Garden Detective

How to add years to old houseplant’s life

Garden Detective: What’s wrong with this philodendron? It could use some pruning to prompt new growth.
Garden Detective: What’s wrong with this philodendron? It could use some pruning to prompt new growth.

Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.

Q: My giant philodendron used to be full and vigorous, but has become leggy and the new leaves are very small. It is about 35 years old and has been cut back to nothing several times in its lifetime because of freezing! I recently transferred it to a larger pot, but I’m sure the roots are totally root bound. (Although I remember reading somewhere that they like to be root bound.) The branches are very thick and heavy and have a tendency to fall over. I notice that it’s leaning to one side, although I turn it toward the window light often, trying to keep it even. I think the heaviness is causing it to lean. It’s been indoors and outdoors over the past many years. I’ve left it on my deck for the last several years and covered it when frost was forecast. Before that, it was in the house for several years. I have a feeling I should cut it back to nothing again and let it start over, but I really hate to wait a year or two for it to recover. Do you have any other suggestions, or should I just bite the bullet and cut it back?

Anita Cecil, Grass Valley

Sacramento County Master Gardener Cathryn Rakich: Split-leaf philodendrons (Monstera deliciosa) can become spindly and awkward, and weighed down by large leaves, if they are not occasionally trimmed. So, feel free to cut back your philodendron when its branches are looking long and leggy. This will encourage new shoots to form where stems were cut.

First, sterilize your pruning tool (sharp knife, scissors or pruning shears) to prevent the spread of disease-causing bacteria. You can either dip the tool in a solution of nine parts household bleach to one part water or wipe the tool with regular rubbing alcohol.

Next, cut off the longest stems (which are the oldest), as well as stems that are leggy and have a lot of yellow or dead leaves. Cut the stems at their base, where they connect to the plant. Water the plant immediately to reduce stress from the pruning.

If you want to propagate one of the cut stems, choose a stem between three and six inches long with at least three large leaves. Place the cut stem in potting soil at least eight inches deep. Keep the soil moist and place the pot in bright sunlight. Roots should form in approximately two weeks.

Split-leaf philodendrons should be repotted every few years to ensure space for the roots of this fast-growing plant. In addition, plants can accumulate salt deposits from watering, which will lead to brown- and yellow-edged leaves, so fresh potting soil is important.

Cathryn Rakich is a UC Cooperative Extension master gardener for Sacramento County.

Garden questions?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

  • Sacramento: 916-875-6913; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday
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  • Butte: 530-538-7201; 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. weekdays
  • Colusa: 530-458-0570; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays; website: cecolusa.ucanr.edu
  • El Dorado: 530-621-5512; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Friday
  • Placer: 530-889-7388; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Thursday or leave a message and calls will be returned; website: pcmg.ucanr.org/got_questions
  • Nevada: 530-273-0919; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Thursday or leave a message
  • Shasta, Tehama, Trinity: 530-242-2219; email mastergardener@shastacollege.edu
  • Solano: 707-784-1322; leave a message and calls will be returned
  • Sutter, Yuba: 530-822-7515; 9 a.m.-noon Monday-Tuesday and 1-4 p.m. Thursdays
  • Yolo: 530-666-8737; 9-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, or leave a message and calls will be returned
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