Calathea plants (also known under their new genus, Goeppertia) are some of the most beautiful foliage plants that you can grow indoors.
Unfortunately, they do have a reputation for being tricky to look after, even heart-breaking if you don’t get the care right, as their gorgeous foliage is easily ruined in the wrong conditions.
They are quick to let you know that something isn’t right in their growing conditions, their stunning leaves soon turning brown or crispy with the wrong care.
Having said that, most calathea plants will bounce back if you manage to rescue them in time, and these plants are a lot tougher than they look.
Here’s how to prevent browning leaves, crispy tips, and some growing myths debunked. Let’s get started.
How To Prevent Calathea Leaves From Turning Brown
Seeing your calathea leaves go brown can instantly cause a panic, as they are a far cry from the stunning healthy versions.
It is usually a sign that something is wrong in the growing conditions, but figuring out the problem can be a little difficult, as some symptoms have wildly different causes.
In most cases, one leaf going crispy it’s not a sign that the plant is going to die, but if you do leave it long enough and more leaves go brown, it can cost the plant’s life.
It’s a good idea to read at least all of this section. Don’t fall into the trap of only reading what you think is the problem and then treating that, as wildly different issues can create the same signs of stress!
Use The Right Kind Of Water For Calatheas
Calatheas are notoriously fussy plants when it comes to what kind of water you use. Hard water, and the levels of fluoride in tap water can cause issues in calathea leaves, unfortunately.
This does depend on where you live as to how bad the problem will get, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t grow calatheas. You just have to use the water a little differently.
One of the best and simplest ways to get around tap water problems is to use leftover boiled kettle water. Once it has cooled, pour it into a plant spray bottle, leaving the lid off for about a day or two.
Then you can safely use it on your calatheas, without worrying too much about crispy leaf edges.
This is much cheaper than buying distilled water, and it also saves on water waste if your kettle always has some dregs at the bottom.
Alternatively, you could use distilled water, or some people swear by using rainwater. Rainwater is the most beneficial for many species, but not all of us have water butts attached to drain pipes.
Experiment and see which method works for you. Don’t use cold or hot water.
When you’re watering calatheas, use water that’s at room temperature, as you don’t want to cool down calatheas. They are used to tropical parts of the world, after all.
If you do choose to use distilled water, it’s a good idea to feed your calatheas occasionally, as the plant misses out on some nutrients that they would otherwise get from the water.
While these plants are very sensitive to salts in the soil, it’s a good idea to feed your calatheas a couple of times during the growing season, leaving a break in between each feed.
This will help stop salts from building up in the soil.
Choose a good quality houseplant fertilizer, following the dosage instructions on the label.
Avoid feeding the plant if the soil is very dry, otherwise you may cause root burn, which can damage the plant.
If the plant is super dry, wait until the next watering, and don’t leave so long in between watering next time!
Keep The Moisture Levels Consistent
A key element of houseplant care is to be consistent.
While plants adapt to their growing conditions over time, they will be much easier to take care of and healthier in the long run if you’re not yo-yoing between keeping the plant extremely wet and then very dry.
While that’s a good plan for some plants, mostly epiphytes, it doesn’t work too well with calatheas.
More often than not, crispy leaves and brown edges on your calathea plant are caused by inconsistent watering, or not watering the plant properly when you do give it a drink.
Knowing when to water and how is important to keep the whole plant in good condition, and stop any signs of stress from damaging the leaves.
This is one of the most vital parts of plant care and once you master it, there will be no more crispy leaves forming on your calatheas. Your other plants will be much healthier, too!
Master the proper watering techniques, and give the plant plenty of light, and then increase the humidity if the plant needs it.
Life can get in the way, and when your calatheas go for water for too long, the foliage will turn crispy.
A single brown or unhappy-looking leaf is nothing to panic about, but more than one, or ignoring when you need to water, can be a quick way to kill your plant.
The question is, of course: how often should you water your calatheas? Well, how long is a piece of string?
When you should water your calathea depends on many factors, including the size of the calathea compared to the pot, how large the roots are, the type of compost the plant sits in, the size of the container, and how much light it gets.
All of these elements have a say in the growing conditions, which affects how quickly the soil dries out.
This is why it’s important not to water by a calendar, whether that’s weekly or something else – as these elements are not dictated by dates or a strict schedule, neither should your watering regime.
It sounds complicated, but there is an easy and simple solution: use your finger to check the soil.
Calatheas like the soil to be damp, but they don’t like boggy soil, and they hate dry soil even more.
If your calathea is in a small pot, aim for the top inch to dry out between watering. If your calathea is much larger, let the top two inches of soil dry out before you water again.
When it comes to watering houseplants ‘properly’, don’t just give them a splash of water and expect them to like it, or even grow properly.
While you will prevent root rot this way, it doesn’t do any good in terms of anything else. Over time, it will harm the plant, and you will struggle to give it enough moisture.
The roots will also be shallower, forming a weaker plant.
