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Why Does My Pilea Have Small Leaves?

Just when you thought your Pilea was growing flawlessly, you’ve noticed that its new leaves just stay stubbornly small. It’s perfectly normal for the baby leaves to be small and dainty - whether we’re talking about the foliage of new Pilea pups or, more common, the leaves that constitute the top growth of your mature Pilea plant.

When are small plant leaves a sign of trouble? When the small baby leaves stay small for months after they’ve first popped up. There are a few reasons why this might happen to your Pilea, so here’s our short troubleshooting guide.

why is my pilea not growing

1. Your Pilea is not getting sufficient light.

Your houseplants respond to not getting sufficient light by becoming etiolated. When the plant isn’t getting enough light, its tendency is to fix this by stretching as fast as possible towards a nearby source of sunlight. Throughout this process, the stem of your Pilea grows long and spindly as the plant is trying to reach the light. As the distance between the leaves is longer and longer, the plant puts its energy into stem growth and abandons the leaf growth. So while the internodes (the vertical distances between two leaves) become elongated, the leaves remain small.

Solution: Move your Pilea to a source of bright indirect light in front of west-facing and east-facing windows, and a couple of feet back from south-facing windows. Another good rule of thumb is to make sure that your Pilea is about on the same level as the source of light, even if it’s farther away from it. Try to avoid forcing your plant to look down at the light (if you’ve placed it on a high shelf or on top of cabinets, for example). Similarly, don’t force it to reach too high towards the light by placing much lower than the bottom of your window.

2. Your Pilea is root bound.

Your Pilea is root bound if the pot that it’s been planted in has become too small to contain the root structure. We recommend repotting your Pilea once a year (in its growing season, from late spring to late summer). But if you have been neglecting this task, or if you have overfertilized and pushed your plant into a growth spurt, your Pilea may have become root bound.

When this happens, the root ball starts to wind around itself and it becomes constricted in the pot. In the process, the pressure of the growing roots compacts the soil in the pot, which in turn prevents the roots from accessing water, oxygen and nutrients. This results in small feeble new growth that stays small throughout the weeks and months that follow.

Solution: This problem is easily fixed by repotting your Pilea to a larger container. We’ve written a guide on how to choose the best pot for your Pilea. The main rule of thumb is this: move your Pilea to a pot that is roughly two inches larger in diameter than its current container.

3. Your Pilea has root damage.

Similar to the point above, if the roots of your Pilea are damaged, the plant will adapt and put out small leaves in response. The main culprit in this scenario is overwatering. If you give your plant too much water, or if you let it sit in a soggy dish for too long after you’ve watered it, root rot will eventually set in. And once it does, it’s hard to get rid of.

As the name implies, root rot damages the roots of the plant and renders them useless at absorbing water and nutrients.

Solution: This is a complex problem, so it requires a multi-step solution. First of all, stop overwatering. And while you’re at it, let the plant dry out even more between watering sessions.

Equally important, always check that your pot has proper drainage. The drainage holes need to be equally spaced out and preferably not obstructed by those snap-in-place saucers. When you water the plant, make sure you empty out this saucer and don’t let the container sit in water for too long.

Now that you’ve hopefully treated the cause, let’s treat the effect as well. First, do a quick inspection to see the extent of the root rot. Gently grab the plant by the stem and shimmy it out of the pot to have a closer look at the root ball.

Are there any mushy roots that have turned black and slimy? Does it have a pungent rotting smell? If the answer is yes, then you need to remove the dead roots to prevent the rot from spreading and to allow the plant enough room to grow new healthy roots. You can prune the dead roots using scissors. With any luck, you won’t have to prune more than a third of the root ball. Any more than that lowers the chances of recovery for your Pilea.

You should also repot the plant to new soil. And while you’re at it, make sure your soil does not retain too much water. Here’s a quick guide on the best soil for your Pilea.

4. Your Pilea is overfertilized.

We’ve left this cause for last because it’s less common, but it does happen. When you fertilize your Pilea (never in the dormant season, ok?), you’re adding salts to the soil. If you overfertilize, these salts accumulate in the pot and form clumps that lock in the water. As a result, the roots have a hard time getting access to the water, no matter how much you may be watering it. So the plant reacts to this deficiency by slowing down its leaf growth.

Solution: First, inspect the soil to see if salt accumulation is, indeed, your problem. Are there rims of salt around the drainage holes? Can you see clear signs of salt pockets if you pull the root ball out of the pot? If the answer is yes, the fastest fix is to repot your Pilea to fresh soil, and definitely keep your fertilizing tendencies in check.

If you don’t have access to fresh potting medium, you can buy yourself some time by trying to flush out the salts.

Here’s how to do that: Place your Pilea pot under a strong jet of water and soak it through, then let the water drain out. Repeat this process a couple more times a few hours apart. This should get rid of excess salts, but it will also get rid of nutrients in the soil. So this is just a stopgap until you have the time and resources to move your Pilea to new soil.

We hope you get to the root of why your Pilea has small leaves by following this troubleshooting guide. However, keep in mind that fixing the problem will lead to your plant growing new healthy leaves, but the leaves that have been small for a while will likely stay small.

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