Gardening

A Houseplant Makeover

Before photo showing straggly plante, after photo showing dense, symmetrical plant.

My old, ratty Chinese evergreen (left) and one of its makeovers (right).

My Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema commutatum picturatum ‘Alumina’) had certainly seen better days.

Aglaonema 'Alumina' at its prime, with lance-shaped pewter green leaves.
My ‘Alumina’ Chinese evergreen looked much like in its prime. Photo: Harry P. Leu Gardens

When I first bought it in 2004, it formed a nice, dense, rounded clump of thick, aluminum colored, lance-shaped leaves, thick and leathery, arching out and somewhat down. You couldn’t see any sign of a stem under the abundant foliage, it was that thick.

Not that I never intended it to be houseplant star. I just wanted it for decorative purposes. I needed a tough, no-nonsense plant that could take a lot of neglect and still look good. And it was really good at that. I moved it here and here over the years, according to my needs, and always in the darkest spots, because it was a Chinese evergreen, after all, one of the very few houseplants that can really take so much shade … and because I saved the good spots, ones where there really was enough light for healthy growth, for more striking, attractive and rare plants.

And so it served its purpose for about 13 years. It grew taller, but very, very slowly. I never repotted it, never leached it, never fertilized it. I only watered it and pulled off the occasional yellowing leaf.

Aglaonema mother plant on stand in front of curtains, stems are bent and floppy, leaves are twisted and curled.
By May, 2020, my once dense and attractive ‘Alumina’ Chinese evergreen was now overgrown, half bare of leaves and unattractive.

But then it began falling apart. Older leaves began dying back in greater numbers than new ones were produced, now revealing thick and none too attractive bare stalks that had once been well hidden under leafy cover. They began to lean over, bend, and twist instead of growing straight up. One stem simply fell out of the pot one day: its roots had rotted off entirely. 

In the wild, floppy stems are one way Chinese evergreens reproduce. Older stems, no longer solid, bend over and take root where they touch the ground. This is called layering. However, indoors, there is no soil nearby the stems can root into.

The relatively few leaves that were left on the remaining stems, once smooth and even, began to grow in bent and distorted. 

Any excess water that drained into the saucer was now no longer clear, nor ever just yellow, but orange. Orange! An equally orangey calcium crust had formed inside the pot and on the stems. The plant clearly being poisoned by excess mineral salts. I had to repot it … or at least leach it. And probably leach it many times in succession. But I didn’t. I waited yet another 4 years.

By last May, the now 18-year-old aglaomena it was downright ugly, and my wife wanted me to get rid of it. Even I figured it was probably only good for the compost pile.

But then again, looking at the sorry, mistreated mess, I realized I really hadn’t given it a chance. Maybe I could try to save it? Take a cutting or two. Or even—why not?—give it a complete makeover, like they used to do on Oprah.

Doing the Deed

Aglaonema mother plant with twisting, bent stems in a tray. Pruning shears are about to cut one stem off.
Yep, this ungainly specimen was the plant I decided to try and make over.

So, down to the basement potting bench I went, ugly plant in hand. Oops! A bit crowded, but I made some space and managed to stuff it into a tray in I could work from. 

I first went over the plant and pulled off all the old, dead and dying leaves. One stem only had one healthy one left! 

Makeover 1: Tip Cuttings
Pile of aglaonema stem cuttings with long bare stems.
There you go: plenty of tip cuttings!

I then cut back a good 6-inch (15 cm) section from the tip of each leggy stem. To most people, the sliced-off tops wouldn’t have looked like much, but I saw them for what they really wanted to be: tip cuttings! 

So, I filled a pot with moist potting soil and inserted the cuttings into it, like so many candles on a birthday cake. No need for rooting hormone: Chinese evergreens root readily if slowly. I slipped the pot of cuttings into a clear plastic bag and moved it to my light garden. 

Do note that artificial lights aren’t at all essential for this: it’s just that I had room under my grow lights at that time of year (I use them mostly for starting seedlings and cuttings in the spring for my summer gardens, and that leaves lots of space available for experimenting with houseplants by late May). You could do much the same thing on an east or north windowsill, or back from the window facing south or west. Just avoid full sun while the plants are in a sealed bag or they will cook!

Aglaonema cuttings set inside a clear plastic bac under lights.
Growing cuttings inside a clear plastic bag or mini-greenhouse helps maintain the high humidity thy need to root effectively.

Sealed in the bag in moist soil, the cuttings were in nearly 100% humidity and would lose no moisture to transpiration, thus keeping them safe from wilting until new roots could grow. The cuttings could now slowly take root. One makeover done: on to the next!

Makeover 2: Stem Cuttings
Aglaonema plant after top growth is removed. Long, crooked, bending stems remain.
The trim left the mother plant looking, if anything, worse than before.

So, I returned to the mother plant. With all its leaves removed, it looked even sorrier than ever! Like a gorgon with snaky hair! What to do about that? I could only see one possibility. So, I cut off all the stems to just above soil level, leaving to mere stubs where a stem had once been.

You can plant stem segment cutting upright or on their side. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux

That left me with a pile of long, twisting, ungainly stems that I could cut into sections and root. Stem segment cuttings, they’re called. I could have cut them up into maybe fifty sections: all you need for a stem segment cutting is 3 nodes (spots on the stem where leaves were formerly joined). Each of my stems had dozens of them, representing nearly 20 years of growth. But I didn’t need that many plants. So, I made fairly long cuttings, about 6 inches (15 cm). And yes, then later dumped a lot of excess plant stems in the compost. 

