Master Gardener: Listen to your plants

  • Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, August 31, 2012 4:10 a.m.

By Kathy Richards
Master Gardener volunteer
SALISBURY - It has been said that one reason gardening is so enjoyable is because plants don't talk back. Unlike other hobbies/sports, where interacting with others is a big part of the experience, gardening is often a quiet, solo activity. But are the plants really that quiet?
Plants, like the human body, are "quiet machines." Although they are silent, they are busy converting carbon dioxide and water with the help of nitrogen, oxygen and macro and micro nutrients, into living, colorful plant material. If all these internal processes go smoothly, the plant stays healthy. But sometimes plants can become diseased or damaged. This can be due to internal factors such as genes; or it may be due to external factors such as poor soil, missing nutrients, inadequate moisture, weather, pests, etc. If we pay close attention to plants, we can often hear them tell us how they are doing.
Plants communicate to us in many ways: Sometimes it's through their growth rate. The Burpee Seed Catalog says your Senora zinnias should grow to be 36 inches, yet yours have only made it to 24 inches. Perhaps it's missing a nutrient, water or light. At other times plants talk to us through their turgor, which refers to the stiffness of the plant's structures. Have you ever seen your hydrangeas wilting? That's because the water level in the leaf cells is low. This could be due to an inadequate water supply, or due to too rapid evaporation of water from the leaf cells due to excessive heat. The latter can happen even if the soil is moist. Yet another way plants talk to us is through their color. For example, if the bottom leaves on your tomato plants are turning yellow, this may be due to low nitrogen levels as tomatoes are very heavy feeders.
Sometimes plants tell us they are not happy in a specific location. For example, my evergreen Autumn Brilliance ferns, all planted at the same time around/under my water fountain, shouted to me that they were happy on one side of the fountain, but not on the other side. I determined that the southern exposure heated up the cement fountain base creating a warmer microclimate. In addition, that side of the fountain tended to splash more than the other side. This warmer, moister, microclimate was ideal for the moisture-loving ferns.
Part of the joy of gardening is learning how to listen to your plants as they talk to you. If you respond to what they're telling you, you will likely have happier plants, and happier plants make for happier gardeners. Next time you are out in the yard, pick one plant, and stop and listen to it. You may be surprised at what it is telling you.
Kathy Richards is a Master Gardener student with Cooperative Extension.

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