Instead, give the plant a decent drink every time you water. Wet all the top of the soil, and don’t stop watering until water starts to escape from the drainage holes.
Discard any water that pools in the saucer or outer pot, and check it again maybe half an hour later, as you don’t want the plant to sit in excess water and then drown.
That’s all there is to watering a calathea plant properly. If you can keep on top of this, it will prevent the leaves from getting damaged.
Do be careful though not to let the plant sit in water for long, and make sure that the pot you keep the plant in has a drainage hole.
No matter how careful you might be when it comes to watering, if the pot doesn’t have a drainage hole, the plant will eventually die.
Get The Right Humidity Levels
Very dry air can lead to problems with calatheas, and while it’s not the most common cause of brown leaves, it can certainly make things worse.
If you can group your calathea plants and similar plants together, this will create a microclimate of sorts, helping to keep a good humidity level, as plants naturally lose some water through their leaves.
Misting will only temporarily increase the humidity, but it will help prevent spider mites from taking hold of your calatheas, which is another thing that can cause leaf damage.
If the air in your home is very dry, especially during winter, it may be a good idea to buy a humidifier and run it during the winter months.
Not only will the better humidity benefit your plants, but your skin will thank you, too. It’s especially important in winter, as central heating does dry out the air in your home.
Calatheas Like Low Light: Myth Or Truth?
What most people think of as low light is an area that you can’t read a newspaper in without an overhead light.
While this is true, it is not what growers mean when they say “Calatheas are great for low light rooms,” unfortunately.
When we talk about low light levels for plants, this usually means an area with no direct sunlight, at most three feet away from a window.
The further you get from a window, the weaker the light gets, and the difference in a couple of feet is quite dramatic.
Calatheas like a lot of indirect light, as they are not fans of anything more than a few hours of morning sunlight. They are rainforest dwellers, after all.
If you have only South-facing windows, this can work, provided that you move the plant back from the window, or use blinds or a sheer curtain to take some of the strength out of the sun, so no direct sunlight can burn the leaves.
Growing Calatheas: Avoid Cold Temperatures At All Costs
Calathea plants are not like peace lilies in which they will withstand cold drafts. Calatheas are delicate rainforest plants, and temperatures or even drafts lower than 60°F (or around 15°C) is far too low for these plants to thrive in.
Aim for temperatures between 65°F and 80°F (or 18°C and 27°C), and this will mean your calathea will thrive, and put out new growth pretty regularly.
Temperatures lower than 60°F can cause the following problems: the leaves curling suddenly, or drooping where they used to stand upright, or the plant is no longer reacting to light levels where the leaves close up during the night and then open during the day.
Ideal Soil For Calathea
In order for calatheas to grow well, the soil needs to be right. You have two options: using a generic houseplant mix with a little adjustment, or turning to organic compost.
Make Your Own Mix
You can use a houseplant compost, but you may need to alter it to make sure that it can drain pretty well, otherwise your plant may rot if the soil stays boggy for too long.
To give the soil the drainage it needs, use some perlite. Perlite can be pretty messy, so it’s worth mixing it into compost outside, as this is something you don’t want on your floor.
Use three parts of your chosen houseplant compost, and add one part perlite. This will help oxygenate the soil, and stop the roots from rotting by sharpening up the drainage.
Consider A Compost Formulated For Calatheas
There are many reputable sellers out there, and if you don’t fancy making your own compost mix (and it can be messy), you could buy a ready-made compost mix that’s been made with calatheas in mind.
Just make sure that you do use a reputable seller, preferably one you or someone you know has used before.
Word of mouth can be a hindrance when mistaken plant advice is passed around, but when it comes to house plant enthusiasts, part of the pleasure is sharing knowledge and tricks that work.
How To Repot Calatheas
There are always signs that a plant needs repotting, and some are more obvious than others. It’s easy enough to check, too.
Take a look at the drainage holes. If there are roots creeping through the holes, the plant is ready for a repot.
Or, simply take the plant out of its pot and take a look at the roots. If they are circling all the way round the pot, your calathea is ready for a bigger container.
Another sign that your plant needs repotting is that it’s drying out faster than usual, and the growth has slowed down. Take a look at the roots to make sure.
If you have your calathea in a plastic container, you can carefully squeeze the bottom all the way around. This will help loosen up the roots, and the plant will come out more easily.
If there are roots on the outside of the pot, this will take some wrangling, but it’s not too difficult.
If your calathea has been pot-bound for a good while and there are tons of roots outside the pot, it’s easier just to cut the pot with scissors, making sure that you don’t cut the roots.
But maybe your calathea is in a terracotta pot or something similar. In which case, use a chopstick, a knife, or even a pen to slide around the outside of the roots to help loosen them and free the plant.
Gently turn the pot upside down, and with a little shake, the plant should come free. Hold it by the top soil, not the leaves.
After that, run your fingers through the roots gently, detangling them from the soil. Discard the old soil. Don’t worry if you break a few roots, as long as it is not too many the plant will be fine.
