Q. Why is my potted Norfolk pine leaning and its needles browning?
A too-small pot may be the cause of a leaning plant. Large plant size relative to pot size can cause uneven weight distribution, allowing the plant to lean. A larger pot (and thus a larger and more stable root system) can compensate for uneven weight.
If you do repot your pine, be sure to only go up one pot size (8-inch to 10-inch, 12-inch to 14-inch, etc). It still may not be large enough, but if you go from say an 8-inch pot to a 12-inch, instead of 10-inch, you will create a “moat” of soil around the plant because the new soil won’t have roots in it yet and any water in the soil won’t be absorbed. The new roots have to grow into that new soil to absorb the water. If you increase the pot size too much, the “moat” of new soil will be too large and remain wet, possibly rotting the roots. So if the new pot size is still too small, stake the plant for support and then repot it again next spring.
The browning needles do cause some concern. It’s normal for the older needles on the lower branches to gradually turn brown and drop off. But if large areas or areas other than the lower branches turn brown, then there is probably something else going on. These plants tend to like humid environments and cool temperatures. This is very hard to achieve in human homes because we usually like conditions that the plants don’t like. But here are some possible reason why this might be happening:
- Water: Overwatering or underwatering can cause brown needles. If you have had the plant for a few years, it’s probably not overwatering, or you would have seen this issue sooner. So it might be underwatering. This would be likely if the pot is too small because it’s probably full of roots and using up the water quickly.
- Humidity: In most homes the humidity is often too low for the plant. During a cold winter, heaters come on more frequently and really dry things out. You can use pebble trays to increase local humidity. Fill a large tray with pebbles (3/4-1-inch deep) and fill with water. Place the pot and saucer on top of the pebbles. As the water evaporates, it will create a more humid micro climate. Just be sure the water level sits below the top of the pebbles. You never want any of the pot sitting in water.
- Light: Norfolk pines like lots and lots of bright light. They can take a couple hours of direct sun, as long as it's not harsh midday sun. Usually an eastern exposure is good, or western as long as the direct light comes later in the day. Too much direct sun can burn the needles.
- Cold/heat: Blasts of cold air or hot air can brown the needles. So keep the tree away from doors and windows where cold gusts might come in, and away from heating vents and radiators.
- Spider mites: These plants can be prone to spider mites, which love warm, dry conditions. Inspect the brown areas for any webbing produced by the spider mites. You can use water to rinse them off and try to knock down the populations. More even watering and increased humidity will also help with mites.
For further information, see these pages from NYBG, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Purdue University.
For tips on a variety of gardening topics, see our Plant Information Guides.
- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service
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