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If Only Plants Could Talk

Did you know your plants sing you a beautiful tune every single day? They dance in the wind, they glow in the sun. The rain washes and cleans their leaves. They communicate through the colour in their leaf, the turgidity of their stems, the appearance of markings or damage to their leaf.

What is your plant saying to you? Hopefully not “Help! I'm being attacked by this awful pest or disease!”, or “I am just so, so thirsty!”, or “ argghhhh I’m drowning!”.

Plants fail to perform to their best for a number of reasons. Visibly, they raise their concerns to those who are looking for the signs.  If you have a plant whose performance is less than overwhelming, or in fact downright disappointing, try to gain a deeper understanding of what may be the cause of its less than flattering performance.

Find out what is causing your plant not to reach its full potential.  It might be in the wrong soil, wrong position, it may be in the wrong climate. Research your plant, the web being a good place to start, but no information is better than local expertise so visit your local nursery for the very best advice.

Here are a few of my useful tips:

Don’t assume that feeding a sick plant will make it better.  In fact, just like us, when we are sick feeding will often have the opposite effect.  Don’t confuse sick with hungry.

In fact plants are a lot more like us in how they react to environmental situations than you may think. Most plants have a dormant period, winter.  We call this sleep!  It is no use feeding a plant when it is sleeping. It is a waste of money as nutrients can be washed below the root zone prior to them using it. Feed it just as it’s waking, spring (we call this breakfast) and this is the most important meal of the day!  Feed them again through the middle of their growth cycle, summer,  ( lunch) and maybe another feed prior to them going back into dormancy, autumn (supper) as a store over their pending dormancy.  Note that most, but not all plants sleep in winter.  Examples of plants which don’t rest in winter include many bulbs such as daffodils, also Candytuft and Wallflower, Pansies and Primula.

It’s been a wet few months and as a result many plants have suffered stress due to waterlogged soils.  Back a few years ago I lost many drought hardy species after two successive rain events close together which waterlogged my soil for weeks.  I learnt a lot from this and as a result have not lost a single plant to this to date this year.  

The symptoms of waterlogging are, in part similar to drying out, that is until you know what you are looking for.  A plant which is suffering from waterlogging is in fact suffocating from lack of oxygen as the pockets between your soil particles are filled with water and stay that way for an extended period. This keeps out the air the plants root system needs to function properly.

As the plant is actually suffocating, you will usually see a change in colour of the foliage, usually turning to a pale green then yellow and more often than not leaves remaining attached to the plant. Any shine the leaves had will be lost to a matt and dull overtone. The plant wants to keep its foliage as this is the best means available of actually using up the soil moisture, no leaves, no need for water!

After a few days, the plants feeder root start to die, starved of air. The best assistance you can offer is to assist in removing moisture from the immediate area.  You might do this by ensuring that water runoff is diverted away from your plant. Remove mulch from the immediate root zone to assist in achieving maximum evaporation of moisture from the soil and even gently fork around the root zone to assist in getting oxygen back into the soil. 

Now that you know this you will also know that feeding them will not solve the problem.  If you consider that potentially a large portion of the roots might have died from the waterlogging and subsequent lack of oxygen, then repairing the root structure (only once the waterlogging has subsided) will yield the best results.  Choose a plant tonic which specifically assists in root development, not a high nitrogenous fertiliser which promotes leaf growth.  If you try to encourage further leaf growth, prior to the roots being repaired, the root/shoot ratio will only worsen making the plant more vulnerable to further stress and possible death.  There are several brands, I like using half strength Seasol.

On the other hand, if your plant has dried out, it is obviously lack of water causing the distress.  To counter this, the plant will often shed leaves, usually the older ones first in order to maintain the growing tips more necessary to the plants recovery.  Wilting will also occur at the tips where water is most required.  Similarly to the wet plant, the microscopic feeder roots die making it harder for the plant to uptake water when it becomes available once more.

When a dry and wilting plant is discovered, water it!  Pretty simple.  Allow it to hydrate. If potted you may sit it in a bowl of water for a few hours to assist in maximum hydration.  Do not waterlog your dry plant by over watering or leaving it in water for too long. Otherwise you end up worsening the situation.  Do not feed your plant at this stage.  If you are in a dessert dying from thirst, food would not solve your problem! Once the immediate issue of drying is addressed, treat similarly to a waterlogged plant by using a root growth tonic to repair damaged roots and encourage new ones.

Sunburn on foliage can be caused by an extreme heat weather event, when plants are pruned in hot weather or when plants are moved into a situation where the intensity of light increases suddenly.  Over the years one of the most common forms of this I have seen is when the potted Christmas tree, which has spent the last two weeks in the shade of your living room is moved back outside after Christmas is over and placed out into direct sunlight on a hot 35 degree day.  Ouch how would you feel!  The leaves have adapted to the lower light levels just like your eyes.  Staring directly into the sun after a period of dark would cause you to squint wouldn’t it.  Your plant simply burns!  Plants can take a full year to recover from this waiting for a new flush of growth to cover the old burnt leaves.  Prevention is the best method.

Place you plant outside into a shady position first, and then bring it out into the open on a cloudy day when a few days of cooler weather are forecast. 

Raspberries are the main plants affected by leaf burn at my place.  I throw a piece of shade cloth over them on the hottest of days.  If any burning occurs, again leave the burnt foliage on until the extreme weather event is over.  Immediate removal of burnt foliage will only expose lower shaded foliage to the same situation all over again.

Frosted plants need to be treated similarly in that exposing the under foliage by removing the damaged material too early can result in further damage.  Trim only once this threat has passed.

If your plant is being attacked by pests, treat to eradicate the pest, similarly if your plant has a disease. Once identified, there are usually both chemical and biological ways of solving this. Advice on the pros and cons of both methods will allow you to choose the best fit for you. 

A plant continually attacked by a pest or disease might be weak and therefore more vulnerable to infestation.  If this is the case further exploration may assist in prevention rather than continually looking for a cure.

When in tune with nature and the plants within it, it all becomes so much easier to navigate. Success then comes easy and the rewards of a beautiful garden are both addictive and contagious!


Chris Hose