Pothos are grown for the gorgeous leaves they produce. When they stop producing leaves and instead throw all of their available energy into growing spindly stems, it’s time for action. Once leggy growth starts, it will continue, diminishing the number of leaves the plant can produce.
The pothos plant has multiple varieties, some preferring higher light for lush growth with others being capable of surviving in low-light conditions.
The signature heart-shaped full green foliage plant is the Devil’s Ivy houseplant, popular as a kitchen countertop plant that can grow in the shade, albeit, not terrifically. It will still grow, just a lot slower than one grown with better lighting.
The variegated varieties of pothos (the ones with green and yellow or cream veins running through the leaves) require a higher light intensity. Without the higher light levels necessary for photosynthesis, the plant will stretch towards light, resulting in leggy pothos plants.
The less green there is on the leaves, the less chlorophyll is available for photosynthesis. With these variegated leaved plants, your goal is to grow bigger leaves rather than more leaves.
Lots of small leaves with cream, white, or yellow veins means there is less surface area available to help the plant photosynthesize. Photosynthesis is a plant’s metabolic process.
The Marble Queen pothos is an example of a pothos variety that will need more light because that gets its name from the marble effect on the leaves coming from the near-equal amounts of white and green merged together creating a marble effect.
Those need bigger leaves rather than longer stems.
The simplest way to make pothos leaves bigger instead of getting longer trailing vines is to cut the pothos back.
Why Pothos Grow Thin
The ultimate reason for pothos to grow thin is stress.
Anything that is off with the plants growing conditions puts stress on the plant. Under duress, it will stretch toward light, because that is the only thing it can do for photosynthesis without relying on its plant-loving parent to bail it out.
Everything else, such as watering, oxygenation levels in the soil, humidity levels, and the room for roots to grow in its containers requires plant parents to correct the growing conditions.
Thankfully, that is a fairly easy feat.
Pinching and Pruning Pothos Plants are Necessary to Prevent Leggy Growth
Pothos plants, in ideal conditions, are prolific growers. They will keep on growing, regardless of how thin the stems are. They do not need to be cut back regularly, but they will need it eventually. How you prune a pothos depends on how you want to shape the plant.
These are tough houseplants and you can cut them right back to just above the soil line so long as two nodes remain above the soil for new growth to come through.
If you want the plant to send out more branches rather than leaves, make the snip next to a node. When trimming it back for bigger leaves, make the snip about a quarter of an inch above the leaf.
This leaves ample room for new vine growth that should (provided adequate light is available), produce new nodes closer to the last leaf.
For unruly pothos that have not been cut back in a while, it doesn’t matter where you cut these. You can trim them back to the length of vine you want. Preferably, short enough for the entire plant to be receiving equal amounts of light.
For a bushier plant, keep the stems short.
Remove Damaged Leaves
The leaves on pothos turning yellow or brown is a common occurrence. It does not always mean that something is off with the growing conditions. It will happen on the oldest leaves first solely because of aging. It can also be because of a lack of something it needs. Sunlight, or a nutrient deficiency.
In either case, yellow and brown leaves will not contribute to photosynthesis. The leaves need to be green. You may as well remove discolored leaves to make room for new green growth to come through that will contribute to the plant’s health and beauty.
Brown tips on pothos leaves is caused by low humidity. Remove those leaves too and make sure to correct the humidity levels to avoid a repeat of the same.
By the time you are done with pruning back your pothos plant, and removing the damaged leaves, you should have a much better looking plant in terms of color and size. If it is looking too short, remember that pothos are fast growers so it will not take long for it to fill back out.
The quicker way to make a pothos fuller is to use propagation by placing some healthy cuttings in the same pot. Think of it like potting up a group of pothos plants in the same container.
The Need for Cleaning
Circling back to the photosynthesis issue, anything that slows or removes the plants’ ability to photosynthesize will, more likely, result in leggy growth. Dust on the leaves will block sunlight from reaching the greenery (chlorophyll) on the leaves, hindering photosynthesis.
Misting the plants regularly (like every few days) will keep most of the dust at bay. Every few months, it helps to take damp cloth over every leaf on the plant.
Given the waxy coating on the leaves, the result after wiping is shiny leaves, plus the lack of impurities on the leaves helps the plant absorb more of the light it already receives, aiding in photosynthesis.
This is more important on the big leaved varieties such as a mature Golden Pothos that can have leaves up to 8-inches, or the Hawaiian Pothos that can produce leaves up to 12-inches.
The bigger the leaves, the more dusting they’ll require.
Dust remaining on the leaves will affect photosynthesis and that will lead to a nutrient deficiency resulting in a leggy pothos plant.
Is it Pot Bound? Below the Soil-Line is Just as Important!
If the roots on a pothos can’t grow, the leaves will still try to grow by stretching towards light. The result is leggy growth.
Pot bound plants are easy to identify without even removing it from the pot. Have a look at the drainage holes and you’ll likely notice the roots poking through. Above the soil line, this can also contribute to yellowing leaves.
To fix a plant with roots in a tight tangled knot, some prep work needs to be done. It is not as simple as moving from one pot to another container that’s bigger. The roots need to be tidied up first.
