As a mature aglaonema plant becomes taller, the importance of pruning it back for bushy growth becomes obvious. Without pruning, or sufficient care, you’ll notice the unsightly characteristics of the Chinese Evergreen: leggy growth, spindly stems, and possibly, pale and drooping leaves.
The problem isn’t always obvious, because almost every species of the aglaonema plant has been extensively cultivated. If yours have bright colors on the leaves, you’re likely growing a hybrid.
When this is the case, you have to adapt the light conditions, because low light levels only apply to green only plants or those with green, white, or silver speckles through the leaves, much like the dieffenbachia plant. Lack of light is the main culprit for leggy growth on Chinese Evergreen plants.
For the pink leaved varieties such as the Aglaonema Crete or Lady Valentine, higher light levels will be required, but never direct sunlight. The brighter the leaf colors, the higher the light levels the plant will require.
In all cases, the growth pattern of Chinese Evergreens is vertical and upright stems with large leaves protruding out from the internodes. The taller the plant becomes, the more likely it is to lean because of the heavy top weight of the leaves.
The Difference Between Leggy Growth and Etiolation on Chinese Evergreens
Leggy growth on Chinese Evergreens is actually natural. The plants natural growth pattern is grow vertical with the stems remaining upright. The lower leaves of the plants yellow and drop to make way for new leaf growth on top.
Naturally, the taller the stems become, the more likely they are to lean. And once matured, it is likely that a lot of the stem will be visible without leaf coverage on the lower portion of the plant, because all of the leaves are up top at the end of the stems.
What happens when the stems become tall is they lean, simply because of the weight of the leaves on top. The stems may not be sturdy enough to support the entire weight. At that point, fixing what looks to be leggy growth is simply a matter of pruning and propagating the plant.
Top Tip: If you want to keep a tall potted Chinese Evergreen, expect to have to stake it to support the weight of the leaves.
The other side of the coin is etiolation, which is similar to leggy growth, with only one defining factor. The stems will stretch toward a light source.
Etiolation on Chinese Evergreens will be easy to spot because each of the stems will all stretch in the direction of the nearest light source. That is a symptom of insufficient lighting levels.
Common Causes of Leggy Chinese Evergreens
1 – The Propagation Plug Hasn’t Been Removed
As houseplants have become more popular, sellers have been tricking consumers. The latest trend in commercial nurseries is to place young cuttings into propagation plugs, top up with soil and then pot the plant in the typical plastic nursery pots.
It is smart because it restricts the root growth, while encouraging the plant to put out more foliage up top. Thing is, it is not sustainable.
For any plant to grow healthy, the roots need to room to grow. While they are in the propagation plug, they can’t do that.
You used to be able to bring a houseplant home from the store and leave it be, allowing it time to transition to its new growing climate before uprooting it to transplant it into new potting mix. Chances are that now you can’t do that because the vast majority of stores use propagation plugs.
For young Chinese Evergreens that haven’t been repotted since you bought it, check the pot to see if it’s still in the propagation plug. If it is, remove it and repot the plant in a fresh potting mix.
Until that’s removed, the plants root growth will be restricted. Without sufficient root growth, legginess is likely to happen.
2 – Inadequate Potting Mix
Although these are plants that grow in water only, there is less maintenance involved when you pot it up in a suitable soil mix. In water only, water needs changed every couple of days to replenish oxygen levels. In soil, they can tolerate neglect for longer. The caveat is that wet soil will decimate the plant.
When you water the plant, you want the majority of the water to drain through the pots drainage hole, leaving the soil moist, but not water pooled. The potting mix needs to be course for that to happen.
Often is the case that using a regular potting soil isn’t sufficient. A basic mix for Aglaonema plants is 5 parts regular potting soil mixed with 1-part perlite to help with oxygenation and drainage.
3 – Lack of Pruning
For any plant to have bushy growth, pruning is required. The taller the stems, the barer the lower portion becomes.
Different species of Chinese Evergreens have different thicknesses of stems or stalks. The thinner they are, the more leggy they look just because they’re exposed. Lower leaves will always drop to make way for new growth above.
To keep your plant looking bushy, healthy, and with the erect stems, cutting them back encourages branching.
To prune these, use a pair of sharp, sterile pruners and make the cut about 2-inches above the soil line between the internodes, not on them.
After a couple of months pass, new stems will branch out from the nodes below where you made the cut. Usually, two to three each time. This is what fills your plant out. About every year or so, the stems will become visible again. Repeat as necessary.
If you want to grow more of the same, any cuttings you take with 6-inches or longer of stem with at least one leaf attached, you can pop it in a vase of water to propagate it.
4 – Light Deficiency
A light deficiency is the reason for etiolation, which is when the plants stems stretch toward a light source.
Although Chinese Evergreens are considered among the best indoor plants that thrive in low light environments, that’s not always true. It depends on where you have them placed.
Too low light doesn’t help them grow strong. They are low-light “tolerant”, but will do better in medium light or bright indirect sunlight. Direct sunlight will still be too strong though.
The best natural light source for Aglaonemas is a north facing window. The closer the plant is to a northern facing window, the better it’ll cope. For east, west, or south facing windows, put distance between the plant and the windows.
The real concern with light levels is when it becomes too harsh. When the plant is exposed to direct sunlight, the leaves become paler, and burn marks can appear as bleached white spots on the leaves.
If you are noticing etiolation happening, the key is to gradually increase the light levels to give the plant a chance to acclimate.
5 – Insufficient Watering
The first time growing any plant species indoors involves a learning curve to determine how much water it needs. Every species is different.
That’s why for those new to indoor gardening, it’s recommended to start with indoor plants that are hard to kill, which the Chinese Evergreen is among. It can dry out between waterings and the only thing that’ll happen is you’ll lose a lower leaf or two. After watering, it soon perks up.
To keep it healthy long-term though, watering needs to be monitored.
Chinese Evergreens do better when the vast majority of the soil is kept moist, and never drying out. The drier the soil becomes, the more drooping, and yellowing you’ll notice on the lower leaves. That is a sign that the plant needs to be watered.
As a guideline, water the plant when the soil is 75% dry. A digital moisture meter can be used to alert you when to add water.
6 – Fertilizer
Fertilizer is good in small doses, but it’s easy to overdo it. When you go too on high on the nitrogen levels fed to aglaonema plants, it causes green growth to spike without contributing to girth growth of the roots or stalks/stems.
Too much growth in a short space of time results in leggy growth. The stems need a chance to fill out.
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.