You Will Kill Plants... It’s Part of the Gardening Equation

Riddle: “What’s the difference between a master gardener and a rookie gardener?”

Answer: “The master gardener has killed way more plants.”

That truism hammers home the point that whether you’re new to gardening or a seasoned veteran, killing plants goes with the territory.

Lots of factors lead to the demise of a plant, and they’re not all a result of any so-called “brown thumb.”

One reason veteran gardeners manage to at least reduce their plant mortality rates is that they’ve learned lessons from their earlier demises. They weren’t luckily born with a “green thumb.”

Like any endeavor, the more you know about something, and the more you do it, the better you get (usually). Here are some tips to help you have more success with plants in your landscape.

Three key lessons

One lesson most veteran gardeners quickly learn from their plant autopsies is that the soil makes a critical difference.

So many yards tend to have compacted soil, or soil that’s too sandy or too clayish, poor in nutrition, and/or highly disturbed and weed-infested as a result of grading during home construction.

These can all become death traps to plants if they aren’t corrected.

A good solution in most cases is to loosen the existing “soil” to 10 or 12 inches deep, then dig or till in two or three inches of compost, rotted leaves, or similar organic matter.

The result is a “fluffier” bed that’s raised a few inches above the surrounding ground and improved in drainage, aeration, and nutrition.

Read more on how to improve your garden’s soil.

A good second step is to test the soil before planting.

Most state Extension services and many garden centers offer inexpensive, DIY test kits that give you a reading on whether the soil is lacking any key nutrients or in sore need of an adjustment in pH (the soil’s acidity level).

The recommended adjustments can help head off plant problems before they develop and sidestep amendments or fertilizers that either aren’t needed or that might do more harm than good.

A third pre-planting step is observing. Pay attention so you know where it’s sunny vs. shady, where the wind tends to blow (and not), and where it’s wetter or drier.

These are clues that help you address that other main “secret” of gardening – getting the right plant in the right place… or at least knowing enough to avoid planting the wrong plant in the wrong place.

This is where experience pays off. The more you know plants and their specific needs, the faster you’ll lower your plant mortality rate.

The patient way is experimenting, paying attention to how plants perform, and learning from the struggles and killings.

A faster way is soaking up what the many plant-killers who have gone before you already have learned.

These include the plant-selection wisdom of knowledgeable garden-center staffers, Extension-service Master Gardeners, and gardening neighbors as well as visits to public gardens and online or good old-fashioned book research.

Read more on how to get the right plant in the right place.

More expert tips to help you stop killing plants

Here are four additional bits of advice from veteran gardeners.

  1. Start small. Don’t dig up the whole yard and try to plant everything in one fell swoop. Observe, research, and plant one small area first. See how it goes, learn from mistakes, then move on to another area when you gain confidence.
  2. Familiar isn’t always best. Just because a plant is widely used doesn’t mean it’s a solid choice... or at least a solid choice in every setting. Don’t overlook nearly bullet-proof plants that aren’t more widely planted simply because they aren’t well known.
  3. Learn plant care. You don’t need to learn how to care for everything… just the plants you have. Different ones require more pruning, fertilizing, watering, dividing, etc. than others, and the timing of jobs can vary plant-by-plant. Numerous books and online resources are available to get you up to speed on the care your particular cast of characters needs.
  4. Be ready to move. Move plants, that is. Some of the best gardeners will tell you that they’ve transplanted every plant in their yard at least once in an effort to find the ideal spot. Plants survive transplanting better than most people think. It’s better to move a struggling plant as soon as you realize it’s in the wrong spot than to let it slowly slink away out of fear that you’ll kill it by digging.

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