Beyond The Basics

Grooming for Houseplants

How to keep your houseplants looking their best and brightest!

Friendly reminder: houseplants love a little extra TLC every now and then. A little trim and a good rinse can go a long way to keeping your houseplants happy and looking their best—think of it just like a visit to the hair salon! You leave with your hair happier, healthier, and better looking than when you went in. 

Plants are similar in the way that they want a little extra refresh every now and then! Except, in this case, you're the hairstylist for them. Of course, grooming plants is a little different than grooming hair. We'll give you the best rundown of the essential techniques, breaking down the how and why behind every single one. Let's dive in!

The Essentials

Once you know your plant is thriving in good lighting and you have their watering needs down, you're ready to tackle some grooming. Think of grooming like a level-up for your green thumb. Plants can survive without it for a while. But, to keep your plants thriving and living their best lives, grooming can go a long way in making a big impact!

Let's go through a bit of a self-care routine for your plants. It can be self-care for you and TLC for your plants! The three essential techniques of keeping plants extra healthy and happy are:

  • Cleaning leaves
  • Removing debris
  • Trimming back brown edges

While there are specific when’s for each of these grooming techniques, a good rule of thumb is to check for the “when’s” every time you water.

The important thing is to groom on a semi-regular basis to keep your plants shining bright.

As long as you’re using a gentle method that works with your plant, you can groom them as often as you’d like! 

Cleaning Leaves

Let's face it: our home gets dusty! No matter what, dust accumulates over time. It's part of home living. Just like you Swiffer your TV or fan every once in a while, it's a fantastic idea to check on your houseplants, too. 

Cleaning your plant's leaves is the most essential of the essentials.

When a houseplant accumulates dust, it actually blocks the light to your plant, reducing your plant's ability to grow to their full potential!

We know that the proper amount of light helps your plants grow and feeds them through photosynthesis. When dust accumulates on the leaves, it can block those rays more than you'd expect! 

Surprisingly, cleaning your plant's leaves will not only remove the dust but can keep pests at bay as well. It will at least give you and your plant some one-on-one time for you to examine for any signs of pests—which means you'll catch them early on and be able to get it under control. 

The last reason you want to continue cleaning your leaves is that plants actually breathe through their leaves. Imagine breathing in dust every time you take a breath—not great, right? Well, plants don't love it either. 

Okay, and one more reason: it just looks better. Who wants a dusty plant in their home? Not us! 

Cleaning your plant's leaves is a win, win, win all around! The next step is figuring out how and when to clean those leaves!

When

We're going to give you an answer you may not like—it depends! Luckily, we aren't going to leave it at that. 

An obvious indicator is if you can see the dust on the plant. Run your finger over it and check your finger—dusty? There you go! Time for a clean. Alternatively, you can gently blow on your plant. If dust comes off, you've got your answer. You can check this every time you water your plant to make each visit the most efficient. 

The other thing to pay attention to is how often you dust your home in general…or at least how often you should dust your home in general (not all of us have a strict dusting regimen in place). Generally, if you are a person who tends to dust the home more due to external conditions like living around more dust or construction, then you may need to dust your plants more often.

How

There are multiple methods of cleaning those plant leaves. Before you start, make sure to remember your plant’s preferences. If your plant is sensitive to water on their leaves, like an African violet, don't use the shower method! Some plants just don’t like those droplets getting everywhere. 

Option 1: Mist or Shower

An easy enough way to clean dust from your plants is the misting or showering method. The basic idea here is also covered in our watering article under "Spa Day!" 

You can give your plants a good "shower" using one of four methods:

  • Putting your plants in the actual shower
  • Using the kitchen sink 
  • Letting them soak up the natural rain! 
  • Handheld sprayer

For the shower method, make sure to use the lightest setting available with lukewarm water—you don't want to blast them! If you have a handheld nozzle, you can spray under and around the leaves and do multiple plants at once, which makes it a quick and easy experience. If you don't have a handheld nozzle, you can do one plant at a time and gently lift leaves to get the undersides. 