Don’t be tempted to skip this step. If you do, the roots will continue to grow in the pot-shape they have made, and will fail to grow into the new soil, and your plant will be stressed.
Choose a pot that is one pot size bigger than the old one. You might think that if the roots are big enough, you should go up another pot size, but always only upsize by one, otherwise you risk drowning the roots the next time you water.
Put the plant in the new pot, adding a base layer of compost first to get it to the right level if it needs it, adding the soil all around the plant, gently pressing down a little as you go.
This will help stop any air pockets from forming in the soil, and good contact with the soil means the roots will grow quicker into the new compost.
Calatheas can be tricky to get right, but the good thing is that you will absolutely notice when the plant is not doing well, giving you some time to fix it.
Here are some things to keep in mind, signs that you should watch out for, and things that you should absolutely avoid where you can.
Can You Bottom Water Calatheas?
When it comes to houseplants, bottom watering is not a good idea for many species, calatheas included.
Bottom watering plants carry a higher risk of root rot, and disease too, especially if you’re bottom watering several plants at once.
Any pests or disease that are present in the soil of one plant will soon move to the others, and you will quickly be overwhelmed by problems you could have avoided.
If you’re using plain tap water or even fertilizing at the same time, this can compound it. Both the chemicals found in tap water and the salts in fertilizers will build up in the soil, because you’re not watering from the top, so there is nowhere for these elements to go.
This can and will damage the roots really quickly, and if root rot or pests don’t kill your calathea, these will.
It’s really not worth it.
Why You Shouldn’t Add Coffee Grounds To The Soil
If you take your mind back to science class, you might remember using indicator paper and several kitchen ingredients – including coffee – to see what pH they sat at.
Coffee grounds have a pH of 6.5 to 6.8, depending on the coffee itself, and this can alter the pH, enough to cause problems.
Not just that, but you should never add kitchen waste straight to compost mixes! You’re essentially creating the perfect breeding ground for fungus, bacteria, mold, and pests by giving them free food, and nothing the plant can make use of.
This goes for outside, too. The only thing you will do is attract problems, and bigger pests such as mice and rats, and other critters you probably don’t want in your garden!
Coffee grounds need to be on a compost heap for a good long while for the good bacteria to make anything useful out of it, so that it is actually beneficial for plants. This goes for all kitchen scraps.
You need to allow the microorganisms and the process itself of breaking down these organic materials to happen (which can take up to a year, if not longer), before you even consider adding it to compost.
Should You Mist Calatheas?
Many care labels will tell you to mist the leaves of your calatheas to boost the humidity. Unfortunately, misting doesn’t actually do anything for humidity except for a few brief seconds.
But you can use misting to your advantage. During the day (never at night), mist your calathea leaves, both the tops and the undersides, and wipe them down with a cloth.
This helps keep any dust off the leaves, making sure that the plant doesn’t have to work too hard for its energy, and keeps the capillaries healthy. It also helps prevent pests, too.
Do this once a week or so, and this simple trick will help keep your calatheas happy.
When To Repot Calatheas
Calatheas don’t like to be pot bound, unlike hoyas, for example. When the growth starts slowing down, or you see roots coming out of the drainage holes, it’s time to give your calathea a bigger pot and some fresh soil.
If you wait too long, you’ll notice that your calathea will struggle to take in much water, and it will put out smaller or slower growth.
Should You Shower Calatheas?
You can shower your calathea plants as you would with any houseplant. It’s a good way to knock any dust, soil, dirt, pollen, hair, or pests from the plant, as long as you use tepid water, never cold or hot.
You don’t need to do this as well as misting and wiping the leaves, unless you have found that pests have started to call your calathea home, then it’s a good idea to do both to keep pest levels down.
Moving Calatheas Outdoors For Summer
Most houseplants benefit from a good long summer outdoors. The light is better, there is plenty of fresh air to circulate around the plant, and rainwater is the best thing for the roots!
But don’t just put it outside straight away and hope for the best, as this can do some harm!
Instead, make sure outside is at least the minimum temperature your houseplant will stand (in the case of calatheas, this is above 60°F), and put it in at least partial if not full shade.
Make sure slugs can’t get to your plant – or other pests, for that matter – and keep the plant outside for a few hours each day, gradually hardening it off, so it can spend the majority of the summer outside.
This boosts plant growth more than anything, and you may find that at the end of the summer, your calathea has lots of new leaves!
Keep an eye on the weather, making sure that you bring your plant back indoors before night time temperatures sink too low and your calathea suffers. You don’t want all that healthy growth to go to waste.
Calatheas are beautiful plants that can break your heart if you don’t give them the right growing conditions.
These plants are not for the faint-hearted, but they are absolutely worth the effort, especially when you see them thrive under your care.
If you can use cooled kettle water for irrigation, and put your calathea in a warm and bright spot away from fierce direct sunlight, you are halfway there to having a beautiful plant for years to come.