Most of us buy Philodendrons because they are versatile, low-maintenance, lovely foliage plants that add beauty to our homes. However, you may notice that after some time, your plant produces leaves that look much smaller than normal. What exactly is happening with your Philodendron, and can you stop it?
Philodendrons that are producing smaller than average leaves are likely not getting enough sunlight to sustain their normal growth. Low light exposure can stunt or even stop growth completely. Other causes of small leaf production include nutrient deficiencies, salt buildup, overwatering, or a rootbound pot.
Philodendrons are pretty reliable growers, so as long as their needs are being met satisfactorily, they keep pushing out plenty of new leaves throughout the growing season. However, if you run into the issue of your plant producing smaller than normal leaves, you likely have a minor care issue causing the problem, and you’ll need to investigate and correct it to resume normal growth.
This article will go over the most common causes of smaller leaf growth and offer some solutions to prevent future growth from being stunted or slowed.
Do You Actually Have a Leaf Issue?
Although it is probably pretty obvious, it is worth mentioning that there are close to 500 different varieties of Philodendron in the genus, all of which have various leaf sizes, shapes, colors, and habits.
Depending on the variety, some of these leaf shapes and sizes can be pretty funky, so know what to expect from your specific plant. Heavily serrated or narrow leaves may have more natural variation in size than a more uniform variety. A growth issue in a small-leafed variety might be harder to identify since all the leaves are…well, already small.
Also, remember that new growth always starts small. If you see small leaves pushing from the top of the plant, don’t immediately panic, as they often will size up just fine as they have a chance to unfurl and grow. More importantly, you need to be comparing the newest mature leaves against older leaves to really identify if there is a sizing issue.
What is Causing Your Philodendron to Produce Small Leaves?
Likely the most common reason you might find that your Philodendron is no longer producing the big, beautiful leaves it used to is because your plant isn’t receiving enough light.
Plants have leaves to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, which in turn, creates food and resources for the plant to utilize for health and new growth. When put into a low light situation, photosynthesis is slowed, creating a lack of resources the plant needs to push that new growth. As a result, any growth the plant manages to produce is typically stunted or smaller.
In severe cases of low light exposure, your plant will switch from growth to survival mode. Using its limited resources, it will prioritize securing a new light source by focusing on stem growth. Any leaves that are produced on these leggy, spindly stems will likely be small and weak themselves.
Although not the heaviest of feeders, many Philodendrons can put out several inches of growth in one season, which does require a lot of nutrients to be absorbed from the soil. After a while, and especially with older plants that have been in the same pot for a long period of time, the soil can become depleted.
Without any additional inputs from supplemental fertilizer applications, your plant won’t have much to work with to create building blocks for growth. This creates a situation where growth is either stunted, with leaves growing in smaller than normal, or growth slows significantly or stops completely.
Now, consider the opposite problem. Perhaps you’re actually too good about fertilizing your houseplants. Most conventional plant feeds are really just macronutrients the plant requires formulated as a salt. Generally, this is good because salt crystals are readily dissolved into water, which makes them easy for the plant to absorb.
However, each time we feed our plants, not all of the fertilizer we apply gets utilized, so the extra salts can build up in the soil over time, even forming a white crust on the topsoil or around the drainage holes of the pot.
When we water the plant, the water molecules tend to bind with the extra salts in the soil, essentially trapping them in place so the root system can’t absorb them. This lowers the amount of water and essential nutrients the plant can uptake from the soil, creating a deficiency that impacts leaf growth.
Overwatering your Philodendron can also get you into trouble when it comes to healthy leaf growth. Just like salt buildup in the soil, overwatering can inadvertently cause a reduction in nutrient uptake that affects how much growth your plant can put out.
When you overwater, you run the risk of subjecting your plant to a myriad of issues, most commonly root rot. These waterlogged roots will begin to decay over time and will not be able to absorb nutrients effectively, which not only creates a lack of resources the plant can use for leaf production but can also put the entire plant’s health at extreme risk.
