How to Kill a Plant

Japanese maple fall colour

The quickest way to kill a plant…let me count the ways. You spend a few hours, happily wandering around the garden centre, oohing and ahhing over all the pretty plants, jumping back and forth between choosing a broadleaved evergreen Escallonia or a deciduous Spiraea.  Finally, your choice made, you nestle your newly purchased treasure in a box behind the front seat of the car and drive carefully home so as not to tip it over.  You try it out in the intended spot in your garden to find it’s perfect.  You plant it lovingly, patting the soil around it and admiring your work.  A month later it’s dead.  What went wrong?  Was it diseased?  Did it decide to pack it in just to spite you? Didn’t you care for it enough?

Chances are it wasn’t diseased because it probably would’ve shown signs of that when you bought it.  Good nurseries buy from reputable growers and wouldn’t knowingly sell sick plants.  Chances are it doesn’t have the ability to hold a grudge but there is a good chance that something done along the line wasn’t to its liking and listed below are just a few reasons that otherwise robust plants pack it in.

Number one. Bury it too deeply.  This brings death to even the largest, strongest of trees.  When you bury a trunk or stem deeper than what it was when it was in the nursery pot then it’s basically doomed.  The soil around the trunk slowly rots the bark that is the lifeline, the blood vessels, and the feeding tube for the tree.  All nutrients and water that are supposed to travel up through the bark to the uppermost reaches of the plant are cut off and basically the tree starves to death.  This same rule goes for mounding bark mulch around a plant.  Keep mulch away from the truck or stem. The other cause of death much along the same lines is using the weed whacker around the truck, cutting chunks out of the bark, or hitting it with the lawn mower one too many times.  Try to cut out the grass a least a foot away from the base of the truck or have some sort of barrier between the plant and any garden machinery.

Number two. Water.  Every plant has different requirements but generally the majority of plants like a good, deep drink when they’re first planted and when it’s hot and dry.  The first summer is critical.  Roots are getting established, tentatively feeling their way out into the big expanse of foreign soil.  Make sure when you first plant something you give it a good drink then check it through the dry periods. Usually, after a couple of years, a tree has enough of a root system to look after itself and no supplemental watering is required.

Many folks think that a pass over with the watering wand does the trick.  Even a few passes with the wand doesn’t even begin to penetrate most dry soils.  Scratch down with your fingers or a trowel and see just how far the water goes.  You’d be surprised.  Usually it just moistens the surface (unless it’s a freshly dug hole).

If you constantly water only the surface layer of the soil then that’s where the roots will grow to in their search for a drink.  The goal is to get the roots to grow deep, where it stays cool and moist, and where the tree will be able to establish a healthy root system to sustain itself when you’re not there.

On the flip side, water logged soil will kill a plant just as quickly as dryness.  Water deeply but less frequently and make sure that where you are planting it isn’t a soggy spot all winter.  Most plants don’t like to hang out in muck and mire for months at a time.

Number three.  Fertilizer.  Too much is too much, plain and simple.  When fertilizing, go with the ‘less is more’ attitude.  Follow the directions on the package or container and if in doubt use less.  Try to use organic or organic based fertilizers that are less likely to release nutrients too quickly, resulting in burning the plant’s roots.

I always tell customers to wait a few weeks on anything newly planted before fertilizing unless it’s a transplanting liquid which is used to promote new root growth.  The plant is going through a bit of a shock period from being planted so let it recover, then feed it. Sea Soil, a composted blend of fish fines and forest fines, mixed in with the existing soil is a better way to start.  Sea Soil is rich in mycorrhizal fungi which are so important to root growth.  You often see the white, web-like mycorrhizal filaments in forest floors if you uncover a pile of leaves and soil.  They are basically extensions of the roots and are the workhorses, helping the plant get the nutrients and water it needs.

If you’re planting in the fall then wait until spring to fertilize.  The plant is basically going into winter hibernation, not taking up much of anything, so throwing fertilizer down is like throwing money away.

If the plant has a tight ball of roots then rough them up so that they break out of their circular pattern.  People cringe when they see me go at a root ball with a garden claw or my spade. Really root bound plants get the whole bottom inch sliced off and then I go at the sides with a garden claw or my closed pruners (which doesn’t do my pruners any favours).

There are two thoughts to amending the planting hole. Some say you should, some say you shouldn’t.  I’ve always amended, adding Sea Soil to the planting hole but making sure I’m mixing it with the soil that I dug out. You’re just giving the plant a bit of a head start and once it uses up any nutrients from the amendment it should stretch out of the area you planted it in, providing you haven’t planted it in hard pan, to establish a larger root pattern.

Sometimes we don’t know all the answers. It’s nature.  Just do what you can to give your new plant the best start possible and chances are it will do just fine…then in three years you’ll be cursing it for growing too big for it’s allotted space.

Shirley Eppler

October 2015