The kitchen sink method is very similar to the shower method. It’s ideal for those smaller plants that will fit in easily. 

If you choose to let them bathe in the actual rain, make sure you do it earlier in the day (and it's not too chilly) so that your plants have a chance to dry off. And definitely don't forget to bring your plants back inside!

For larger plants or plants that are more difficult to move, you can use a sprayer or mister. You will want to make sure to mist them thoroughly. Some plants may prefer this method because they wouldn't like being showered on (like succulents that don't particularly like water accumulating in their crevices 😳). For these more sensitive plants, pair a quick misting with a gentle wipe down as well.

Option 2: Wipe On, Wipe Off!

If you're not into moving your plants around or spraying them down where they sit (maybe they're close to books or other things you'd rather not get wet), you can opt for simply wiping down the leaves. Or, it could just be easier to use the wiping method for those with fewer leaves and smaller plants. Er, you may not want to do this with spikey cacti, though, since it will involve your hand and a thin cloth. 

For the wiping method, it's essentially what it sounds like. You'll take a damp cloth and gently wipe the dust off the leaves. A cotton cloth, microfiber cloth, or even a sponge will work perfectly for this method! 

Simply take your moist cloth, gingerly support a leaf, and gently wipe both sides. For those with fuller foliage, it can take a bit longer, but trust us; it’s worth it!

If your plants have gone a long while without TLC, you can use gentle dish soap and water (or a neem oil solution!) for this method. You can bring over a bucket of the solution to keep dipping and refreshing your cloth if you have a larger plant to take care of.

Option 3: Brush Gently 

For those super sensitive plants or plants with fuzzy leaves, you can grab a brush and simply brush off the dust. If you're planning on dusting your plants as part of a regular routine, you can actually just use a dusting feather (like a Swiffer) to keep things dust-free. This works best for minimal dust since a thick layer will be harder to just sweep away.

And for maximum attention to detail with tiny or intricate plants, you can use a paintbrush. Bonus, you get to feel a bit like an archeologist uncovering some ancient treasures. 

What NOT to Do

Okay, we know dusting and cleaning leaves can get addictive after seeing how much they improve your plants' looks and health. However, please do not be tempted by the leaf shiners you might see advertised. Yes, it can look like these are amazing products that make every leaf on your plant look shiny and new.

However, many of these products use chemicals and can block your plant's ability to breathe. Remember how we were saying earlier that plants "breathe" from their leaves? Well, putting a leaf shiner on the leaves blocks that air passageway and can really wreak havoc on a plant. 

If you are dying to shine up your plant, use our good friend neem oil! This is a totally natural product, plus it has a ton of other great benefits for your plant baby.

Removing Debris

Now that your plant's leaves are dust-free, the next step is to make sure your plants are debris-free. When we say debris, we mean anything that is killing the beauty of your plant. Think fallen leaves, dead leaves, or dying leaves. 

Leaving dead leaves on and around a plant not only doesn't look great, but it can cause problems.

Pests and diseases are attracted to dead leaves that remain in the soil. Leaves that are dead or dying and still attached to the plant can be stealing nutrients that would be better spent in other areas of the plant! 

When

The best time to do this is pretty much as soon as you notice it. Don't go crazy and trim off any leaf that looks like it's slightly impacted, but if it's clearly dead, shriveled, and dry, it's time to let it go. A good rule of thumb is if the entire leaf is more than 50% damaged or dead, you can cut it off entirely.

As soon as any debris falls into the soil, it's a good idea to clean it up promptly. Mold, pests, and other diseases happen to love the stuff (especially since you're likely keeping it nice and moist every time you water), so it's important to get that cleaned up as soon as possible.

