Do You Know How to Acclimate a Plant?

“Why did my plant die? My plants always die. I can’t keep them alive. What am I doing wrong.”  I am a bonafide Plantsman — spent my entire career building a business, supporting a family, and investing in my life all on the basis of my ability to keep plants alive.

I understand the frustration felt when a “beautiful new plant” bites the dust. When people learn what it is I do, they want to find out what they’re doing wrong and how to keep their plants alive. I take the time to try and help them figure out where things went awry and identify what they might do differently with their next plant.

If you’ve been one of these people who can’t keep a plant alive — but you LOVE plants — you know exactly what I’m talking about.

You want to have nice plants, you haven’t had success, and you’re looking for answers. 

In this article, I will share practical things you can do to improve or grow a green thumb. Growing and caring for plants is a rewarding experience. The more you surround yourself with green life, the more you care about them. The last thing you want is that sick plant and that’s what we’ll help you avoid!

Why Did My Plant Die?

Water and light — that’s all a plant needs, right? It’s true your plant needs water and light, but that’s not all it will need.

In fact, one of the most overlooked needs of a plant is the need to adjust from one environment to the next.

Acclimating A Plant to A New Environment

When you take a plant home from the store, that is most likely the first time the plant will be out of an environment with lots of light and constant attention. The more difference there is from one environment to the next environment, the more negative impact the change will have on your plant. 

This is the case when a plant leaves its nursery home and goes into your home. Your home conditions will be good for humans, but not necessarily good for your new plant.

Plants are adaptable to change, but a sudden and drastic change can put a plant into “shock.”

My horticulture professor at the University of Florida (Go Gators) said, “Plants don’t go into shock, people do.” 

Plants are more cooperable if the change from a nursery to the home is a more gradual one. When a plant goes from a bright greenhouse into a dark home it is a lot like a person who hasn’t been in the sun for a year. Going outside for a minute or two may be okay, but you wouldn’t layout in the sun for even one hour — much less all day. 

I once knew a woman who fell asleep in the sun while tanning. She told me that she passed out after drinking too much beer, and the result was not good. If she wanted a good tan, all she would have needed was 15-20 minutes a day in the sun and over time she would have developed a gradual tan. Instead of burning, her skin would have acclimated (become used to) the sun. 

This is no different than a plant — just in reverse.

When you purchase a plan and take it home from the nursery, you may want to hold off on putting it in its final spot — and instead, gradually move it from brighter to darker locations over time. The more gradually you reduce the light it gets, the better chance it will have of acclimating itself to the lower light levels in its new location.

When you transition a plant like this, in many cases, you will not notice any negative effect on the plant.

Different Plants React Differently to Change

It is also important to note that some plants will react to change more drastically than others. Plants actually have categories they fall into known as highlight, medium light, or low light plants. 

If you purchase a “high light” plant and put it in a dark corner, you are pretty much guaranteeing a sick and, eventually, dead plant. A high light plant will never thrive in a low light location, no matter how gradually it is transitioned or how much time it is given to acclimate.

A low light location requires a low light plant. A low light plant will transition much more smoothly if you can give it a gradual move from high light to low light environment.

How to Acclimate Your Plant Once You Bring It Home

To better understand how to acclimate your plant and why it’s so important to do so, let’s take a look at the journey the plant takes before it reaches your home. Understanding their story will help you accommodate their needs.

Nursery Plants — In the Beginning

Plants start out very small at the nursery — either as a seedling or from a small cutting off of another plant. The objective is for the nursery owner to grow the plant up to full size as fast as he possibly can. 

Why?

First, he needs to sell off the plants because he needs room for the next crop and second, the faster he does this, the more profitable the nursery will be. Ultimately, this is what keeps the nursery in business.

To do this, high levels of light, temperature, humidity, water, and nutrients are given to the plant to provide the most optimal conditions for fast plant growth. When the plant leaves the nursery its metabolism is running at peak performance.

