How To Deal with the Death of a Houseplant

Of all the seasons, spring has to be a plant lover's favorite. But this time of year isn’t just about fresh blooms and singing birds; the anticipation of fertility and rebirth is actually deeply intertwined with death, and plants are exemplars of this juxtaposition.

It might sound morbid but hear me out. Winter doesn’t suddenly concede to spring. It lingers awhile in that in-between stage when the sun warms our cheeks by day and the cold nips at our fingertips by night. It's a time when two opposite ends of life’s spectrum coexist as the final grip of decay gives way to the onset of fresh life. You’ll see bare trees whose trunks look like knobby knees treading the residual sludge of the last snow while their stark branches are erupting in small, tightly-clenched buds.

Spring forces us to reconcile the living with the dead. Some plants aren’t meant to survive the bitter frost but have another purpose in the afterlife as organic matter—a necessary material found in rich, healthy soil. Being able to see beauty in this cycle of life and death is about perspective, and this is especially true when we talk about houseplants and their untimely deaths.

Death Doesn’t Always Mean Failure

Plants die, let’s face it. No matter your level of skill or innate greenness of thumb, you will eventually bid farewell to a plant as part of nature’s process. Plants emerge from under the soil as seedlings, reaching up and spreading out until the day when, just like us, they bend low and shrink back down to the earth, becoming an enriching part of the soil in their decomposition. Their fibrous matter, devoid of water and living cells, contributes to a more complex earth.

Certain elements of plant death can be beautiful, even nourishing. Consider a cup of teathe most widely consumed beverage in the world and arguably nature’s most soothing elixir—made from dead leaves that were plucked before full maturation, then dried out, crushed and submerged into boiling water. The very act of steeping and sipping requires us to slow down and inspires contemplation, meditative habits that carry over into effective plant care. 

tea leaves- horti

You're Not a Plant Killer, You're Just a Human

We have all lost our share of houseplants prematurely to beginner’s neglect or obsessive smothering. The helplessness of watching a plant’s health fade—or the tragedy of forgetting about it altogether—often discourages from future attempts at growing. Losing confidence in the ability to care for plants is a feeling of defeat that can last for weeks, months, even years. 

The problem in dealing with the death of a houseplant is that it’s not always obvious what to do next. There’s no clear protocol, no easy burial. Grief gets quickly swallowed up in embarrassment that you were not able to sustain life, so you (if you're anything like me) stash the lifeless planter in a closet or banish it to the fire escape until summer.

Soil to Soil, Dust to Dust

It's important to reconcile with plant death in order to move beyond it—to give up your dried-out wilted stems and abandoned planters yearning to be clean. Their missed waterings and overexposure need not have been in vain.

Composting your deceased plant is the best way to commemorate its passage from leafy & living to nutritious soil in the great cycle of life. Deposit it into your neighborhood brown bins or look for a compost drop-off site at your local farmers' market where you can often get fresh compost in exchange.

Donating your dead houseplant to become communal organic matter is as useful as it is therapeutic; liken to a public burial, giving up your decomposing plant will add important nutrients back to the soil (so long as your plant wasn't diseased) which improves the quality of life for everything planted with it—street trees, community gardens and your own new houseplants.

If you want to learn more about the basics of planting, a Horti subscription is a great place to start in rebuilding your confidence in plant care and creating a thoughtful practice around watering, re-potting, and mounting plants—skills that nudge you closer to the indoor oasis of green you have been dreaming of.