How

If a dead leaf or blossom has fallen to the soil, simply pick it up out of the pot. Some of us may think that it makes sense to keep it in there to let it degrade and feed the plant, but trust us: it does more harm than good in your indoor environment!

For those withering leaves or blossoms that are still attached to the plant, you can pinch off the section close to the stem or use pruning shears for a more exact cut on larger plants. In general, don't be too intimidated by this! As long as the leaf is dead or well on its way to dying, you want to remove it to redirect any nutrients trying to get to that leaf. Removing it without shears is often pretty easy because the leaf wants to come off anyway.

Trimming Leaves

We get it—trimming leaves can seem counterintuitive when you're trying to build an indoor jungle. But, sadly, no matter how hard you try, you aren’t going to be able to reverse browning leaf tips. First things first, check your plant’s optimal conditions and compare them to the conditions they're getting now. For example, brown leaf tips are often a little hint that your plant is feeling a bit dry and would prefer a boost in humidity.

So, we suggest finding out the culprit behind the underlying symptom before trying to address any leaf discoloration. Of course, some leaves just turn brown and die on their own as a part of a plant’s life, so if it’s just one or two leaves and only once in a while, don’t be too concerned!

Identifying the problem is really the most important part of this process.

And the actual trimming is more of an optional step in this case. Since the leaf can't "heal" itself, you may choose to trim back the unsightly brown bits if they bother you. It’s kind of like trimming off a split end—it solves the short-term problem, but may not address the underlying problem (or external factor) that is causing your split ends!

When

If you choose to take action, it's best to start snipping as soon as you start to see crispy leaf tips or leaf pieces. The sooner you trim the plant, the better they will take it! Plus, you don't want to trim over 20% of your plant's foliage at one time—it can put your plant into shock. So, as soon as you start seeing those crispy bits, it's a good idea to start the trimming process.

How

When you are trimming individual leaves, this is a bit more precise than taking off an entire dead leaf. You'll likely need scissors or small snips rather than a big pruner to get the precision you need to trim your leaf.  

When you are snipping your plants, there are a few methods. You can simply "snip" the brown spots off entirely on those with skinny leaves, such as spider plants. Or, if you want to preserve the look of the plant, you can recreate the shape of the leaf by cutting it in a "V" shape at the end. For larger, shapelier leaves, like a Fiddle Leaf Fig, you may want to try to recreate the shape of the leaf. But the most critical part is to cut just short of the discolored edge. Otherwise, the leaf can react by making a brand new brown edge. 

Remember: If you are doing multiple plants at a time, make sure to sterilize your tools between each plant, so you don't unknowingly spread disease! 

Dealing with a Leggy Plant

Has your plant started looking…unkempt? Scraggly? Maybe even a bit floppy? Don't panic—this is known as a leggy plant. For you science peeps out there, the technical term is etiolated. But we'll stick with leggy now that we've established that.

Legginess in plants is almost always low light-related. While many plants can tolerate lower light conditions, they may react by adjusting their growth patterns to compensate. This adjusted growth pattern often manifests as stretched out, skinny, and small new growth. So your plant may be healthy and growing, they're just not growing to their fullest potential or in the best looking way.

We'll go through how to promote fuller growth in this section, but it's important to know that if you don't address the light deficiency, you'll eventually notice the same leggy growth pattern developing once again.

Identifying a Leggy Plant

First things first, we need to figure out if a plant is leggy. Trailing or vining plants, such as Pothos or the many "string of" succulents, are considered leggy when there is a lot of space between each new leaf and these new leaves seem to be getting smaller. A really leggy Pothos could have a foot or more between leaves!

In more upright plants, you may notice "floppy" stems. For example, a Dieffenbachia or Begonia can quickly grow too tall and skinny as they reach for better light, leading to a bit of flop, requiring lots of extra support with stakes and ties.

Ok, have you identified your leggy plant? Have you found a better, brighter spot for that plant? Great! Now it's time to learn what we can do to treat your plant a little makeover.

