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Garden Q&A: Salt suspect in Dracaena droop

Jessica Walliser
| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Tip burn on the margins of a snake plant leaf
Jessica Walliser
Tip burn on the margins of a snake plant leaf

Question: I have an indoor Dracaena that has a little brown on the tips. Sometimes I forget to water, but when I do water the plant, I seem to get many yellow leaves soon after. Can you tell me what might be happening?

Answer: It sounds like your Dracaena is suffering from two common issues in the houseplant world. First, the brown tips you describe are often indicative of a fertilizer salt buildup in the plant. Chemical fertilizers are often included in potting mixes, and over time, if clear water is not regularly flushed through the soil and allowed to drain out the bottom of the container, the salts will build up.

As they travel into the roots and up through the plant, they collect at the furthest point, the leaf tips. Because the salt settles there, the foliage often develops brown tips, also called tip burn. In the worst cases, you also will see a white crust of salt on the top of the soil or on the outside of the pot, especially if it is made of terra cotta.

Salt buildup also can happen when houseplants are watered with soluble liquid fertilizers and not regularly flushed with plain water.

Though it's impossible to get rid of the brown tips you already have (unless you want to cut them off with a clean pair of scissors), you can prevent tip burn by always watering houseplants in the sink or bathtub and allowing at least 20 percent of the water that goes into the pot to drain out the bottom.

If you can't get your Dracaena to the bathtub or sink, place it over a large plastic bin when you water, and collect the water that drains out the bottom. Never allow the plant to sit in water, because doing so can suffocate the roots and lead to what I suspect is one of two possible reasons for your second problem.

Leaves may yellow and fall off your Dracaena after watering simply because they are stressed out from not receiving regular drinks of water. Forgetting to water every now and then isn't a big deal, but going a month or more without watering, and then dousing it, may stress the plant.

That being said, leaf yellowing and drop is more commonly the result of allowing the roots to sit in water. Yellow, wilting leaves are a sign of root suffocation, just as they are a sign of under-watering.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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