Thursday, January 17, 2013

Plants 101

When people learn one I'm a botanist (i.e. super plant person) the next line out of their mouth is I can't grow plants or I kill plants. There's a reason that people think they have a perpetual black thumb, no one ever set you up for success. If in life no one ever taught you the correct way, would you expect to succeed? Of course not. Yet the majority of people seem to think growing any plant requires a mystical green thumb that you can only be born with, otherwise you are doomed to be the grim reaper of plants. I promise there is hope for anybody!

a variety of succulents

Of the plant killer group, people follow two thought processes on what it actually takes to grow plants. Route 1 is it only takes any random dirt and some water, then they're dumbfounded when their plant dies.  Route 2 believes that plants are impossibly complex and don't even attempt to grow them. Both groups are going about this the wrong way. To start I suggest everyone who has never grown a plant practice on something very hard to kill, succulents! The beauty of most succulents is they take very little maintenance and can tolerate lots of abuse. You can literally forget to water your succulent for weeks and it will be just fine, promise.
Succulents on my deck
 To start from the basics, make your own soil. Almost all of the commercial potting mixes are laced with hormones and additives which will initially make your plant grow quickly. The downside is after awhile your plant will be sitting in mush and have a poorly developed root system. I mix my very own soil and it tends to be slightly cheaper if you buy in bulk. First get a bag of peat moss and a bag of perlite. For succulents mix them 60% perlite, 40% peat moss. Take your succulent out of the original pot it came in and put in a new pot double what your plant came in. Make sure you pack it in firmly and fill soil to the top. There you have it! By having a custom soil mix you ensure your plant will hold the ideal amount of water. Succulents are drought tolerant and do best with minimal watering. So if you don't water it for a week, no problem, if you accidentally water it too much, your custom soil mix ensures the water will drain out the bottom. Keep your succulent outside in a nice sunny spot. They can handle extreme heat and minimally freezing temperatures.

Mixing your own soil for each plant is your safety net. Perlite adds drainage to a plant, peat holds moisture in. If you venture outside the world of succulents you just figure out where your plant originally came from and how much water it prefers, then adjust your peat moss to perlite ratio accordingly. If I'm unsure what amount of water a plant would like I tend to start it in a 50/50 ratio of peat moss to perlite. It the plant looks bogged down or soggy I will replant with more perlite, if it constantly looks thirsty, add more peat moss.

Some general plant tips:
  • Watch out for plants getting root bound. This is when the roots start coming out of the bottom of your pot, this means your plant is ready for a larger pot and new soil.
  • Keep an eye out for sun burnt leaves, your plant will tell you if it is getting too much sun.
  • If your plant turns pale and albino, that's a sign it needs more sun.
  • Use a basic fertilizer once a month for indoor plants, they use up the nutrients in their soil quicker than outdoor plants. Be careful not to apply fertilizer on the stems of plants.
  • Plants like fresh soil, if your soil looks crusty means the nutrition has been depleted. I accidentally dwarfed several plants by denying them fresh soil for over a year. After changing out their soil, poof! They doubled in size.
  • Plants enjoy a hair cut, if they start looking tired trim them up, it will stimulate roots to grow, and get rid of any dead limbs.
  • Google! Look up your plant and see where it likes to live, how much water it desires, how others grow them. If your plant looks sickly, google its symptoms. There is a huge very supportive plant community out there.
  • Plants will die, its a part of life just like everything else. I will guarantee every plant expert has had plants die on them.

Remember plants are resilient organisms and want to thrive. I have faith in you all. You can ask me any plant questions if you get stuck.
Good luck,

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