The moment the light levels and temperatures come down, everything else slows down as well. The rate at which the plant uses water and nutrients slows, which leads to less water and less fertilizer needed. If this adjustment isn’t made incrementally, the plant will compensate by shedding some of its leaves. They will turn yellow and eventually dry up if they are left on the plant.

In light of this (pun intended), it is important that when you get your plant to your home, give it the very best treatment! Your plant is used to having the very best of everything, and frankly, in most situations the new location will be a huge contrast from that.

The changes you notice in your plant from the nursery to the home are typically not for the better.

Steps for Acclimating Your Plant to Your Home

To help your plant gracefully make this transition, your highest consideration needs to be on placing the plant where it is going to get the best, bright light. Next to a window is really going to be ideal. Leave your plant in that spot, even if it is just temporary, for at least a month or two. 

Yes, a month or two.

Adjustment to lower light levels is the BIGGEST adjustment your plant will have to make so the more light you can give it in the early days, the better. 

As a side note, choosing plants that are easier to grow is a great way to learn how to make this transition. If you are a pro and know all the unique traits and characteristics about the different plants then, by all means, have at it. But for everyone in my family, all my friends, and everyone else who doesn’t know every plant species intimately, easy-to-grow plants will be your best bet.

Watering Schedule for Your New Plant

Watering is a critical component for maintaining beautiful plants — and a difficult skill for most people. If you always find yourself between overwatering, underwatering, or just plain don’t know how much water you should be providing your plant — shop our self watering planters… they do the work for you.

Self watering planters save time, save water, save money, and will allow some plants to go weeks to months between waterings (filling the tank) — making it easy to go on vacation or be gone for longer periods of time.

A Fertilizer Program for Your Acclimating Plant

As mentioned above, the nursery environment provides the optimal level of every need a plant has, including nutrients through regular fertilizer programs. 

When you bring your plant home, it is a good idea to back off the “Miracle Grow” for several months. The plant has plenty of residual fertilizer still in the soil from the nursery days.

Why would you decrease?

Fertilizer and water consumption is DIRECTLY proportional to the amount of light the plant gets. The lower light levels in your home will result in a diminishing need for water and fertilizer. 

Even with all this said, it is still worth saying be careful NOT to fertilize too often. The fertilizer that is not used by the plant will build up as salts in the soil and that salt build up is detrimental to the plant. The build up will cause tip and margin burn on the leaves. Generally speaking, people do not have this problem — as the opposite is usually true… they don’t fertilize at all. There is a balance.

A good time to begin a fertilizing program will be when you see the plant is not growing new leaves. Normally, once a month at ½ the recommended amount is plenty of food for plants in medium to low light.

If you do have a bright sunny window where the light is strong, well then, go ahead and water and fertilize more frequently.

Final Steps to Acclimate A Plant to Your Home

Understanding the plant’s journey; check. Understanding light; check. Understanding water; check. Understanding fertilizer; check.

After a couple months of acclimating the plant, maybe losing some leaves (a few yellow leaves are okay) your plant is now ready to be moved to its final destination. You’ve done a good job giving the plan the attention and environment it needs — hopefully it is ready to make the transition to its final location and will be a plant you can enjoy for a long time.

Final Thoughts On Acclimating Your Plants

Caring well for plants is like any other skill — it takes time, practice, and experience. Don’t give up and you will for sure find success.

The important thing is to learn from mistakes, try the same plant again, and discover what you have to do better with the next chance. 

If you get the lighting right, watering becomes the most critical part. Most amateurs will water their plants too much and too often. In a low light situation (which many home situations are) this is a death sentence for the plant. Use self watering planters to take this variable out of the equation — it is probably the most critical element of keeping plants alive in low light environments.

Don’t be afraid to get your fingers dirty — put your fingers a couple inches into the soil (yes, a couple inches) and feel if the soil is dry. If you prefer to use a soil probe, you can do that or a great little tip is using a pencil. You can stick the pencil into the soil and as you pull the pencil out, if the soil sticks, you can get a feel for how much moisture there is in the soil. 

Learn to determine the moisture level in the soil and you are on your way to becoming an expert and never having to ask, “Why did my plant die?” again.