Houseplants Get Sunburns Too! Here's How To Save 'Em

Photo: Darren Muir

Calling all plant parents! To ring in the height of summer (for half of the world at least), this week mbg is serving up the ultimate plant-centric lineup. Every day, we’ll be tapping expert green thumbs for their current plant obsessions, design hacks, and foolproof care tips. Get ready, get set, get growing.

A dying houseplant is a sad sight. One day your plant pal is green, full, and thriving, and the next something starts to look off. Maybe its leaves are browning or some serious wilting comes out of nowhere.

According to Veronica Peerless, gardener and author of How Not to Kill Your Houseplant: Survival Tips for the Horticulturally Challenged, these are telltale signs that your plant may be getting too much light and is starting to burn—something that happens relatively frequently during the bright, long days of summer. This primer will help you quickly diagnose your houseplant and save it from some of the most common summertime woes.

How can I know if my plant is getting too much light?

While it depends on the species of plant, Peerless says that signs of sunburn typically include bleached or dark-brown patches on the leaves. "Signs that a plant can be getting too much sunlight also include pale, dull, or washed-out leaves or wilting," she adds.

For the most part, although many plants thrive on bright light, many of them don't like sitting in direct sunshine—except for succulents and cactuses. (Their leaves may become tinged with red from time to time, but it isn't a problem.)

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Then what do I do?

If your plant is showing signs of a burn, there's a quick rule of thumb you can remember: "Most houseplants hail from tropical rain forests, which are warm but shaded from strong sun, so try to find similar conditions in your home," says Peerless. She recommends placing them a few feet from a south-, east-, or west-facing window or even moving them to your bathroom, where it's typically a little more humid.

"Succulents and cactuses can thrive on a sunny, south-facing windowsill, but this may be too much for them in summer," she adds. "Always research a plant to find out what conditions it likes."

Photo: Annie Spratt

What about if the tips of the leaves turn dark brown or black? Is this a burn?

"This is a sign of low humidity or erratic watering," Peerless explains. If you live in a hot, dry area and don't want to shell out the money for an expensive humidifier, she says that standing your planter on a tray filled with water and pebbles or gravel might do the trick. As the water evaporates, it will make the air around the plant a little more moist. Just make sure the water doesn't reach the base of your plant, as it'll cause root rot. (Check out how it's done here.) Peerless says this may also be a sign that the plant has outgrown its current container and it's time to transfer it to a new one.

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Do I need to water plants more in the summer?

This one is a definite yes, especially if you're going through a heat wave. A good rule of thumb is to water when the top of your soil feels dry to the touch. And during the summer months, you may want to upgrade your usual watering routine by filling your bath with a few inches of water and letting plants soak for a few hours. "You can make it part of your weekly routine. You’ll find lots of images of 'Sunday night pool parties' on Instagram," jokes Peerless.

Any other plant problems that are common in summer?

"Pests and diseases! Red spider mites can be a pain in hot, dry conditions, and they're hard to get rid of. The best way to avoid them is to keep the atmosphere humid and mist plants daily. Aphids and whitefly can also be a problem, but these are more easily controlled with yellow sticky traps," she says. "Powdery mildew—a white dust on the leaves—can occur in hot, dry conditions too, especially if a plant is under-watered."

What are some other planting best practices for summer?

Summer isn't all bad news for plants. Peerless recommends taking advantage of the brighter light and putting plants in spots that are too dark in winter, or in front of radiators that are switched off (but beware: Don't put them near the AC!). "Most houseplants will enjoy a few months' holiday outdoors on a patio if you have one. Just put them somewhere that is shaded from direct sun," she adds. "I love popping my plants outside when it rains in summer, too. It's an easy way to wash dust from their leaves."

Feeling confident enough to get another houseplant? These are super trendy this summer.

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