The seed you sold me didn’t grow…

The nice and ultimately frustrating part about horticulture is the fact that is subject to the weather, to the plant you picked and where you stuck it. People have developed many a theory on why plants don’t grow, some of them completely divorced from reality.

Plants don’t lie, but sometimes they steal. Resources that is. If you are good detective or perhaps a therapeutic counselor, you can figure what is causing your precious to not grow or conversely die a horrible death.

Signs and Symptoms You are Doing it Wrong

#1 — If I had to pick one reason why plants live or die, it would be water. Either you are watering not enough or watering too much. The symptoms for both look the same. If you water too much, then the soils become water logged and roots are unable to get oxygen (yes they need oxygen to respire, and yes roots respire like you and me). If you don’t water enough, many of the plant’s processes like photosynthesis are able to be carried out, because, you know, they need water to be carried out.

One way to figure how much moisture is in the soil, is to physically check the soil, if it feels wet and you can stick one of your fingers in the soil (no sex jokes), typically the soil is wet enough. Soil types affect this, sandy soils dry out quicker and clay soils tend to hold water for a long period of time and then completely dry out and turn into concrete. Literally into concrete. That is how concrete is made. There are moisture meters you can buy, make sure you calibrate them properly. And realize they might now always be right.

If you think about rain cycles, typically most plants are beholden to a periodic rain cycle. So plants get a large portion of water, followed by drying and then more water. Repeat.

Some plants like more water and grow in aquatic environments and wouldn’t necessarily be beholden to rain cycles. Unless their water source dries up or changes. Knowing what climate your plant grows in will help you decide how often to water. If your plant is used to growing in the Sahara, then maybe water less frequently. If your plant is used to growing in a swamp, you will have to be all over it watering, or find your own swamp.

When you transplant a newly acquired plant, water is the most important additive for the plant to deal with stress of leaving home at such a young age. This is until it establishes a root zone. I usually over-water a little during this period, usually the first growing season.

Always look up when you are planting. Sometimes an overhang is blocking your rainfall.

#2 — If I picked a second reason for the slow death of plants, it would be how much sunlight they are getting. I used to work at a retail nursery and it never failed that a homeowner would come in with grand dreams of sun-loving plants like Echinacea (coneflower), Rudebeckia (black eyed susans) only to reveal they have a wooded wetland for a yard. You will have to make peace with the fact you didn’t buy that sprawling prairie you always wanted. You can please stop trying to grow a lawn in your wooded backyard.

Determining how much sunlight you are getting can be tough. If you live in suburbia, there are a number of things that block the sun. Your house is one that most people may not think of. Depending on what side of the house you plant on and how tall your house is will determine how much sunlight you are getting. The east side of the house typically gets morning light and not strong light. The west side typically gets afternoon (strong light), some shade plants will burn in this, some sun plants don’t get enough sun here. North sides of the house typically get very little sun and the South side gets the most sunlight.

Trees complicate things because they offer filtered shade and sometimes thicker shade. Their roots take water/nutrients from the soil and the canopy of a tree can block rainfall. I say we cut all of these down.

Please don’t do that. Trees take hundreds of years to mature and you cutting them down in a flight of fancy because you want to see your Petunias, is somewhat selfish. But who am I, we humans are masters of the universe. Controllers of nature. Purveyors of civility. Sculptors of earth. Deacons of destruction.

#3 — Disease/Insects. I put this third on the list for a reason. Most people will go to this reason first, because how could their decisions affected their plants? Obviously, an outside evil factor came in and destroyed their plant.

Most plants are affected by disease/insects because they are stressed. Plants act like humans in a sense that when they are stressed from lack of water or being planted in an improper spot, they are weakened and susceptible to attack.

So the first thing you should do is to do some soul searching on what you did to lead to the untimely destruction of this poor, poor plant. If you have really, truly done some introspection, then move onto the wild world of pests/disease. This will probably require a trained professional like myself, to scratch our head and say ‘I dunno?’.

There are some plants that are predisposed to certain types of disease. For example, Lilacs are predisposed to Powdery Mildew, members in the Rose family: Crabapples, Serviceberrys, Hawthornes…and err Roses are susceptible to Fireblight, Cedar Apple Rust and other goodies. Redbud trees are susceptible to Anthracnose in old age and sometimes in young, stressed age. As always, some internet research can reveal some of this.

Diagnosing plants is deceptively hard. These three factors are a start. If you had to frame it in another way, it would be akin to coming to a car accident. Usually you have someone who is distraught trying to explain what happened. Then you have the wreckage itself and the environment that lead to the wreck. Then you have a police officer shaking his head.

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