Home & Garden

Confessions of a houseplant killer

Let sedum go dry — but not too dry.
Let sedum go dry — but not too dry. TNS FILE

I am a killer.

An executioner of foliage. A poisoner of potter plants. A slayer of sprigs.

And so, probably, are you, judging from the responses when I admitted my plant crime on Facebook and invited my friends to acknowledge theirs.

Out poured the confessions:

“I am death to household plants.”

“Plants come to my house to die.”

“Death by drowning, death by dehydration, death by mutilation. Have all happened to various plants in my care.”

“I’m like the grim reaper for plant life.”

“I have a RoundUp thumb. All my houseplants kick the proverbial bucket. Plant assassin.”

“In the plant post office, there’s a picture of me.”

What is it about houseplants that undoes otherwise competent adults? We do fine with pets and children, but put a potted orchid before us, and we tremble with fear.

I could swear my sedum wept when it realized who had taken it home. What did it do to deserve its fate?

It was beautiful when I bought it at the gift shop at Cantigny Park, in suburban Chicago – a perfectly formed mound of leaves, a rounded shape reminiscent of a spring-green brain.

“It’s been growing for three years,” the sales clerk said proudly, throwing down the gauntlet.


Four weeks later, it was on life support.

It wasn’t neglect. We plant killers try our best, bless us. Betsy Storm, for example, recalls the time she faithfully misted her plants with water. Alas, the water turned out to be Windex. But still — what care and effort! And before they died, what shiny leaves!

I, too, tried to be a good plant caregiver. I faithfully followed the instructions to let it dry out between waterings, sticking my finger into the soil to make sure it was getting dry.

Leaves began falling off.

Perhaps I wasn’t letting it get dry enough, I thought. I let it get drier.

Whole hunks of the plant began to fall off. Panicking, I took it to the emergency room, aka my local conservatory, and begged for a consultation.

Too dry, I was told. Give it more water.

I gave it water. I took it outside. I repotted some of the hunks that fell off and left all the plants outdoors.

As I was repotting, a few leaves fell into a nearby pot, ignored. They immediately put down roots and turned spring green and perky, as if to taunt me: See how easy it is?

I held my breath, watched and hoped.

But my original plant looked like it had exploded. I was Lady Macbeth of houseplants. Murder had been done.

There is something sad about killing a houseplant. It seems so avoidable. There it is, conveniently located inside your house. You can tend it in your jammies and bunny slippers.

And you have to watch it die because there it is inside your house, until you finally pull the plug and throw it out. You feel guilty: You have killed a living thing and there is chlorophyll staining your hands.

Why do so many of us kill the plants we love?

Sometimes, it’s precisely because we love them.

“Usually people tend to overwater,” said Kathie Hayden, manager of plant information at the Chicago Botanic Garden, whose staff takes calls from people worried they may be committing a plant crime.

“Plants are very resilient,” she said. “I think the quickest way to kill a plant, indoors or out, is too much TLC.”

And we may not actually be killing them. Plants will naturally drop leaves or turn yellow sometimes, Hayden said, like when they are brought inside after summer.

“People shouldn’t panic,” she said. “If you bring in plants that have been outside all summer, they’re going to go into shock. They’re not dying. Just give them a chance. They’re going to lose their leaves, and then they’re going to come back.”

So might my sedum experience a resurrection?

I consulted Beth Libby, interior floral designer at Cantigny, first to see what I had done wrong.

I was right to let it dry between watering, she said, but I might have let it get too dry. “With this variety, if you let it go bone-dry, it will collapse,” she said.

Worse, I was wrong to put the plant along an inside wall in a room. A plant that needs indirect sunlight shouldn’t be in a full-sun window, she said, but shouldn’t be far from a window either. My sedum, across the room from a window, wasn’t getting enough light.

And indeed, now that it was outdoors, a few strands were starting to green up.

So was my sedum truly dead?

I sent her a photo.

“Poor plant,” she emailed. “However, it looks recoverable.”

So my sedum is in recovery, and I am reprieved. I am not a plant killer after all.

At least not this time.

At least not yet.