If Your Houseplants Are Dying, a Kitchen Sponge Can Revive Them

Experts share this simple hack to save plants that are overwatered or suffering from root rot.

For those of us without a green thumb, keeping houseplants alive can seem next to impossible. But even for seasoned gardeners, figuring out the appropriate amount of water for each individual plant can be tricky. The soil may feel dry on the top but be plenty wet at the bottom of the planter. Or, your beautiful pot may not have proper drainage. Whatever the case, if you notice that one of your plant babies is dying, a basic kitchen sponge may be all you need to revive them. Read on to hear from experts about how and why this easy hack works for houseplants that are overwatered or suffering from root rot.

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Root rot is a common reason plants die.

overwatered houseplant
Amverlly / Shutterstock

Simply put, root rot occurs when a plant is overwatered and its soil becomes waterlogged. "This prevents oxygen from reaching the roots and can ultimately cause root rot and other damage," explains Lindsay Pangborn, the gardening expert for Bloomscape. "This is a fungal issue that can lead to plant death if not remedied."

According to Alfred Palomares, vice president of merchandising at 1-800-Flowers.com, "If new or old leaves begin dropping from the plant and are the color of green, brown, or yellow, or the soil has started to smell rotten, there is a good chance the plant has had too much water to drink."

Here's how a sponge can help.

A stack of three colorful kitchen sponges, purple, yellow, and blue.
LariBat/Shutterstock

If your beloved plant is showing signs of root rot, all hope is not lost. A simple kitchen sponge placed at the bottom of the planter can help absorb excess moisture. And because sponges are porous, Palomares says "they will provide additional space for air to flow through the soil."

While you can use a regular sponge from the grocery store, Palomares says to be mindful of its size as compared to the pot you'll be placing it in. "If the container is too large, the plant's roots can eventually grow in and around the sponge." You can always cut them down to make sure they're the right size and shape for your planter.

Gardening Know How recommends that you use a sponge that hasn't been treated with detergent or antibacterial compounds.

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Prep your plants before placing the sponge inside.

Two Pots and a Plant
Bogdan Sonjachnyj / Shutterstock

If you want to carry out the sponge hack, be careful not to inflict additional damage on your plant in the process of taking it out of its container. According to Huff Post, delicately remove the plant from the pot by turning it sideways. "Hold it gently by the stems or leaves, and tap the bottom of its container until the plant slides out."

Then, to mitigate the effects of root rot, Pangborn recommends trimming away discolored or rotting roots. "Clean the shears as you make each cut with rubbing alcohol to prevent spreading the rot." You can also prune away up to one-third of the leaves, so the plant can "dedicate more energy to repairing its root system." Dispose of the existing soil, clean the pot with a water-bleach solution, and repot the plant with fresh soil.

You'll also want to make sure your planter has drainage holes. "Potted plants do best when their soil is watered all the way through, and I recommend doing this by adding watering slowly, allowing it to soak into the soil until it flows freely out of the drainage hole. Excess water that collects in the saucer should be removed. This will prevent your plant from sitting in water, which can lead to root rot."

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And still be mindful of not overwatering.

A senior woman watering her indoor house plants
Ground Picture / Shutterstock

As mentioned, even a sponge can only hold so much liquid. And even a planter with drainage holes can get backed up from too much watering.

This is why Pangborn says "it's important to know that it's more about the frequency of watering rather than the amount of water." She notes that different plants have different preferences for watering frequency. "Some, like ferns or prayer plants, only like their soil volume to dry out 25-50 percent of the way between waterings. Others, like cacti, monstera, and dracaena, prefer their soil volume to dry out 75-100 percent of the way between waterings."

Most houseplants come with a care card, but you can always ask the staff at your local plant shop for their advice. Do be mindful that how much sunlight a plant gets, how humid or dry your space is, and the time of year, can all affect a plant's water needs.

If all else fails, invest in a moisture meter.

A house plant with a light, moisture and PH meter inserted.
Cristina Nakamura / Shutterstock

If you just can't seem to get the hang of watering (or if you have a particularly stubborn plant), your best bet may be to purchase a moisture meter, which Lauren Caputo, founder and chief creative officer of PLNTD in Jersey City, calls "the most fool-proof way to help your watering routine."

"A moisture meter especially comes in handy with bigger house plants where the pots are deep and it's hard to know if the soil is still moist or actually dried throughout," says Caputo. "You place the device in the soil, and it immediately tells you that your soil is either 'Dry, Moist, or Wet.'"

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