A note on names: In scientific circles, Snake Plants are now considered part of the Dracaena genus, and the name Sansevieria has been retired. However, many people still know these plants by their former name, so we’ll sometimes refer to them as Sansevierias. We have an article on the subject here.
Keeping a Snake Plant alive is easy (at least compared to fussy houseplants like orchids and Calatheas), but helping it truly flourish takes a bit more work. And fertilizer can be one of the toughest things for inexperienced indoor gardeners to get right. That’s why we’ve prepared this thorough guide on how to meet a Snake Plant’s nutritional needs.
Because indoor Snake Plants don’t grow very fast, they don’t require much fertilizer. You can usually satisfy them with a monthly dose at half the strength recommended on the box. Fertilize only during the growing season and never give fertilizer to a Snake Plant while it’s under stress from something like pests or sunburn.
If you notice your Snake Plant turning yellow or developing crispy leaf edges shortly after an application of fertilizer, give the soil a long soak to drain out the surplus chemicals. You can take the plant’s response as a hint to use a lower concentration in the future. The rule for fertilizing Snake Plants is that too little is always better than too much!
What Can Fertilizer Do For Your Snake Plant?
Novice houseplant owners often mistakenly assume that more fertilizer equals more growth. This error is easy to understand. Many people casually refer to fertilizer as “plant food”, and companies market it using phrases like “bigger vegetables” or “vigorous growth”. This can lead consumers to think of fertilizer as rocket fuel for plants.
There is something that can dramatically boost your Snake Plant’s growth, but it’s not fertilizer – it’s sunlight. Solar energy absorbed through photosynthesis is the real fuel that a plant uses. Nine times out of ten, a Snake Plant that won’t grow bigger and stronger isn’t getting enough light.
From a plant’s perspective, a dose of fertilizer is less like a meal and more like a couple of omega-3 fish oil tablets. It can make up for a shortage of crucial nutrients, but it can’t produce more growth than the available sunlight, water, and pot space permit.
However, fertilizer still has an important role to play for indoor Snake Plants. Potted plants don’t have access to the nutrients that their outdoor cousins get from decaying organic matter and eroding rocks. Unless you occasionally add in some fertilizer to replace what your Sansevieria uses up, it will develop a nutrient deficiency.
Choosing the Best Fertilizer for a Snake Plant
You want to make sure to get the best houseplant fertilizer for your beloved Sansevieria, but it can be hard to select one when you see the huge number of different choices on the market. Let’s talk about a few key factors you’ll need to consider.
Do you need a “root growth”, “foliage booster”, or “big bloom” formula? What about “all-purpose” versus “extra-strength”? Is it best to get a fertilizer made specifically for Snake Plants, or will a Monstera or Fiddle-Leaf Fig blend be okay?
Good news: those are all trick questions. The attention-grabbing labels on fertilizers obscure the fact that almost all plants use the same nutrients in the same proportions.
The most critical plant nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Store-bought fertilizers generally list the percentage of these elements they contain, in the form of a ratio like 2-2-2 or 10:15:10. This is often called the NPK value because of the periodic table’s abbreviations for these three elements: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Kpotassium (just kidding, the K comes from “Kalium”, the German name for potassium).
Here’s the thing, though – plants employ these primary nutrients in a 3:1:2 ratio for almost all biological functions. The main exception is fruit production, but that’s not relevant for an ornamental plant like a Sansevieria.
Farmers or outdoor gardeners might need to add nutrients in different proportions to make up for specific shortages in their local soil. But in a typical houseplant potting mix, there’s no soil at all, just sterile ingredients like perlite and peat moss. That means you’re providing 100% of your Snake Plant’s nutrition when you grow it indoors.
So you might as well use the optimal 3:1:2 breakdown, or a multiple like 9:3:6 or 12:4:8. (The higher numbers represent higher concentrations which may require more dilution, but the proportion of nutrients is identical.)
Ultimately, though, you don’t need to worry much about the NPK ratio if your Snake Plant’s soil has good drainage and you water it thoroughly. A little bit of extra phosphorus or potassium won’t hurt your plant unless it builds up to harmful levels in the soil, so balanced fertilizers like 10-10-10 work well too.
Synthetic vs. Organic
Another consideration when picking a fertilizer is whether you want one that’s mostly made of organic ingredients or a highly processed synthetic formula.
