemon tree!

What Plants Can Be Grown Under Citrus Trees?

Digging frequently around the root zone of a citrus tree is can damage the shallow roots and cause the tree to decline. The area beneath a citrus tree can be mulched, or it can be planted with shallow-rooted plants which will not compete with the tree.

Planting groundcover herbs such as thyme, oregano and marjoram under citrus trees is a good is a because these plants take up very little water and nutrients, but create a living mulch which keeps the soil beneath coll in summer.

Low growing flowering companion plants also work well, as they attract beneficial insects which will control common citrus pests such as aphids and scale by prodivind a nectart source for them. Plants from the Asteraceae (daisy) family such as calendula, pyrethrum daisy, feverfew, roman chamomile, yarrow or any ornamental daisy that attracts bees will work. So will plants from the Apiaceae (carrot, parsley, dill) family such as coriander, chervil, lovage, Queen Anne’s lace.

Other companion plants such as sweet alyssum and land cress work extremely well. Planting annual flowers which attract bees also help, and if the flowers self seed, then all teh better as no digging is required.

Even small vegetables such as lettuce will work, as most vegetables have 80% of their roots in the first 30cm of soil, but cut to harvest leaving roots in the soil. Don’t plant root crops beneath citrus as they will need to be dug out, causing too much root disturbance.

So go ahead and plant your favourite lemon, lime, orange, mandarin, grapefruit, cumquat, or whatever takes your fancy, whether it’s in a pot or in the ground. With proper care and regular feeding (at the start of spring and autumn with a balanced fertilizer), citrus trees can be productive for decades.

Other articles on citrus problems and how to fix them:

Watch the video: Dahlia Nutrient Disorders