Why plants fail

We all hope for lush, healthy gardens, but sometimes feel that it is out of our control.  It seems that insects and diseases randomly come out of nowhere to attack and kill our plants.  But insects and diseases are not the primary cause of plant failure.  They may be secondary causes, however, that come in to take advantage of mistakes the gardener has made.

            The first key to healthy plants starts at the greenhouse.  Choose plants with strong stems and buds without yellowed or spotted leaves.  Peak under leaves to make sure there are no insects, webs, or eggs underneath.  When planting a new tree or shrub, do some research to make sure the cultivar you are considering isn’t overly susceptible to disease.  If it is, choose another.

            Before you mail-order perennial plants, trees or shrubs, make sure they are hardy in our area.  They will have been assigned a USDA Hardiness Zone number.  It will say something like USDA Zones 2-8.  We are in Zone 4/5, so a plant with a range of 2-8 would work here. 

It is a good idea when mail ordering to choose companies as close to home as possible.  A certain tree species may be hardy in Zone 4, but if it has spent its entire life so far growing in Zone 7, it will have a hard time adjusting to our climate.

            Locate your plants where they will be most happy.  Plants labels tell you if the plant should be grown in sun or shade and in dry or moist soil.  You can try to put a plant outside its recommended environment, but you will probably struggle to keep it alive and healthy and it’s usually not worth the effort.

            Pay attention to recommended plant spacing.  Plants compete with each other for water and nutrients and if they are too close together they all come up short.  Space between plants is also important for air movement.  If air cannot properly circulate, leaf diseases more easily proliferate.

            One of the biggest reasons plants fail is too much or too little water.  As a general rule, plants need about one inch of water per week.  Recent transplants need extra.  Plants in clay soil may need less and in sandy soil definitely need more.   Plants in windy areas need more.  Plants on the south and west sides of the house will need more water than plants on the north and east sides. 

            Watering deeply once a week is better than many shallow waterings.  Try to avoid wetting the leaves, as this invites disease, as does watering in the evening.

            Be careful with the lawn mower, weed eater and pesticides.  When tree bark is whipped with the weed eater or nicked with the mower, the open wound invites insects and diseases to attack.  Herbicides sprayed on weeds or lawns can drift to valuable plants and kill or knock them back. 

            With a little forethought and care, the reality of your garden can match your dreams.

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