Plants that suffer root rot are among the worst things that can happen to potted plants. Unfortunately, it’s also the leading cause of death for plants in containers. You will most likely lose your plant if you don’t detect root rot early enough to treat it.
If you’ve already noticed a root rot problem by the time you discover it, then it’s usually too late to stop the rot. We’ll cover everything essential to preventing root rot in this article, plus how to treat your plants the way I do, eventually saving many from death.
There are some newer indoor gardeners who may not have heard of root rot, but you’re about to become very familiar with this plant disease. You will learn about root rot, how to treat it, and how to prevent it, so your plants will be healthier in the future!
What Is Root Rot? What Causes It?
For an understanding of root rot, I must first discuss plant anatomy.
Plants consist of different parts—above ground, such as a plant’s stem, petioles, leaves, flowers, branches, fruit, etc., there are roots buried deep in the soil as well.
Like what keeps our hearts beating, the roots of plants are the life-blood of the plant. However, unlike our hearts, they can sometimes grow detrimentally.
I recently mentioned that plants can become rootbound. Roots have so little space that they keep encircling the interior of the pot over and over again.
This makes it difficult to remove the pot from the plant, and rootbound plants are also at risk of death as their roots become too large for them to cope with, so it’s a bad situation all around.
Suppose your houseplant has a healthy root system, nothing rootbound here. You water it, and the water makes its way to the roots, nourishing them and sustaining their growth. But what happens if you overwater it?
Roots thrive on two things: water and oxygen, and if the soil is fully hydrated and well aerated, they will have access to both nutrition and oxygen. By overwatering, you deprive the roots of both nutrition and oxygen.
A look at the word “root rot” enables you to comprehend what the condition is: roots that have become soggy and oversaturated.
Overwatering and a lack of oxygen and water result in roots becoming thin and flimsy, then black, once they are no longer firm, thick, or white.
A root system that has been affected by root rot often emits an odor that smells rank or putrid. If not putrid, then it is more reminiscent of rotting garbage than soil and a plant.
Most people don’t look at their houseplant’s roots all that often, so they do not notice root rot until it has begun to spread up and through the roots above the soil line, up into the roots themselves, and into the entire plant.
If you recall from the introduction, when I said root rot kills plants from the inside out, this is what I meant, your plant will begin to wilt or lean.
Plants’ previously healthy green leaves turn brown or even black in their later stages. By the time your branches or leaves start showing signs of damage, it’s often too late to save the plant.
Root rot is a common plant disease, but does it necessarily kill the plant? It depends upon how far along the root rot has gotten in the plant. I’ll tell you later how to treat root rot. Eventually, your houseplant may sag and turn discolored, and it could be too late.
How to Prevent Root Rot in Your Potted Houseplants
Start with Healthy-Rooted Plants
As you would not ignore the undercarriage of a car during your visual inspection, you would be astonished at how few people do the same when they purchase a plant. Make certain that you assess your plant’s undercarriage as well.
I don’t recommend ripping plants out of their pots at the gardening supply store. Houseplants don’t particularly like being removed from their pots, since it can cause stress. In addition, you might get kicked out of the store.
My recommendation is that next time you purchase a plant (in person), you should choose one or two plants that you really like. Then, between those two, select the one that you are most eager to own.
If you want to see the root system of the plant, ask a manager or employee for a demonstration; you can also examine it yourself.
The buying process should not begin until the roots are visible, or else you risk having your first houseplant die of root rot. The disease may have already started from the moment you picked up the plant from the gardening supply store.
A disappointing first experience with indoor gardening can be very discouraging. Not to mention, if you do not examine the root system of a plant you intend to purchase, you will not be able to determine the level of care it has received prior to your purchase.
Occasionally, I come across plants that I inspect for root rot in stores that actually have bug problems. If I hadn’t inspected the plant’s root system before buying it, I would’ve probably infested the plants in my home that I planned to place it near.
An inspection of the root system should reveal a healthy rootball or root system. White and firm roots suggest it is in good health. Dead and decaying roots feel mushy. If the roots are rotting or have an unpleasant smell, you should pass on buying this plant.
Don’t Overwater Your Plants
This means you have to water your houseplants at least once a week to once a month. I know it’s not as simple as just saying “don’t overwater them”. Instead, you should water your indoor garden plants once a week to once a month.
Your houseplant’s growing season usually begins in the spring, so you should begin increasing the frequency of watering. The summer is typically warm so you should keep the schedule up.
When autumn arrives, you can scale back some because most houseplants will have finished active growth (or are very close to it) around this time. In the winter, you water very little, but don’t stop!
In my experience, the fingertip test is a far more reliable way to gauge when you should water your houseplants than following a schedule. The above factors mean that sometimes your plants need more water than what a schedule allows and, in other instances, less.
When you feel moisture in the soil, stick your finger about two inches deep in the soil. If in fact, there is moisture, then you should water the plant within the next few days. If the soil seems very moist, it’s okay to wait a week or more before watering.
