You’ll know your plant has root rot if the leaves droop, turn yellow, and parts of the plant and roots are mushy and easy to break off from the rest of the plant. 

You can revive some plants after they get root rot. However, prevention is the best method since some plants won’t live after getting root rot no matter what you try.

How to Fix Root Rot:

  • Assess the damage to see if the case is mild or severe
  • If the case is mild:
    • Water the plant less
    • Trim and dying leaves and stems
    • Fix any drainage issues
    • Give the plant time to heal
  • If the case is extreme:
    • Depot the plant
    • Clean the roots
    • Trim the leaves and stems
    • Clean the pot
    • Replant in new soil
    • Water less frequently and maintain proper drainage going forward

How Do You Treat Mild Root Rot?

More mild cases of root rot will need a different approach than an advanced case.

If your plant is showing signs of waterlog, some droopy leaves, and some yellowing slightly soft roots, you can probably fix the root rot without repotting your plant. 

Repotting is disruptive and if it is not necessary it is best to avoid. Repotting a plant:

  • Adds stress to the plant
  • Can damage the roots
  • Can force the plant to spend energy adapting to new soil
  • Can contaminate the soil if your tools aren’t clean

If you are looking to fix a mild case of root rot, start by pulling back on the frequency of watering and ensuring proper drainage. 

Water Less Frequently

Reset your expectations when it comes to watering. Look up how frequently that plant should be watered and use that as a guide.

  • Have you been watering more than that?
  • Do you need to make more adjustments based on the season and the temperature?

Regardless of the instructions, only water your plant once the soil has dried completely. For instance, just because your plant is recommended to be watered weekly doesn’t mean you need to water it every 7 days exactly. If the soil is not dry, go longer than 7 days between watering.

Check for Propper Drainage After Every Water

If your pot is sitting in a catch to collect excess water, empty the catch a couple of minutes after you water the plant, so the plant doesn’t sit in standing water.

If possible, water your plant in the sink or shower and let the plant sit there to drain for a moment before placing it back in the catch. 

Maintain Airflow to the Soil

You want to make sure oxygen can reach the roots. To do that, keep the surface of the soil clear and consider the location of your plant.

  • Remove any leaves, stems, or twigs that have fallen off the plant
  • If these get wet and sit on top of the plant, you are welcoming decay into the soil
  • If your plant is not sensitive to drafts, place it near a window that you can open occasionally to circulate the air
  • Consider if the heater or the air conditioner is damaging your plant

Trim the Leaves and Stems

Remove any dead or dying leaves and stems. Once a leaf starts turning yellow, it will not turn back to green even if the plant is returned to health. Remove any leaves or stems that are discolored so they don’t use up the plant’s energy which should be directed towards repairing and regrowing the roots. 

Treatment for More Extreme Cases of Root Rot

There are several steps you need to take to treat advanced root rot. Stop watering as soon as you suspect root rot and move the plant into indirect sunlight if you can’t treat it right away. This will help dry out the soil and stop the root rot from getting worse.

If you can, treat the plant right away. You’ll need to depot the plant, clean the roots, and replant to help your plant recover.

Depot the Plant and Free the Roots

You’ll need to remove the plant and its soil from the pot. Use a small shovel or a large spoon to loosen the sides of the soil from the pot. 

Be careful to only use firm pressure around the edge of the soil away from the roots. The roots are likely very fragile. You don’t want to accidentally cut or tug on any remaining healthy roots.

Once your plant and soil are removed from the pot, loosen the soil from the roots gently with your fingers. The goal is to expose the roots by removing all the soil.

Once you’ve freed the roots, discard the old soil. Be sure to throw out all of this soil and any soil remaining in the pot. 

Do not reuse this soil. It will likely cause the root rot to come back. Once fungus from moisture develops in soil, it is hard to kill. Soil with fungus can also attract pests like fungus gnats so it is best to throw it out.

Clean the Roots

Wash the roots gently under running water. The rotted roots will likely fall off on their own from the water pressure. Use your hands to gently remove all of the dirt from the roots under the running water.

If there are any parts of the roots let over that are black, mushy, or soggy pull them off with your hand or trim with scissors if needed.

