4 houseplant “tricks” that can do more harm than good

4 houseplant “tricks” that can do more harm than good

You can find thousands of alleged houseplant hacks on social media, but no matter how savvy someone is with Instagram or how great their TikTok videos look, there's often no way to know if they're a reliable source or not. Instead of helping, sometimes the tips that get the most attention can harm or even kill your plants.

Here, gardeners — true houseplant experts — share some “tricks” that can do more harm than good.

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Soak banana peels in water

YouTube videos showing people soaking banana peels in water and then giving the liquid to their houseplants have garnered millions of views. They claim that water absorbs nutrients from the peels that help plants grow. But horticulturists say there is no real evidence to support this.

“Banana watering isn't bad for your plants, but it probably doesn't do much at all,” says Rich Christakis, gardening expert and founder of Ship My Plants. If you assume it's an acceptable alternative to traditional fertilizers, you could end up depriving your plants of nutrients, “and neglecting them and harming them in the long run,” he says.

While bananas are rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus, plants cannot access these elements unless they are completely broken down. If you still want to use your peels to help your houseplants, Christakis suggests composting them first, then adding the final organic matter to the soil.

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Add coffee grounds, egg shells and produce residue to the soil

Hundreds of TikTok and YouTube videos tout the benefits of enriching houseplant soil with all kinds of kitchen scraps, including leftover coffee grounds, egg shells, and leftover fruits and vegetables. But none of these things are reliably helpful, and in fact, they can cause problems.

The amount of nutrients in coffee varies depending on the brand and type of coffee, explains Julie Weisenhorn, assistant professor of extension in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Minnesota. There's no guarantee they'll do anything to boost the health of your plants, although you can use them by adding them to your compost bin. “If you're concerned about nutrients, it's best to use fertilizers specifically designed for your plants,” she says.

Another hack spreading on social media claims that ground eggshells add calcium to houseplant soil. But simply throwing them in a pot skips some basic steps, says Terrasa Lott, state coordinator for the Master Gardener Program in South Carolina. “Eggshells contain calcium, but it must be broken down to be available to plants,” she says. Again, composting it and using the end product to amend the soil is the right approach.

The same goes for burying leftover produce directly in your containers. This intrusion can harm your plants, attracting harmful pests and creating a smelly mess. Plus, houseplants don't have a lot of soil: “If you start adding things to the soil, you might create a more harmful growing environment,” Weisenhorn says.

Use mayonnaise to get shiny leaves

According to another TikTok myth, rubbing mayonnaise on leaves makes them shinier. In fact, it can seriously damage houseplants by clogging the stomata in their leaf tissue.

“Stomata are small openings that release air vapor when plants become too swollen,” Weisenhorn says. “It is a regular process of plant and physiological function.” She says that smearing it with mayonnaise is like clogging your skin's pores with something greasy. And not all houseplants are supposed to be so bright. “These plants are living organisms and have a certain shape; “They don't all have very shiny leaves,” she says.

However, cleaning the leaves regularly is an important aspect of houseplant care because dust prevents the leaves from absorbing sunlight and hinders photosynthesis. To do this responsibly, Weisenhorn recommends wiping it with a damp cloth or washcloth, or gently sprinkling it with water.

Water houseplants with snow

Videos promote watering with ice cubes, but that can also lead to unhappy houseplants. This advice probably stems from the common practice of watering orchids with snow, which is a convenient way to prevent overwatering. But experts say applying this approach to other types of plants is a bad idea.

Unlike orchids, which are often grown in moss, “most houseplant roots are in the soil, so you need to water them well,” Weisenhorn says. Plus, “Houseplants are tropical plants that never experience freezing temperatures in their native habitat,” Christakis says. This means watering them with snow can shock the roots, damaging and even killing them, he says.

Lauren David writes about gardening and sustainability.

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