How to Repot a Pot-Bound Pothos
Step 1: Have the Right Size of Pot
The ideal size of container is one that is two to three inches bigger than the current pot that the plant is in.
Step 2: Remove the Plant and Place It on a Sterile Surface
The roots on pothos are delicate so be gentle when taking it out of its container. If it is pot-bound, the roots will be tangled, compacted, and bound tightly together.
It is possible for a pothos to outgrow the soil (not just the pot) which will be evident when you remove it as there will be more roots than there is soil available for them.
Step 3: Loosen up the Roots
With a pot-bound pothos, the base will have the roots growing in a circular fashion. Before repotting, you need to loosen up the roots, and prepare them to grow into soil, rather than around the pot.
If you were to only move the plant to a bigger pot without loosening up the roots and pointing them downward, they would continue to encircle the pot, eventually choking out when they run out of room to grow, again.
The fastest way to loosen roots is to use a short wooden stick, or a pencil to prod holes into the soil, then use your finger to pull the roots down. Some roots will get damaged in the process, but these are resilient plants that can heal/callous over fairly fast.
Within a week, the roots will heal themselves, the plant will acclimatize to its new container, and be back to focusing energy on leaf nourishment instead of branching vines (provided you keep it pruned back).
Pothos need to be repotted every two to three years. As there is a while between repotting, this is the ideal time to inspect for any root damage such as root rot. Any damaged roots should be removed before repotting.
Step 4: Pot It up in a Fresh Soil Mix
Many of the problems associated with over and under watering pothos tie into the soil mix used. The potting mix needs to be free-draining, retain some moisture, yet not enough that will leave the roots sitting in soggy soil.
An aroid soil mix ticks all the boxes, and because of the higher levels of oxygen available, it is pivotal for getting larger leaves. If you used a standard mix before and your pothos suffered from leggy growth, switch to an aroid soil mix.
When repotting, place a couple of inches of the soil mix at the base of the new pot, drop your plant in, then top the soil level up until it is about 2 to 3 inches from the lip of the container. All of the roots should be in the soil. Any aerial roots can be removed.
Step 5: Pack It Down and Add a Little Water
The last part is to pack the soil down lightly while being careful not to compact the soil. When watering, only add a little to start with.
The plant may suffer from transplant shock for the first few days, particularly if you switched from a regular potting mix to an aroid potting mix. After 5-days, the plant will have acclimatized.
After that, add water only when the top 2-inches of soil is dry to the touch.
Support Vines with a Stake
The problem with trailing vines is that they always trail downward, away from light. This is why pothos are considered to be one of the best low-light indoor plants when placed in a hanging basket. It gives them ample space to hang down while still receiving adequate light levels.
Indoors on a shelf or used as a desk plant, they will eventually reach floor level where there is less light available. As a result, they stretch toward light.
When they do, it leaves vast amounts of branches with sparse leaves, sometimes with up to a foot in length with no leaves whatsoever.
The simplest solution to prevent leafless vines is to train your plant to grow upwards where there is plenty of light available.
Popular options for any trailing vine support pole include a moss pole, bamboo cane, or even a trellis. For growing bigger leaves, definitely support young vines to grow upwards, rather than letting them trail down into dimly lit areas.
Without light at all parts of the plant, there will always be partially leafless (leggy) branches.
Stop with the Fertilizing
Many a plant owner without knowledge of a pothos growing habits, will be inclined to reach for the fertilizer to enrich the plant with more nutrients in the hopes that it will put out more leaves.
It won’t without sufficient light. That can be sunlight, or artificial light.
All of those bald parts on the vines of leggy pothos do go dormant. They won’t magically put out new leaves after months of dormancy. Instead, the plant will take any extra plant food and use it to stretch towards a light source.
Once it finds sufficient light levels, new buds will put out new leaves. Without the light it needs, any buds it does produce will just go dormant.
The Direction of Growth Impacts the Size of the Leaves
Consider this the ultimate shortcut to growing pothos…
- Let it trail, leaves will get smaller the lower it gets. When it runs out of light, it will grow leggy.
- Support it with a stake to grow towards light, you will get larger leaves growing closer together. Staked pothos grow bushier naturally.
As an indoor trailing plant, perhaps placed on the shelf of a bookcase and left to trail down the side, there will come a point where the branch hits shade. Any part of the vine that has insufficient light, will not produce leaves. Buds and nodes will emerge, but they will not produce anything.
Instead, the plant will grow longer in search of light. You can wind up with 1 to 2 feet of bald branches until the plant finds sufficient light for leaf production.
The core reason for leggy pothos plants is a lack of light reaching parts of the vines. Where no light hits a leaf node, the plant grows longer.
The only quick fix is cutting it back so that all the leaves get sufficient light. The cuttings can be propagated to grow new plants, and you can grow multiple cuttings in the same pot to create an almost instant bushy pothos plant.
To prevent leggy growth on pothos in the future, the fail-proof method is to use a support stake so that the plant can grow upwards toward light, instead of trailing down, then stretching to find light, which will always lead to shade areas resulting in leafless vines.
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.