Healthy roots are

  • Firm 
  • Can be pale or brown
  • Never black

Try not to cut, damage, or remove any of the healthy roots in the process. 

Next, use a homemade or store-bought fungicide solution on the roots to kill any remaining fungus. You’ll need to soak the roots in the fungicide before replanting. 

Trim the Stems and Leaves

You’ve likely removed a lot of the root system from the plant. Generally, a healthy plant’s root system is similar in size to leaves, stems, and foliage. You’ll want to:

  • Clean and disinfect your scissors with rubbing alcohol before you cut any leaves or stems
  • You can spread fungus or rot to the leaves and stems from the residue left on the scissors from trimming the roots
  • Remove any discolored or dying leaves and stems
  • Possibly trim back some of the healthy leaves and stems if you removed a significant portion of the roots.

For instance, if you removed half of the roots, trim back half of the leaves/stems even if they are healthy. 

The roots of a plant nourish the leaves and stems. If a small number of healthy roots have to support too many leaves and stems, they’ll be overworked, and your plant will struggle to grow or even stay alive.

The dying or discolored leaves and stems will not get repaired if the root rot is fixed. They will die and fall off of the plant. It is best to cut them off if they are yellow, brown, or droopy so the roots can focus on creating new growth vs. trying to repair parts of the plant that will die anyway. 

In extreme cases, you can trim the stems back all the way and the plant can grow back as long as the roots are intact. If the leaves are too far gone but the base of the stem is healthy, it can make sense to try this approach. 

Clean the Pot

If you are going to reuse the same pot, it is important to thoroughly clean the pot so that the root rot does not come back. Remove any remaining dirt and clean the pot with a bleach solution. Fungus can cling to the inside of the pot if you don’t clean it properly. 

Also, consider if you should reuse the same pot.

  • Does it have proper drainage?
  • Is it the correct size for the plant?

If the plant doesn’t have proper drainage, you’ll want to use a different pot so that the roots don’t get exposed to too much water again. Using the incorrect size pot could have contributed to causing the root rot in the first place 

Replant in New Soil

Make sure your pot has drainage holes. Depending on the material, you can poke or drill holes in the bottom of the pot if needed. Rest the pot in a base to catch excess water runoff so that it doesn’t damage your floors. You can purchase spacers to lift the bottom of the pot off the bottom of the catch, so the pot doesn’t sit directly in the water. 

Place a layer of stones in the bottom of your pot before you put in any soil. You can use stones of various sizes and shapes. The stones will also help moisture drain away from the soil into the base.

Now you’re ready to replant.

  • Place some soil in the bottom of the pot over the stones
  • Consider the type of soil you are using
  • Soil that is too dense and heavy can retain water
  • If your soil takes too long to dry, mix in some sand, stones, or perlite to lighten it up
  • Create a well of soil with a hole in the center
  • Rest the roots of the plant in the well and hold the plant in place gently by the base of the stems
  • Fill the well with soil from the sides so the roots are covered
  • Smooth and pack (very lightly) the soil at the top so the plant stays in place

Long-term Maintenance 

Your goal here is to regrow the roots first and then the leaves and stems. It is ok if your plant doesn’t have a lot of new growth right away. Once the roots regrow, the stems and leaves will start to fill back in

Don’t Over water Your Plants

Water your plants only when the soil has dried out from the previous watering. Stick your finger 1 inch into the soil. If your finger is dry and relatively clean of soil, it’s time to water. 

Be sure to adjust your watering schedule with the seasons and temperature. You don’t need to water your plant as often or use as much water in the fall and winter as you do in the spring or summer. It can be easy to water your plant every week out of habit, but you might need to change to watering every two weeks in the fall and winter.

You should not need to use anymore fungicide once you’ve treated your plant. 

Plan Should Have Plenty of Light

Make sure your plant is in the right place in your home. If the plant doesn’t get enough light or heat, the plant is more likely to develop root rot. The light and warmth from the sun help to dry the soil out between waterings which is good for your plant. 

