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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

How do you bring an office plant back to life?


When people walked out of their workplaces last March, most did not think it would take a year to come back.  

While working from home, I missed my office. It housed my collection of horticulture books, notes from all my past programs, and my well-tended houseplant jungle. It also played nursery for any ZZ plants or aglaonemas I use to liven up the offices of my colleagues. 

A colleague graciously watered the jungle when she would check on the office during our shut down; however, mid-summer, six months after walking out the door, I went back to the office to check my interior landscape to find some dead plants and several succulents covered with mealy bugs.  

I did what any good horticulturists does – tossed them and started over. Surprised? I wasn’t going to use insecticides, and the outbreak had gotten too large to treat with dabs of rubbing alcohol.

As employees return to in-person work over the next few months, they might find themselves facing a similar situation with neglected office plants. There are a few things to try before tossing them and starting over. 

Can you save it?

The two main issues with neglected plants are the lack of water or inconsistent watering or insect infestations. 

Not Watered 

Once a plant goes crispy, very little will bring it back to life. To determine if the plant is still alive, scrape the stem with your fingernail. If you see green, you still have a chance. Cut back all the dead-looking foliage, preferably to a node. Then, fully emerge the potted plant in a sink or container filled with water to moisten the soil. When container soil gets too dry, it recedes from the side of the pot so the water pours right through without absorbing into the soil. 

Infested with Insects 

If you see insects have taken over, sometimes it is just best to start over and treat yourself to a new plant. Most likely, the mealybug outbreak on my succulents were exacerbated by the stress of inconsistent watering. Find more information on common houseplant insects in this Troubleshooting Houseplants guide.  

Take Cuttings 

Before you throw away the plant, consider propagating it. I took new cuttings of some of my larger plants to recreate the jungle in my office through propagation.  

What next?

  • Don’t quit on office plants entirely: Don’t be discouraged if your plants didn’t make it. Having plants in your workspace is scientifically proven to reduce stress, boost work productivity, and improve the quality of the air. To note, multiple plants must be in place to improve air quality. Palms, rubber plants and dracaenas were the most effective in removing contaminants.  
  • Buy new plants for the office: I’ve already added some new trendy plants to my collection. Check out this list of popular houseplants if you’re looking for inspiration.  I also retained some of my personal favorites such as Jungle Cacti.   
  • Keep it fertilized: In spring, resume fertilizing the plants as they will start actively growing. Fertilizing the plants will make them happier making the lack of care during the pandemic a distant memory once new leaves and stems begin to appear.