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Root Rot Quick Fix: How to Save Your Indoor Plants

trio of healthy succulents

Your plant doesn’t inevitably have to die from rotting roots. It’s true, it’s possible to revive that houseplant! But acting quickly at the first signs of distress is imperative. So, want to know what to do if you suspect root rot? As always, we want to understand the issue before we treat it. First, we’ll identify the problem, then treat the issue, and learn about prevention. 

What is root rot and what causes it?

Root rot is a disease in which wet conditions in the plant’s soil present the opportunity for harmful fungi to thrive. Roots need air to function efficiently— so the roots rot because they’ve been deprived of oxygen from extended submersion in water. Potted houseplants are more prone to root rot than their planted counterparts since it’s harder to control moisture and water can become contained. While root rot can also be caused by other factors, the majority of root rot complications stem from overwatering. So, we’ll target exactly how to treat root rot caused by too much moisture. 

root rot in houseplant

Root Rot Diagnosis:

Initially, you’ll want to ensure that your plant’s roots are actually rotting. Eliminating any other possible issues right off the bat will help in navigating the right treatment for your plant. To figure out if your problem is actually indoor plant root rot, you may first notice outward signs like:

  • Leaf change

Keep in mind that it’s natural for older leaves to experience color change and drop, so look closer at those newer leaves. If you notice browning, yellowing, dying leaves it may be an effect of dying roots. A key indicator of root rot is wilting leaves accompanied by wet soil. 

  • Standing water

Take notice of the pot’s saucer, if there’s water left in the bottom then too much was applied at some point and your plant’s soil and roots have been drenching. There should never be standing water because soil and roots that are soaking for an extended time will get waterlogged. 

  • Root system issues

Next, slide the plant out of the pot and assess the bottom portion of the roots as they will have had the most exposure to water. So checking the roots, lookout for warning signs of rot like dark brown root color, soft texture or spongy roots, or even fuzzy moldy material coating the roots. These are all signs of damaged roots. 

Root Rot Rx:

Normal healthy plants without rot should have firm roots with light coloring (usually either beige, green, or tan). The leaves should be in good condition and the soil should be properly hydrated. Once you’ve identified that the issue is in fact root rot, it’s time to formulate a treatment plan for your houseplant. First things first:

1. Allow soil to dry out.

If you just noticed that there’s some standing water or leaf change and you aren’t sure if it’s quite yet root rot, allow the soil to air out. Over the course of 3-5 days, allow the plant’s soil to dry. Sometimes this method will work for plants that aren’t experiencing damage yet. Allowing the soil to dry is helpful because plant roots need some air to function efficiently. However, if your plant’s roots are heavily decaying, move onto the steps below immediately as it’s likely too late for drying out the soil.

2. Remove all browning leaves. 

The first step here is to try to remove any dying leaves. Make sure to separate them from the plant as close to the base as possible.

3. Remove old soil.

Next, you’re going to need to repot. To do so, you’ll first remove the plant from the current soil. Taking the plant out of the pot, delicately remove as much of the soil as possible. Try to not disturb the root system too much while brushing off moistened or clumpy soil. 

4. Cut off dead and decaying roots.

While you have the plant out of the pot, you’ll proceed by carefully trimming off rotting roots. Try to keep as much as intact as possible by getting rid of dead roots and saving healthy ones. 

5. Repot with new soil.

Next, using sterile potting soil (one that is compatible with your particular plant), repot your plant. Fresh soil will help guarantee that any bacteria or fungus that might have formed will be mostly removed. It’ll also supply nutrients that may have been depleted in the old soil and help the plant recover. 

Keep in mind that the plant is likely already stressed and vulnerable due to root rot. And depending on the level of severity, repotting may cause further stress to your plant, possibly even resulting in death. But since the plant is already in a state of decline, it’s certainly worth the shot. Further, it’s really your only shotroot rot cannot be reversed and can spread quickly, so letting it remain in its current state of decomposition will eventually kill the entire plant. 

healthy plant root system

Preventative Measures:

The best treatment is always prevention. So work on establishing a watering routine that works with your specific indoor plant. Some helpful tips to avoid root rot in the future include these simple steps:

  • Make sure to use pots with a drainage hole.
  • Use proper soil and check in occasionally to make sure that it is properly draining water. 
  • As stated previously, the plant roots need to have access to some air in order to survive. Allowing the soil to slightly dry out (just the top layer) will help the plant take in oxygen and prevent potential root rot. For many tropical houseplants, the finger test works well for gauging when to water— that’s when you wiggle your finger a couple of inches deep into the soil to assess the moisture level. If it’s moist, this means that the bottom of the soil is markedly wet. So you'll wait until the top layer is mostly dry before watering again. 
  • And again, don’t let excess water accumulate and sit in the pot’s bottom dish. 
  • You’ll also need to switch up the amount of water your plant gets depending on the seasons. Generally, plants require less during colder drier months.
  • Pay attention to your plant. Staying present will help you figure out when the plant needs less or more. 

Oftentimes, since root rot affects the unseen portion of the plant, rotting is detected only once a significant amount of damage has been done. Following the survival steps quickly can help save your houseplant. But as an absolute last resortif your plant is just not going to make itwe suggest taking some cuttings to propagate it. That way a piece of the plant lives on and all is not lost! 

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  • Sarah— thank you so much! Glad this was useful to you!

    Outside In
  • Karen — if you could, I would try slipping the plant out of the pot to inspect the roots. If everything look fine (firm, white or light roots) then it’s good to go. Sometimes the water can look dark due to different factors like fertilizer type, etc.

    Outside In
  • Thanks for the article! It was very helpful.

  • the water that comes out of my potted outdoor fern is very dark. Could it be rot? It looks pretty healthy but none of my others did this.

    Karen stofel
  • Danielle, in response to your question— yes, it can be helpful to water after repotting.

    Outside In

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