After the Roots Regrow

Your goal is to rid the roots of rot and help them grow back after trimming them. You are not focusing on growing the leaves, stems, and flowers of the plant until the root system has recovered. You’ll know your roots are healthy once you are seeing steady amounts of new growth that is

  • Green
  • Showing no signs of yellowing
  • Firm, not droopy or wilted
  • And the soil is drying out between watering

Now that the roots are healthy, you can start to focus above the soil. If you’d like, you can resume fertilizing your plant and cautiously start to water more generously. 

Repeat if Signs of Root Rot Come Back

The root rot might be back if you start to notice

  • Yellow leaves
  • Droopy stems and leaves
  • Soggy soil

Repeat the process if necessary:

  • Remove the plant from the pot and clean the roots
  • Replant in new soil

If you’ve tried the process a couple of times and the root rot is not going away, it is likely your plant might not be salvageable. 

How to Prevent Root Rot in House Plants

Preventing root rot is all about maintaining proper drainage, watering with the right amount of frequency, and using fungicides if needed. 

Focus on:

  • Proper Drainage for excess water
  • Watering only when the plant is ready, and the soil is dry
  • Treating the plant with fungicides periodically

Inspecting your plant regularly for signs of root rot, pests, or other diseases

Can a Plant Recover from Root Rot?

Some plants can recover from root rot if enough of the root system is healthy. Sometimes the roots might be too rotted to recover. If you identify the issue and take action quickly, you can get your plant back to health. 

Your plant will be able to recover if enough of the root system is intact and if you

  • Clean the roots
  • Replant properly
  • Maintain drainage
  • Don’t overwater in the future

Act fast if you detect root rot to give you plant the best chance of survival. 

What Causes Root Rot in Houseplants?

Root rot has several causes:

  • Prolonged overwatering 
  • The incorrect type of soil
  • Poor drainage
  • Wrong size pot
  • Wrong material pot
  • Letting water sit in the catch
  • Cold temperatures
  • Not enough sun
  • Not enough airflow
  • Contamination of tools, soil, or pots

How Prolonged Overwatering Causes Root Rot

Watering your plant with too much water and/or too often will kill the roots. 

Roots need oxygen to be healthy. They access most of their oxygen when the soil is dry. Soil is not compact, there are spaces between the grains of soil. When you water your plant, you fill those spaces between the grains of soil with water.

When the water soil becomes dry between watering, the spaces in the soil are filled with air which contains oxygen for the roots to absorb.

If the soil never dries out fully, the roots will not have access to enough oxygen, and they will become waterlogged. The roots will be:

  • Soggy
  • Mushy
  • Easy to pull off of the rest of the plant

The roots are dying because of too much exposure to water and not enough oxygen. They become mushy as they decay. 

Some parts of the roots can be rotted while other parts are healthy. The rot from the decaying roots will spread to healthy roots with time. This can happen if the healthy roots come in contact with rotting roots or with fungus in the soil.

If the whole root system is damaged, your plant will probably not survive. There needs to be enough roots left to nourish the plant and support the growth of more roots. If all of the roots are rotted, there will be no way to nourish the plant. 

How Fungus in the Soil Causes Root Rot

Fungus grows in moist environments. This fungus can either:

  • Exist naturally in the soil of a healthy plant
  • Be left over from a previous case of root rot
  • Be caused by planting in containers vs. in the ground

The fungus can be dormant in the soil. If you overwater the plant once or twice and there is fungus lingering in the soil, the fungus can come to life and attach the roots infecting them with root rot. 

Planting houseplants in a container can encourage root rot to develop. While outdoor plants can also develop root rot, the problem is more common and more persistent with houseplants because they

  • Sometimes don’t get as much sunlight and heat to dry out the soil
  • Are indoors which can encourage the growth of mold and fungus
  • Limit the space for roots to spread out
  • Limit the drainage of water

Tips to Avoid Root Rot:

  • Wait to water your plant until the soil completely dries out
  • Make sure your pot has drainage, so water doesn’t pool at the bottom of the pot
  • It is better to underwater your plant than overwater it

Detecting Root Rot

Early Signs

Look for early signs of root rot for the best chances of saving your plant. Inspect your plant every time you water. If you can, inspect your plants daily to keep an eye on moisture levels and early signs of root rot.