From your plant’s perspective, the chemicals it absorbs are the same whether they come from a giant mechanized factory or from all-natural earth-friendly worm poop. The main difference is that organic matter has to break down a little more before the plant can get at the nutrients, while synthetic fertilizer is ready to be absorbed the instant it hits the soil.
Because organic fertilizers like compost release nutrition a little bit at a time, they greatly reduce the chance that you’ll fry your Snake Plant’s roots with an overdose. They also provide a great living space for beneficial microbes. And compost is more eco-friendly than industrially processed fertilizer, especially if you’re sourcing it locally.
On the other hand, synthetic fertilizer allows much more precision in dosage, which can be helpful when you’re trying to tweak your plant’s diet for better growth. And if your Snake Plant is suffering from a nutrient shortage, a synthetic formula will help it recover much faster.
Keep in mind that a lot of “organic” or “all-natural” fertilizers on the market are still highly processed in factories before they reach your shopping cart. The big difference is in the raw materials – the nutrients are derived from organic materials like seaweed, bone meal, or manure instead of rocks and gas.
There may be an environmental case for using these products, but they work just like synthetic fertilizers, providing a single dose of concentrated nutrients that your plant can absorb right away. As a rule, you expect anything with a clearly labeled NPK formula to act like a synthetic.
Quick or Slow Release
Some synthetic fertilizers are designed to combat the problem of nutrient overdose we mentioned above. They’re called slow-release or controlled-release fertilizers. They usually come in the form of small pellets that you can sprinkle into the pot to gradually dissolve. There are also small sticks or spikes of fertilizer you can poke into the soil and leave there.
In terms of their effects on plants, controlled-release fertilizers are similar to organic ones: slower, but safer. They lack the ecological upside, though. In fact, many pellet-based CRFs enclose their nutrients in tiny shells of non-degradable resin, contributing to the worldwide explosion of microplastic pollution.
If you want a slow-acting fertilizer for your Snake Plant, we recommend going with compost. It should provide plenty of nutrition for a slow-growing plant like a Sansevieria, and your ecological conscience will be clear.
Our favorite type is vermicompost, also known as worm castings – compost digested by earthworms. Along with adding nutrients, it helps improve the fine structure of the soil.
Those who prefer the precision and speed of synthetic fertilizers should go with a liquid option. Dyna-Gro Foliage Pro has a 9:3:6 NPK formula, balanced just right for most indoor plants. Jack’s Classic All Purpose is another excellent option with a 20:20:20 ratio – you’ll have to be a little more careful to dilute it properly, but on the plus side, a small container will last you quite a while!
How and When to Fertilize a Snake Plant
The most important thing to know about fertilizing a Snake Plant is when not to do it. The answer is: anytime something other than nutrient deficiency is preventing it from growing. Giving your Sansevieria too little fertilizer might slow down its growth, but giving it too much can kill it.
Fertilize only during the growing season, from early spring to mid-fall. The exact time frame depends on your local climate. A glance outside your window should tell you when your local plants are starting to wake up from the winter and when they’re nodding off again. You should also avoid adding fertilizer when your plant is stressed out for any reason, such as:
- Temperature shock
- Sunburned leaves
- A recent repotting
- Pest damage
Using Organic Fertilizer
For compost or worm castings, the procedure is very simple. Add a thin layer – roughly ½-inch thick – to the top of the soil in your Snake Plant’s pot at the beginning of the growing season. Your ordinary watering regimen will carry the nutrients down to the roots a little bit at a time.
Spring is also the time for repotting, so if you’re transferring your Snake Plant to a new container, you can blend the compost into the potting mix. Keep it to 10% of the total volume at most. If your mix already includes lots of spongy stuff like peat moss, use no more than 5% compost. Too much water-retentive material can smother a Snake Plant’s roots.
Using Synthetic Fertilizer
Applying slow-release pellets or spikes to houseplant soil is much like using compost. You put some in the pot at the start of the growing season and wait. The difference is that you can refer to the directions on the package to see how much to use and when to add more.
We’d recommend starting with ¼ to ½ the amount the manufacturers recommend, depending on how much light your plant gets. Snake Plants are slow-growing succulents adapted to sparse soils. They don’t need a lot of nutrition.
