Brown Leaves — 5 Reasons Your Indoor Plant is Looking Gloomy

The issue of browning leaves is probably the most common topic that troubles both our customers and occasionally us too; it’s a tricky problem to diagnose if you’re new to indoor gardening because there are quite a few causes.

To help you figure out why your plant pal is turning a wee bit crispy, we’ve put together some of the most common causes, and how to combat them. Whether the plant that’s worrying you is a juicy succulent or a delicate tropical species, we hope this blog post will help you find an explanation, and get it on the path to recovery.

If the plant in question is an air plant or Tillandsia, you might find our previous post on how best to water this family of plants helpful.

With all the causes outlined below, once you’ve sorted the problem, you can carefully trim off any brown patches with scissors without causing any harm – this is usually better than pulling off entire leaves, which can cause further damage, and leave the plant susceptible to disease.

01 It's Just Plain Thirsty

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Naturally, your plant will start to dry out if it doesn’t have enough moisture, particularly in warmer months of the year. This is likely if you think you might be the forgetful sort of plant owner who waters very sporadically (or not at all). Look out for curling leaves as another symptom of under-watering. Check the soil is bone dry, give yourself a slap on the wrist, and start to water that plant pronto.

For plants that want lots of humidity (typically thinner-leaved species which are native to the rainforest), try increasing humidity by placing the pot on a layer of gravel or small stones for excess water to act as a reservoir without directly touching the roots.

You can also mist these plants’ leaves regularly with room temperature water to keep them hydrated. To be honest, though, this will only make a significant difference if you have the time and will to do so at least once a day.

If you’re unsure when to water, as a rule we suggest sticking your finger in the top 5cm of compost, and only watering once the soil is completely dry.

02 You're Drowning the Thing

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We know you mean well. But overwatering is, in our experience, the biggest issue with indoor plant lovers. It can often cause confusion, because the damage that this causes roots can cause the plant to shrivel and droop, making it look thirsty.

This is common in desert plants such as cacti and succulents (it recently happened to one of our favourite aloe vera plants which we realised we were both watering), or potted plants that don’t have adequate drainage. Check if the plant is sitting in water, or the soil is soppy, pour away any excess and stop watering until the soil is dry again. Do some research to check how much water the plant actually needs, and re-think your watering habits.  

A note before we go any further – erratic, inconsistent or uneven watering habits can be another cause of brown leaf tips. As can over fertilising, or a build up of bacteria in the soil. If you notice dry leaf spots, before taking drastic action, first stop and think about the plant in question. Perhaps do a little research into the plant’s specific needs, and think about where you’re most likely going wrong.

03 Too Much Sunlight 

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Firstly, we envy you, for this isn't a problem Rose and I have experienced often in England. But if your home is bathed in lots of direct sunlight, more delicate tropical species will prefer a shady corner to a windowsill. 

Check your plant isn’t getting too much light or heat than it needs. If it’s a tropical, luscious plant like a calathea or a fern, it will most likely thrive with humidity and indirect light, so a bright windowsill or spot next to a radiator will quickly dry it out. Try moving the plant to a shadier spot, and make sure the plant is getting enough water.

04 The Dreaded Pests!

Not the mealy bugs! The thought alone is enough to send a shiver down our spines, particularly since Rose and I had to dispose of a wonderful multicoloured cactus we picked up during our research which, unbeknown to us, had slowly been taken over by the little cotton wool-looking bugs. Brown patches in the centre of leaves could indicate damage from mealy bugs, aphids or spidermites. 

Luckily, most pests found indoors are easy to spot and can be carefully removed with a solution of soapy water. Make sure to check the roots of the plant too, as some pests can lay their eggs deep within the soil (more shivers) and the problem won't be solved unless you get rid of these too. If you think the plant is sadly beyond saving, make sure to isolate it quickly and dispose of it before it can spread to any other plants, which should be checked too.      

05 Ageing

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Just like any living organism, your plants will replenish themselves as they develop, growing new leaves and eventually shedding older ones to conserve energy. Generally, new growth will occur higher up or within the middle of the plant. Older leaves will work themselves outwards, eventually shrivelling and dying away. This is common in plants such as leafy succulents, air plants, philodendron and dracaena species.

If you think this is the cause, and the brown leaves are simply at the end of their growth, then simply give these leaves a prune by gently tweaking them off. Dead leaves should come away easily, so if the leaf shows resistance it might be best to stop and reconsider the cause of the problem.

Do you have a problem with brown leaves which you can't solve? Please comment below and we will try our best to help you find the cause.

Photography by Erika Raxworthy