While it depends on the species, there are some houseplants that don’t need watering for weeks, even months, after last watering. For example, succulents retain water for weeks at a time in their fleshy stems.
Ensure Your Plant’s Pot Has Adequate Drainage
Growing indoor plants is interesting in that you can place them in containers, pots, hanging baskets, and sometimes even bowls of water. However, all but the last vessel must have drainage holes for the water to drain.
No matter how carefully you water your plant, the water within your pot can still cause root rot if it remains stagnant.
It’s nice to have pretty pots, but they can be death traps for your plants. That is, unless you drill holes in them, which can be a lot of work.
Drainage holes alone are not always sufficient; the holes must be large enough to allow water to flow through, and you must check your plant’s pot once a month for obstructions around the drainage holes.
When you put rocks in your plant’s pot (a practice you should avoid), they can shift and block the drainage holes. That’s the main reason why I recommend not adding stones.
Roots can grow through the drainage holes of the pot in severe cases. This is a very overt sign that you need to move your plant to a larger pot ASAP as it has outgrown the one it is in.
Replace the Soil at Least Every Year
In addition to changing the soil when it needs to be refreshed, take special note of how long the potting soil lasts. The lifespan of the potting soil may vary depending on the type of plant, the particular needs, and the environment for which it is planted.
Adding more and more water and fertilizer to the soil can cause the soil particles to compress as the plant grows, placing your plant at risk.
Over time, old water can become trapped near the roots, causing root rot and choking off the oxygen supply to the plant.
It will be impossible to water your plants if there is water trapped near the surface of the soil. When you fertilize, the plant will also lose nutrients, as well.
How often does your plant need new potting soil?
If you’re growing plants like African violets or pothos, which are considered fast-growing, you should replace the soil annually. If you’re growing snake plants or cacti, you can wait up to two years between soil replacements. You can determine how often you need to replenish the potting soil and fertilize your plants by understanding how fast they grow and what nutrients they require.
Can You Fix Root Rot?
You can fix the root rot if less than half of the roots are affected by the problem. If more than half of the roots are affected, you can’t save your plant.
That said, if your plant has root rot on more than half of its roots, the likelihood of saving it decreases with almost relative percentages. In other words, I would predict that if 70 percent of the roots clearly have root rot, then the tree has a decent chance of being saved.
Furthermore, if 70% of the root system is good, your plant has about a 60-70% chance to survive. You may wonder why I added an extra 10% to each of the percentages; this is because I try to account for unknown factors.
If you weren’t aware that one of your potted plants had root rot until you read this article, you probably want to know what your options are.
As long as it’s not a severe case, I always advise trying to save your plant. If, at the end of the day, it doesn’t work out, you know you did your best.
How do you know when it’s too late for your potted plant?
According to my observation, if the majority of roots are black and mushy, that means they’re nearly dead. Since the plant won’t have healthy roots left to support it, its death is imminent.
The root system of the plant must be checked for healthy roots. The root system can be saved using a number of techniques. This method is one I highly recommend to beginning and experienced gardeners alike when it comes to treating root rot.
Here’s how you get started.
Step 1: Removing the Plant from Its Pot
This article has spoken about removing your houseplant from its container several times, but it is more complicated than simply tugging at it. You wish to minimize damage to the plant when removing a houseplant’s container because pot removal is stressful on the plant.
You will lower the chance of your root rot-stricken houseplant surviving if you remove leaves at this stage intentionally or accidentally. As it has less leaves, it is less able to absorb sunlight for photosynthesis, which helps it fight back to good health and develop new, healthy roots.
When removing the pot, it’s best to have a second person help you. One person should hold onto the pot while the other holds the plant at its base. Leaves, stems, and branches should not be grabbed as these will break off the houseplant, stressing it out more.
Put down some newspapers or plastic so you don’t scatter dirt and plant bits all over your home. Pull the plant gently from the pot. Place it on a flat, even surface, such as the floor or a table.
Step 2: Cutting the Dead Roots
In order to remove the dead bits, you should use standard gardening shears to identify which roots have been damaged and which are still healthy.
When you hold a root in your hand, position your shears towards the brown or black part of the root just above the white root. Snip the brown or black part off, making sure there are no brown parts left behind.
Once the other side of the plant is done, sterilize your shears using three parts water and one part bleach, then soak them for several minutes to prevent any fungal diseases from spreading to otherwise healthy plants.
Step 3: Replacing the Soil
Although your watering habits might have led to root rot, the condition of its soil may have made it worse. You’ve already removed the pot, so this is the perfect time to add in new soil.
Old soil does not need to end up in the trash, especially potting soil. By aerating it, adding nutrients, and reusing it, as long as there is no disease present in it whatsoever, it can be put into your garden compost pile.
Step 4: Watching and Waiting
If your plant is doing fine after a few weeks, then it has most likely survived the root rot episode relatively undamaged. Put your plant back in its pot and water it a little, as the soil is dry and the roots need it.
I hope I have informed you about root rot prevention and given you one tried and true method of treating this common problem.