Another common reason you might be seeing a reduction in leaf size is that your Philodendron is overcrowded in its current pot. Over time, your plant’s root system will reach the edges of its container and begin to wrap around itself into a tight ball.
When the root system is overcrowded, the soil has less space to properly surround the root ball. This usually results in a reduced ability for the soil to hold moisture near the roots and minimizes the amount of nutrients the plant can absorb, negatively impacting how much new growth the plant can put out.
How to Encourage Larger Leaves on Your Philodendron
Now that you understand the most common causes of smaller leaf growth, you can take steps towards correcting these issues to ensure your Philodendron can continually produce large, vibrant leaves.
Philodendrons thrive on as much bright, indirect light as you can give them throughout the day, so if you notice smaller leaves on your plant, the first thing to do is find a brighter spot in your home to place it. Give your plant at least six to eight hours of indirect sunlight a day.
South or east-facing windows are a great place to start, but make sure your plant isn’t in the path of direct sunlight, as it can be too harsh and will burn the leaves. If low light was the issue, you should see any new growth return to normal size after you make the move to a brighter location.
Most Philodendron varieties do really well with the occasional supplemental feeding. If you aren’t already providing some fertilizer, consider applying a well-balanced liquid feed about once every six weeks during the growing season. That should be enough for your plant to thrive without running the risk of creating a buildup in the soil.
On the other hand, if you are noticing salt buildup in your Philodendron’s pot, recognizable by the appearance of white crusty topsoil, it’s time to flush it out. The best way to do this is to water the soil well, ensuring all parts are saturated. Wait about ten minutes to allow the salts to dissolve, and then rinse the soil thoroughly under a faucet tap, letting the liquid drain from the bottom of the pot.
You can repeat this process two or three times to rinse out as much of the salt buildup as possible, and then allow the soil to dry out properly before resuming your normal watering program.
Speaking of watering, it is essential that you avoid overwatering your Philodendron. Aside from salt buildup flushes, watering should only be done when the top two inches of soil have become dry to the touch. Stick a finger down into the soil to determine this. If it is still damp, wait a few days and test again.
This method of watering is much more reliable than watering on a weekly schedule, and you can save yourself a lot of headaches by adopting this strategy. If you suspect your Philodendron’s small leaf growth is due to overwatering, you should see normal growth resume within a few weeks after you’ve addressed the issue and given your plant time to dry out.
To avoid your plant becoming so rootbound that it has trouble absorbing water and nutrients, you need to occasionally check the root system to make sure that it still has room to spread out.
For Philodendrons, you will want to check the roots every couple of years (or every year for some vigorous varieties) to see if it’s time for a larger pot. Pick a container that is large enough to allow one to two inches of space between the root ball and the edge of the pot on all sides. Replant your Philodendron in the new pot with fresh, nutrient-rich potting soil.
Do not plant in a pot that is too large, as the excess soil will retain too much moisture, and you run the risk of exposing your plant to root rot.
Bonus: Consider Trellising
We’ll leave you with one extra tip that has been known to increase leaf size in vining varieties of Philodendrons. Give your plant a trellis to grow up. Although we often utilize vining Philodendrons in hanging baskets, the truth is most varieties are actually climbers, used to attaching themselves to trees and growing skyward.
By trellising your plant, you provide a structure for it to grow up and secure itself to, allowing the plant to put out more biomass. This typically means it grows taller and the leaves get larger.
Bamboo stakes or moss poles work really well for this application, although we’ve seen people successfully train vines up strings they attach to their ceilings. Get creative with displaying your Philodendron and watch your plant flourish!
Putting It All Together
If you realize that your Philodendron is starting to push out smaller than normal leaves, it is likely because one of its basic needs is not being met. Most often, it needs more light. Alternatively, it could be suffering from a nutrient deficiency, either because the soil is depleted and you haven’t given it any fertilizer, or there is a care issue that is inadvertently causing a reduction in nutrient absorption. Either way, take a measured approach to investigating and addressing these issues, and you’ll see your Philodendron bounce back in no time at all.