Pot of soil into which aglaonema stems have been pressed.
I set the stem cuttings on their side, pressing them into the mix of a second pot. When they sprout, I can later simply cover the stems with potting mix and on one will be the wiser.

Logically, I would have planted the stem cuttings upright, except that I’d then need to remember which end was up. And if you plant a stem cutting upside down, that’s the end of it: it will never sprout. So, I took the laidback route and laid the cuttings on their side in a pot of their own, pressing them down halfway into the moist potting mix. Again, I bagged the result in a recycled clear plastic bag and put it too under the lights. 

Makeover 3: Rejuvenation Pruning 

Back to mommy dearest, now stemless, with only stubs where the stems had been.

Aglaonema cut back to soil and dumped from its pot. Root ball wrapped in thick roots.
The mother plant cut to the ground, with a mass of encircling roots.

I dumped the mother plant out of its pot. As expected, a mass of roots wrapped all around the root ball and very little actual soil was left (most of it had decomposed over the years). I was surprised so many of the roots looked healthy. I was expecting a mass of dead ones. It turned out there were plenty of dead roots, but mostly inside the root ball, non on the outside.

Root ball of aglaonema removed from pot, bouton is being sawed off.
I removed the lower part of the root ball off with a pruning saw.

I had to get rid of both the contaminated soil and the roots girdling the root ball (roots wrapping around the outside of a root ball are never a good thing), so I took out my handy pruning saw and sawed 2 inches (5 cm) off the bottom of the root ball.

Illustration of knife cutting off slivers from the outside of a plant's root ball.
The sides of the root ball were likewise sawed off. Ill.: from the book Houseplants for Dummies by Larry Hodgson

I then repeated the heavy trim along the sides of the root ball, methodically sawing off sections of root from all sides as well. Bye-bye girdling roots! 

Thwacking what was left of the root ball against the dish tray next to the sink, I managed to knock most of the old remaining soil free. Then I went through the mass of roots and cut off the dead, dying and injured ones. To finish, I rinsed the root ball thoroughly until the water ran clear and no longer orange. 

All that was left to do was pot up the clump of stubs into its own pot, working potting mix in around their now skimpy live roots with my fingers Honestly, at takes a bit of faith to believe such stubs will ever produce healthy new growth, but I’m nothing if not a plant optimist! 

The repotted stubs likewise went into a clear plastic bag and were placed under lights. 

The Long Wait

Mother plant aglaonemahaving resprouted from stem stubs.
This dense but still short specimen is actually the mother plant, regrowing vigorously after a severe trim.

Chinese evergreens do nothing quickly, but the fastest results were from the chopped-back mother plant: the pot of stubs. Within three months, she was short, but covered with fresh young and very healthy leaves. Then I removed the bag, no longer needed.

Pot of rooted tip cuttings of aglaonema.
The tip cuttings were slower to recover, but looked fine after 5 months.

The tip cuttings were a bit slower. They actually fine from the start, but I knew better: they were still rootless. It took five months before I felt they looked solid enough to remove from their mini-greenhouse bag. They still look a bit thin, but will fill in more over time. 

To be honest, I should have cut them shorter: I’ve left too much bare stem, so at some point I’ll unpot them, saw off the bottom of their root ball so I can plant them lower in a fresh pot.

Pot with stem cuttings of aglaonema laid horizontally, two leaves are visible.
The stem cuttings are growing back, but progress is slow.

As for the horizontal stem cuttings, all are still green and all are rooted, but only two have put out actual leaves while a third is currently sending up a small shoot that will soon unfurl to reveal a first leaf. And that’s 9 months later!

Pointed green sprout arising from soil beside a stem cutting of aglaonema.
The latest shoot is now rising from the stem cuttings.

But I once had a Dieffenbachia stem segment that took well over a year to sprout, so I’m sure that the remaining stems will eventually put out new growth: it’s just a matter of time.

3 pots in a row of aglaonema: tip cuttings, resprouted mother plant and stem cuttings.
The results after 9 months: tip cuttings (left), resprouted mother plant (center) and stem cuttings (right).

So, there you go! One ugly, dying Chinese evergreen turned into two quite charming, albeit young pots of fresh foliage, and one still struggling pot of sprouts, soon to come into its own.

Quite a successful makeover, I think!

Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos by laidbackgardener.blog

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

6 comments on “A Houseplant Makeover

  1. Thanks for the reminder and good ideas because I have two that need help.

  2. Don’t you just hat seeing an decrepit old houseplant on the desk of a receptionist in an otherwise well outfitted office? It might be held up with chopsticks from the neighborhood Chinese take out, or pencils, or just random sticks that were added in with those that were there years earlier, but never removed. It amazes me that they were there for years, but neither discarded nor reworked. For many, reworking would be so simple.
    You know, for some of my old pothos, I just wrap the bare stems back inside the pot, and add more potting soil over the top. The original tips continue to grow as if nothing happened, and new shoots grow from some of the buried stems.

  3. How do you keep it looking nice so it doesn’t get to the decrepit old houseplant look?

    • It will eventually if it is never pruned, that that will take decades. To prevent that, selectively prune the plant, cutting back a stem every now and then when it starts to get too tall in order to force it to regrow. By doing that, you can maintain such a plant indefinitely

  4. How long do you keep the mother root ball in the plastic bag?and do you just keep it closed or do you open to water it? I loved my plant too much with water…leaves went mushy but the roots are still healthy. Thx

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