Buying Houseplants Online: 3 Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make with Plant Mail

This post is meant to provide you insight into the mistakes I’ve made along the way (often resulting in dead or nearly dead plants). My goal is that I can help you avoid watching your plants suffer.

Once I spent some time collecting and getting to know houseplants, it became very obvious to me that the local selection is limited compared to what is possible around the globe.

I quickly realized that the option to purchase from other collectors or nurseries around the country and the globe was often the only way I could find the plants I wanted.

So I did just that, but it hasn’t been without its ups and downs. Let’s revisit some of what I learned through failing… again and again….

Table of Contents

#1: If the plant arrives in wet soil, get it out!

Having a plant arrive in its pot is generally a good sign because it helps the plant to have a comfortable location during shipping and acclimation to your home.

Many people advise not to repot a plant right after it arrives at your home. While this advice is helpful to reduce stress on the plant, it should come with many disclaimers. One important disclaimer is to disregard “don’t repot right away” if the soil/potting mix is wet or moist.

Plant shipping typically takes a minimum of 2 to 3 days. If the plant arrived wet, that means it has been in wet potting mix for the entire shipping time, decreasing oxygen to the roots and increasing the odds it will develop or has developed root rot.

Plants only use water when they are able to photosynthesize. Photosynthesis requires light, which isn’t available inside a box. The result is a plant drowning in water during shipping. (To learn more about root rot, click here for my post)

There are multiple instances where I did not dig a plant out of its wet soil on arrival because I didn’t want to stress it and was hoping it would be able to now use the water given proper light. This has resulted in a struggling plant due to root rot almost every time. The saddest part is that the plants I made this mistake with were rare, more sensitive specimens.

I’ve made this mistake with variegated Hoya compacta, a Scindapsus treubii ‘Moonlight’, Hoya polyneura, and several more before learning my lesson!

What I do now: If the soil is wet or moist, I take the plant out of the pot immediately and remove all of the wet soil. I inspect the plant for root rot.

If there aren’t signs of root rot, I pot the plant up in a new pot with new, dry soil and typically the plant will do just fine.

If the roots are rotted or beginning to show signs of decay, I contact the seller with photo evidence as this is typically a problem caused by a mistake in the shipping methods of the seller (not poor handling by mail carriers or heat/cold damage). Then I pot the plant up in new soil or try to propagate it (depending on how bad the roots are).

To be clear, this isn’t to say that the seller is a bad seller. It just means they misjudged the amount of moisture at the time of packing. It is very easy to do. The response of the seller to my message and photos is often more of an indication of a quality seller.

Good sellers typically take responsibility right away and offer to refund or replace the plant. And most sellers are good sellers!

#2: If the plant looks suspicious, its time for a full-body scan

If the plant looks at all unhealthy (wilted leaves, yellowing foliage, brown foliage or stems, soft leaves that should be firm, strange spots or markings) I do not give the plant the benefit of the doubt that it will bounce back. I immediately remove the plant from any medium it came in and check the roots out.

If the roots are healthy, I take pictures of the plant and any issues it had (to make sure I have documentation so I can see how the plant progresses or regresses AND so I can send the photos to the seller if needed). Then I repot the plant in brand new soil in a new pot and spray with a gentle insecticidal spray.

Click to see directions for a homemade insecticidal spray

Mix 17 ounces water, .5 tsp neem oil, and .75 tsp mild dish soap in a spray bottle.

It’s best to test the spray on a portion of the plant to make sure it will tolerate the spray well. I am not the best at testing the sprays before applying myself, but I have heard that some plants can be sensitive to neem.

I use Plantonix brand of need oil: Here is a link to Amazon where I purchased mine.

I have been currently using Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Pure-Castille Soap which is known for being gentle on plants and the peppermint oil also helps to repel pests. Link to Amazon for Dr. Bronner’s.

If you are interested in the spray bottles I use, here is a link to Amazon for those as well.

#3: If temperatures are below freezing, don’t risk it

My last big mistake is ordering plants when the temps are below freezing and thinking that a heat pack will be enough to keep them safe in shipping.

Sadly, this just isn’t the case a lot of times and here’s why:

Heat packs are generally only effective for 72 hours at most. When I’ve ordered a plant with a heat pack, the heat pack is usually cold by the time the package arrives.

The mail carrier might then be carrying around a plant package in the cold to deliver it to you, exposing the plant to the elements. It’s also possible for the plant to get too cold sitting in a mail car that isn’t running because the delivery person is walking the neighbor to deliver mail.

I have also had one experience where the mail carrier delivered a plant package at 7 pm in the evening and didn’t knock on the door to let us know it was here. I had no idea the package was out there and didn’t know to look for it because our mail is not normally delivered so late. My plant sat in the bitter cold until an email came in to alert me it had arrived, which was at least an hour later. It was severely damaged and I was super bummed!

After several bad experiences, I have decided not to put myself (or my plants) through that again.

Important note here: this one isn’t at all a seller’s fault. I knew the risk I was taking when ordering plants in the freezing cold. The sellers cannot control shipping time or how long a heat pack lasts. They do the best the can given weather circumstances.

Big takeaways:

If in doubt, dig the plant out!

— If the plant looks a little off in any way or is sitting in wet medium, it’s better to check out its health thoroughly than hope its fine and find out later it isn’t.

Very cold weather is not your friend – wait for warmer weather, if you can!

— a heat pack isn’t enough to keep a plant safe in the bitter cold of winter. If possible, choose a warmer time to order!


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      Hi Alex, thank you so much for the kind feedback! My spam filter has been grabbing some comments that it shouldn’t and I just found yours today. I hope you are well and would love to receive ideas of what you’d like to see on the blog. 🙂

  3. Mariah

    Have you ever had damage from a heat pack? I ordered 4 plants recently and they came with dry soil but most of the leaves were mush and gonners…. I did reach out to the seller for advice too.

    • Colleen

      Yes, I have. I’ve found it hard to tell at times whether the problem is cold damage or heat pack damage because both can cause the leaves to turn black and sometimes mushy.

      Usually, if the heat pack arrives still hot and the plant was placed right next to the heat pack, I’ll assume it is heat pack damage. If the heat pack arrives cold and the plant feels super cold to the touch, I’ll assume it’s cold damage.

      Another way to decide whether it’s heat pack damage is to note where the heat pack was located. If the heat pack was placed near the root ball of your plant, you aren’t likely to have heat damage on the foliage. If the heat pack was placed near the foliage of the plant, you are much more likely to have heat damage.


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