Sick Houseplant
Credit: Callie Foreman

People send me photos of sick plants all the time, pleading to know the cause and cure. That's where my advanced degree in Plant Sickology from the University of Tralfamadore comes in handy. For example, take a look at this photo of a pathetic dwarf umbrella plant (Schefflera arboricola) submitted by faithful reader, Callie Foreman. She simply asks, "What am I doing wrong???"

Callie, Callie, Callie. Don't be such a negative Nancy. Consider first what you did right. You asked Grumpy – the one unimpeachable source of horticultural wisdom in our Milky Way galaxy. That means you're going to receive the correct answer.

The first thing to comes to mind when I see a houseplant with leaves dropping off green is a watering problem. In this case, it's too much water. Your dwarf umbrella plant probably came in a plastic pot you thought was ugly. So you slipped it into a pretty brass cache pot.

The plastic pot drains well because it has drainage holes in the bottom. The cache pot has no holes (which is good, because otherwise you'd ruin your floor). When you water your plant, excess water pools inside the cache pot instead of draining away. This causes root rot. Too much water and poor drainage kill more houseplants than anything else.

Can your dwarf umbrella plant be saved? Probably. What you need to do is let the top inch of soil go dry before watering. When you water, do so thoroughly so though excess water drains from the plastic pot into the sink, not the cache pot. Then return the plastic pot to the cache pot and maintain this watering regimen.


This answer has made Callie very happy. "[Grumpy] is my favorite columnist of all time in Southern Living!" she writes. Callie has exquisite taste.