We’ve all had them. Moments when we realize that irreversible damage to a plant (or many plants) has occurred. Sometimes we can save them, and sometimes we can’t. Let’s look at some of the more common plant catastrophes and what can be done about them. Then I’ll share my plant catastrophe story. I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with fish.
Most plant catastrophes occur when plants are grown in containers, though not always. These disasters can occur suddenly or slowly over time.
Crashing to the ground
Potted plants are known to fall. A gust of wind, an exuberant pet, or a stray elbow can tip the scales of balance, sending a plant crashing to the ground. Containers are usually lost in these scenarios. Luckily, most plants can survive a fall. Discard the broken pottery, or you can save the pieces to cover the drainage hole in other containers. [Note: do not add a layer of shards, rocks, or gravel to the bottom of a planting container. This wastes space better dedicated to soil. A shard over the hole simply reduces soil loss.]
You may want to spread out a couple of sheets of newspaper before you begin. Gently collect your fallen plant and place it on the newspaper. Then you can sweep up the soil and debris, placing it on the newspaper, as well. This is an excellent opportunity to examine the roots of your fallen plant for signs of pests and disease. You may also find that your plant has become root bound. In that cases, you can either trim back the roots or provide it with a larger pot. If pests or diseases are present, you may want to shake off any soil and toss that soil in the trash. Wash the root system under running water. Remove any damaged or diseased roots before repotting. And remember, rather than tamping the soil down when planting, which only damages valuable root hairs, mud in your plant with water.
One of the most common causes of plant disasters is overwatering. It’s an honest mistake. The top of the soil looks dry. We want to care for our plants, so we water them. And then we water them again. And again. They start wilting, so we water them some more. [Plants can wilt because of too much or too little water.] What we don’t always realize is that the soil’s macropores and micropores can hold a lot of water. Those spaces are also supposed to hold air but the air is pushed out when too much water is present. Overwatering not only drowns and suffocates our plants, but it sets the stage for several fungal diseases and invites fungus gnats. More on insects below. The easiest solution to overwatering is to let plants dry out more often, provide good drainage, and invest in an inexpensive moisture meter.
On the flip side, failing to water a plant can certainly lead to disaster. Without water, plants cannot perform photosynthesis or remain upright for long. Put plant watering on a regular schedule that keeps the soil moist enough, but not too much. Again, a moisture meter is helpful. And if you know you are going to be away for a while, avoid the DIY idea of using diaper crystals to moisten your plants. It’s a bad idea. One easy self-watering idea is to place a water bottle next to the plant and lay a thin strip of cloth, paper towel, or yarn from the bottom of the water bottle to the planting soil. The soil will draw the water up the strip for as long as water is available.
Stray stink bugs and aphid clusters are common when working with plants, but sometimes they can get out of control. This is especially true for indoor plants where pests are protected from their natural predators. Here is a list of the most common indoor pest invaders and the ways to manage them.
Many insect invasions can be thwarted by placing new plants into quarantine when they first arrive.
My plant catastrophe
There was a time, many years ago, when my apartment was filled to overflowing with plants. It was lovely and I took great pride in their good health. I also had a fish tank. Every so often, I would treat my fish with brine shrimp. I would scoop the brine shrimp up with a net and deposit them in the tank. Their tiny legs would flutter in unison, caterpillar-like, as they tried escaping my fish, but they never got away.
On one occasion, I must’ve gotten a bad batch of brine shrimp. When I went to feed my fish, all the brine shrimp were dead. My young adult brain said, “Well, there are lots of nutrients in those brine shrimp, so I’ll give them to my plants.” I proceeded to pour the brine shrimp into each and every one of my beautiful, beloved plants. In a very short time, I saw firsthand what happens when you use brine (saltwater) to water your plants. Most of them died.
I didn’t know, at the time, that I could have saved more of those plants by removing them from their soil, washing the roots, and placing them into containers of fresh water. Live and learn, eh?
What’s your plant catastrophe story?
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.