Look for:

  • Slow growth
  • Soil that doesn’t dry out or takes a long time to dry out
  • Yellow or brown leaves
  • Yellow leaves near the base of the plant
  • New growth that looks unhealthy
  • Droopy leaves or stems
  • Swollen stems
  • Insects
  • Mold
  • Issues above that persist even after you start watering less

If you notice any of those issues, you should conduct a more thorough investigation of the roots. 

Confirming Root Rot

To verify your plant does have root rot, remove the plant from the pot. And loosen soil from the bottom until some of the tips of the roots are visible. 

The bottom of the roots will get root rot first because they are the parts that sit in pooling water. The root rot will spread from the bottom up. If your plant has root rot, the signs will show at the bottom of the roots first.

When checking the roots, look for:

  • Black roots
  • Mushy roots
  • Roots that fall away from the plant on their own
  • Signs of decay

If you notice any of those signs on the roots, your plant has root rot. 

How Far Has the Rot Progressed?

Understanding how far along the root rot is will help you understand your plant’s chance of survival. 

The Transition from Healthy Roots to Root Rot

Healthy roots are firm and lighter in color. Sometimes they are brown, red, or white depending on the plant. 

Roots that are just starting to rot will turn slightly darker than their natural color and usually take on a yellow tone. They will also start to become limper than healthy roots. The roots will eventually turn black when they are fully rotted.

How Much of the Roots are Damaged?

It starts at the bottom of the plant and works its way up. The less the root rot has traveled up the plant, the better. Root rot travels fast so take action quickly.

Damage Progressing Beyond the Roots

In an advanced case of root rot that is too far gone, the roots will be complete mush and the stem of the plant can separate from what’s left of the roots and soil. The plant will:

  • Have mushy leaves that squish to the touch
  • Easily break at the stem
  • Have no signs of new growth

The plant is technically salvageable up until this point. As long as some part of the root system is intact and free of decay, you might be able to save it.

Prevention Starts Before You Take the Plant Home

Purchasing from the Right Seller

Root rot can, and often does, start at the nursery. It is important to buy your plants from a specialty store or nursery that takes good care of their plants and is careful to monitor and prevent disease and infestation.

Beware of plants purchased from:

  • Discount stores
  • Hardware stores
  • Stores that don’t specialize in house plants

These stores might not know the right way to take care of the plant or they might not have the resources or the staff to prevent disease and infestation. 

When purchasing plants, go to nurseries and plant stores with knowledgeable staff who are attentive to the plants.

When shopping for plants, don’t just look at the plants you want to buy, look at all the plants in the store. Check for:

  • Signs of disease
  • Yellowing leaves or stems
  • Brown leaves or stems
  • Inappropriate pot size
  • Cramped storage
  • Insects in the soil or on the leaves
  • Fungus gnats flying

If you walk into a plant store or a nursery and a significant amount of the plants look unhealthy, don’t buy from there even if the plants you want look fine. It is a sign they don’t take care of their plants.

Purchasing the Right Type of Plant for Your Environment

You’ll also need to consider what type of plant will thrive in your environment. Consider:

  • What types of plants have done well in your home in the past
  • What types of plants have struggled in your home in the past
  • How much space you have
  • How much direct and indirect sunlight your home gets
  • The temperature in your apartment
  • The climate of your city
  • Airflow and humidity in your apartment

Considering the factors above will help you choose a plant that makes sense for your home. Some plants, no matter how well you take care of them, are not meant to thrive in every environment.

For example, if you live in a rainy, cold city that doesn’t get much sunlight, don’t expect to fill your apartment with cacti. 

Prevention is the Best Method

Prevention is the best strategy since plants that get root rot sometimes can’t recover. It is easier for a plant to recover from underwatering than root rot from overwatering. 

This is because once the roots become waterlogged, they turn mushy and break away from the healthy roots (if there are any healthy roots left). If a plant’s roots are entirely rotted, your plant will likely not survive.

If you underwater and the roots get too dry, they are much more forgiving than mushy roots. It will likely be fairly easy to trim the dead leaves and stems and re-hydrate the roots. 

Be Attentive to Your Plants for Long Term Success

The key to fixing root rot is taking quick action once you’ve detected it and thoroughly cleaning the roots. The other most important factor is prevention. With the right level of preparation and attention, you can rid your houseplants of root rot and watch them flourish.