Making Over Your Leggy Plant

Let's walk through a simple step-by-step process for that leggy plant. You'll need just a few items on hand. We suggest having:

  • A clean, sanitized pot (the same size pot ideally) 
  • Indoor potting mix
  • Pruners
  • Hori Hori (a bread knife will also work, in a pinch)

Once you've set up, you're ready to start. Keep in mind just like repotting a plant, the best time to makeover a leggy plant is in the spring, where the plant's new growth is already seasonally likely. 

Step 1: Prune Back

The first step is to cut back some of that leggy growth. Identify areas that are a little too leggy and prune them back. If you're dealing with a floppy plant, you can cut off an entire "leg" of the plant—cutting back to a lower branch or bud. This will support growth in the other areas and tidy up the overall appearance. For those vining plants, you may just want to trim off some of the leggiest portions of each vine. 

Bring your pruners close to the spot you want to keep (making sure you've oriented the pruner so that the cutting blade is on the side of the plant you're keeping and the thick bypass part is on the side you're cutting away) and make the cut! Watch how much you cut off for the next step—you'll want to keep your root pruning proportional to how much you trimmed off the top.

In general, you don’t want to cut off more than one-third of the whole plant, or your plant may freak out a bit. 

Many plants can be propagated with stem or vine cuttings—look up your specific plant to see if you can make more plants with your trimmings! 

Step 2 & 3: Root Pruning 

Once you've finished trimming off the top, take the plant out of the pot. Just like when you repot, remove the loose soil and get the root ball exposed. 

Use your Hori Hori (or bread knife) to cut, or carve, the roots around the root ball, staying proportional to how much you cut off the top. For example, if you estimated that you cut off about 20% of the top, do about the same for the root ball.

This will ensure that the roots stay proportional to the remaining plant and support the growth efficiently and effectively!  

Step 4: Repot 

When you repot, you'll want a clean pot that is the same size as the original pot. Yeah, we know, this is totally different than our typical repotting advice where we suggest to size up. But, we have a good reason! Because you trimmed down your plant on top and trimmed the roots, the plant will have more room to grow in the same size pot. 

From here on out, it will be the same as the regular repotting process. Add some fresh soil to fill out where you trimmed the root ball back. Place soil around the plant and gently pat it down. 

We kept this short, but we have a whole article on repotting plants if you need a more in-depth refresher! 

Step 5: Water...Carefully

The next step is thoroughly watering the plant. But it's important not to overwater or let your plant sit in water at this stage. This will exacerbate the amount of stress your plant is feeling after being trimmed back, so take a little extra care with your first few waterings.

Another factor to consider here is to remember that lighting and watering are closely connected. If your plant is now enjoying more light, the soil will eventually begin to dry out faster, so keep an eye out on and adjust your watering schedule as needed.

Step 6: Wait! 

Now, all you have to do is wait! Depending on your plant and the time of year, it can take a different amount of time, but on average, you'll see new shoots starting to fill out your plant where you trimmed back in about two to four weeks. 

Other Options

If you want to experiment, there are alternatives or additional techniques for making over that leggy plant. You can try branching the plant or dividing the plant. We've covered these in other articles so we won't go into too much detail here.

But essentially, with a little more intentional snipping you can promote some plants to branch at specific spots. Or, during the repotting process, you can divide an unruly plant into several smaller plants.

Plant TLC: Mastered!

Now that you've learned the essentials for all plants and the details on those leggy wonders, you're a master in the world of grooming your plant!

Of course, it can be nerve-wracking or seem counterintuitive to trim back leaves. But hopefully, we've convinced you that trimming plants can lead to very good things. And if we haven't, maybe give it a try and monitor the progress! We bet you'll be impressed. After all, who doesn't love a good before-and-after reveal?

Now, treat yourself to some self-care time by tending to your plant babies and giving them the good grooming they crave!

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