Can I Save This Plant?

Can I Save This Plant?

You’re going through your normal plant care routine when you spot a yellow leaf. On closer inspection, this plant has definitely seen better days, and you’re starting to get concerned. You really like this one and you’re not ready to give up, but you’re not positive you can save it. Do you fight the good fight or let it fade into the aether? 

This is never a fun scenario to encounter as a plant parent, no matter how much time you have under your green belt. However, signs of death don’t always mean dead, and it’s up to you to determine whether this plant is worth the effort it needs in order to come back to life. 

How much effort that is will depend on the extent of the problem, which can be the hard part to figure out. There are always things you can do to try and give your plant its best chances, but effort does not guarantee success, in life nor in plant treatment. Throwing a plant away may sting, but it’s a totally acceptable answer if you don’t think it’s worth the work. It’s all your call at the end of the day. 

This post will give you actionable tools to help answer this tough question with confidence whenever it presents itself. These are four key factors I lean on to help me decide whether I want to put in effort or call time of death and move on. 

  1. First-glance visual inspection

Estimate what percentage of your plant is dying. Is it 10%? 50%? 90%? This may seem obvious, but the lower the percentage the better. 

Are the dying leaves turning yellow or brown while they’re dying? Or are they just wilty? The more the plant has its original color, the better. Green and wilty is a sign of underwatering, while yellow/brown and dying could be a sign of either under or over watering, which we can clear up in a few more steps.

Onto pests…is there anything bug-like visible on the leaves or stems that looks like it shouldn’t be there? Here are some photos of common pests to look for:


Spider mites


If you see any of these or something close, how bad is the infestation? Is it in a focused area, spotted randomly, or is the whole plant engulfed? The treatment is to completely clean off all visible pests from the surface of the plant using some kind of topical liquid that kills them, so obviously, less pests means less effort and your plant’s chances of life are higher.

If you see pests and are short on time, go ahead and skip to step 3.


  1. Physically feel your plant

Touch the dying leaves and stems. Are they mushy and slimy, or crispy and dry? Feel the soil next. Is it so dry it feels almost like dust, or does it feel soggy or muddy? 

We’d prefer the results to lean dry and crispy here, indicating that the plant is thirsty and may just need a really thorough drink of water to perk up again - easy.

If signs point to mushy, slimy or soggy, however, the diagnosis leans much harsher. These are signs of root rot, which is one of the more difficult things to bring a plant back from. This leads to the next step…


  1. Inspect the roots

Looking at and feeling the roots of my plant is a go-to move when I don’t have enough other information to confirm a diagnosis. 

Healthy roots are close to white in color (save from a little dirt of course), they feel firm but juicy, and form a system that’s complex, but not growing and tangling into each other like a massive, unorganized ball of yarn.

Healthy root system

Tangled, crowded roots can constrict each other and grow into themselves if they don’t have enough soil to spread out in. A rootbound plant is typically an unhappy plant, and simply requires a gentle untangling and a move to a larger pot with more soil. 

Rootbound plant

Tan or brown, crispy, “empty” feeling roots confirm underwatering. Give her a good drank, consider watering a bit more at a time, and be grateful that your solution was this simple!

If any part of the roots are dark brown or black, mushy, slimy, and/or smelly, this confirms root rot, and I’m sorry if the evidence is pointing you here. This is a rough one. If the affected roots aren’t cut away, the rot will spread to healthy roots and continue to kill the plant.

This means that all the soil needs to be removed so you can see all the affected roots, and then everything affected need to be cut away before you repot with new soil in a clean pot. And even then, it’s not guaranteed that your plant will be its thriving self again, depending on how much of the root system you had to remove. Below is an example of what I’d consider a terminal case of root rot to give you an idea of what to look for.

Extreme root rot

The roots are also where you can see how bad a pest infestation really is. If there are mealybugs or signs of eggs in the roots, no matter what you do on the surface, the pests will keep coming back. Unfortunately, this means that all the soil has to be removed, and all affected areas need to be thoroughly cleaned of any pests or eggs before repotting with new soil in a clean pot. Again, this doesn’t guarantee success, and might not be worth the effort to you, which is totally cool.

Mealybugs in roots

  1. Finally - Context

Think about how life has been for your plant lately. Has anything recently changed in this plant’s environment that could be causing it to panic? 

For example, I just brought home a luscious neon pothos from a greenhouse where it was getting bright, filtered light on most of the leaves for most of the day. It’s now hanging in a corner of my office, getting between moderate and bright indirect light on one side for a good part of the day. 

The amount of light in its environment decreased significantly in a short amount of time. This can cause a bit of shock to the plant, and some leaf dropping can ensue. Being aware of this, I’m mentally prepared for a few unhappy vines that toss some leaves in protest. No reason to panic yet - for now, she’s likely just adjusting (rather dramatically) to her new home.

This leads to another important piece of context.

How long do you think the issue has been going on? If it’s a new problem, the better your chances are of making it go away. If you think it’s a problem that’s been left unaddressed for a while, that will make a comeback more challenging. 

Also, it’s important to know your plant. Some plants have dormant seasons where they drop all of their leaves and do nothing for months, but will sprout new growth in the Spring like nothing ever happened. Other plants tend to kill off their oldest leaves when new ones are growing to conserve energy. Doing a bit of research can go a long way in determining when to chill out or jump into action.

This is by no means an exhaustive list or treatment plan for every potential problem that your plant might encounter. These are key things that I factor in when I see a plant with a problem, and sometimes I don’t even go through all of them before I decide what to do. You may have gotten halfway through the first pest sentence when you decided to take your plant on a walk to the trash.

The really cool thing about this is that there are no rules, and at any point you can decide whether a plant is worth the attempt or if you’d rather toss it and move on with your life. This is simply a list of actionable tools to help you make that decision more confidently on your own. 

If you’re at this point, are ready to put in the effort, but want a little guidance - Slow Green Death is here. Reach out over on the the Services page to find out how we can help. 


May the odds be ever in your favor, and may all your plants’ deaths be Slow and Green.


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