Liquid fertilizer takes a little more work. What you buy from the store is a concentrate in the form of a liquid or a powder. Every 4-8 weeks during the growing season, you can mix some of this into the water you give your Snake Plant.
As with pellet fertilizer, we advise beginning with a weaker dose than the packaging calls for. A ¼ to ½-strength dose should be plenty for a Snake Plant. You can use an even more dilute solution for the first couple of feedings in the early spring, taper it up gradually as the days get longer, and then taper down again as autumn sets in.
Does Your Snake Plant Need More Fertilizer?
We mentioned earlier that liquid fertilizers are helpful because they enable you to quickly correct a nutrient deficiency. But how can you tell when your plant has a shortage?
The earliest and most common symptom is a failure to grow. Yes, we said earlier that this is usually due to lack of sun, but “usually” isn’t the same as “always”. If your Snake Plant seems to be in an ideal environment but hasn’t produced any new growth in months, it could be short on nutrition.
Here’s a quick checklist to use before increasing your Sansevieria’s fertilizer allowance. Have you made sure…
- It’s getting plenty of light? (At least 1,000 foot-candles during the brightest part of the day, ideally with a couple of hours per day of direct sunlight)
- The soil isn’t staying wet for too long?
- The soil isn’t staying dry for too long?
- Your plant’s roots aren’t overcrowded in its pot?
If all of those criteria are met, your Snake Plant’s sluggish growth could be due to a lack of nutrition.
A severe deficiency can make the foliage turn yellow or fade to a much paler green. It might also cause the plant to produce shriveled and deformed leaves. Again, there are other potential causes for these problems, including:
- Overwatering and root rot
- Exposure to extreme heat or cold
- Pest infestation
- Physical damage to the leaves
- A root bound plant
Make sure to rule out these possibilities before concluding that your Snake Plant needs more fertilizer. Once you’re certain, you can gradually start increasing the amount you’re providing. Go from a ½-strength to a ¾-strength dose; if that doesn’t work, increase to the amount recommended on the box.
Always wait a few weeks after every increase to see if your Snake Plant reacts badly, and immediately stop fertilizing if it does.
Recognizing a Fertilizer Overdose in Snake Plants
Plants absorb nutrients in the form of water-soluble ions or salts, and they can only soak up so much at a time. The exact rate at which your Snake Plant takes in these chemicals depends on factors like hydration and sunlight exposure.
When you add nutrition faster than your Snake Plant can consume it, the leftovers build up in the soil. At high enough concentrations, they’ll inhibit root function or even draw water out of the plant. This creates a condition known as fertilizer burn.
Fertilizer burn causes the leaves to wrinkle, droop, rapidly discolor, and get crispy and brown at the edges. This happens because they’re no longer getting their normal water supply from the damaged roots.
What to Do If You Over-Fertilize a Snake Plant
If you’ve given your Sansevieria too much fertilizer, you can often correct the imbalance with a soil flush. This is basically an extra-thorough watering. Fill a bucket or a big watering can with 4 or 5 times as much water as your Snake Plant’s pot can hold.
Then pour it slowly into the plant’s container, soaking the soil all the way around and all the way through. You want the water to completely drench the potting mix before running out the bottom of the pot. Keep going and let the full amount drain through your Snake Plant’s soil. The water should carry most of the excess fertilizer with it.
An emergency soil flush won’t cure the damage that your plant’s leaves have already suffered, but it should stop the bleeding. Your Sansevieria will still be in a fragile state for the next month or so. Don’t add any more fertilizer until you see new, healthy foliage emerging again.
An occasional soil flush makes a good preventative technique even if your plant isn’t showing signs of fertilizer burn. You should perform one every 2 months or so while you’re using synthetic nutrition on your Snake Plant.
Of course, if you’re watering your Snake Plant correctly, every drink you give it should act as a miniature soil flush. Whenever you water the plant, always use enough liquid that some of it leaks out from the drainage holes in the pot. See our article on proper watering for Snake Plants to learn more.
As long as you’re taking the right precautions, a weak monthly dose of fertilizer will support your Snake Plant’s healthy development. Hopefully, our advice helps you give your plant the nutritional boost to grow strong and beautiful. Just remember Rule #1 of fertilizing Snake Plants: when in doubt, wait!