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Winglewich's Top 5 Reasons Your New Plant Died

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

The death of a leafed one can be frustrating to cope with. It's got water, soil, and sun - why didn't it flourish? If dandelions can grow in freaking concrete and cracks in rocks, why does my Bouganvillia bush croak in such optimal conditions?

We will focus on the most common subsection of plants that die - new plants. Plants, in nature, are extremely resilient. Unlike us, they can grow new limbs, move energy around to different parts of their bodies at will, and turn sun, water, and air into food. Plants in nurseries, are not resilient.

In the Rudyard Kipling novel, Captains Courageous, the insufferably pampered Harvey Cheyne is nearly killed multiple times after falling off his father's yacht, being rescued by a schooner full of fishermen, and being taught the ways of the world from the grizzled men who flourish and earn a living in the worst of conditions. Despite watching two of his comrades die, he survives and learns how to make his own way.

This is why I say every plant has it's "Harvey Cheyne Moment". A plant is brought up in the most ideal conditions mankind could ever conjure - soft, moist soils, shadehouses, everyday waterings, and a steady drip of easily soluable fertilizers. Then, it's thrown in a truck, flies down the highway in the hot breeze, shaken out of its pot, dropped in unfamiliar soils, and must learn how to grow roots through hard native soils, find organic sources of nutrients, and weather the wind, rain, heat, frost, and damages. A few, despite best efforts, will die. Most will adapt and overcome.

In my experience, I have yet to find a nursery who will guarantee life, or warranty a plant. Even the most successful gardeners and plant experts have deaths - and it's simply part of the game of gardening. Ours, in the past year, in yards with existing irrigation, is 93% - meaning if we plant 20 plants, 1.5 will either fail to start, or get killed by something, be it frost, heat waves, customers or designers specifying plants be put somewhere suboptimal, accidental damage, animals, or something as small as a bug or being planted half an inch too low. And of course, a combination of any of these things or more can afflict a plant, making diagnosis and lifesaving efforts very difficult!

Let's examine the top 5, most common reasons a plant dies.

1) No water

Everybody knows plants need water, but the water may not be getting to where the plant needs it. Water applied too fast, often by watering cans and hoses, will simply become runoff and fail to reach the bottom of the root ball. Sprinklers or drip systems provide the best water application rates, with drip being the undisputed king for its slow application rates and near zero runoff. Plants need daily watering for the first week or two, then it's time to water them less often, but deeper. Water calculations are advanced and many-splintered. But, for example, If my rose bush needs a certain amount of water a week, I will water them 2-3x a week instead of everyday. This trains them to grow wider, deeper roots, and bigger, healthier stems and flowers.

An underwatered plant will usually look limp and wilted for leafier plants, or crisp and stiff with curling leaves for woody plants.

2) Too Much Water

Overwatering is an extremely common problem in ornamental gardening. Gardeners see a plant that looks bad, they add water, it looks worse, they add more still. Underwatering and overwatering can look similar, with wilting, yellowing, and leaf drop, but overwatering has signature tells. Dig up a little patch of soil around the plant and squeeze the soil. If it feels mushy, smells like decay, and your hand gets all wet, the soil is full of water - and your plant is drowning with little soil oxygen for its roots to absorb. The odor is your plant's roots beginning to rot.

Overwatering's harm extends beyond the plants - it kills your soil by leaching out all its nutrients, promoting bad bacteria, and angers your community by wasting water that could be much more useful for drinking, farming, cleaning, or firefighting.

Reduce watering until the soil feels moist, not damp, and just barely sticks together in a ball. Consider infrequent, deeper waterings, which allow the soil to dry and regain oxygen, and trains the plant to seek for water deeper and further away, resulting in a hardier, more attractive specimen.

3) Sun/Shade issues

Before selecting a plant, double and triple check the site and the specified plant to make sure it's going to recieve the sun (or lack thereof) it needs. Citrus, for example, prefers a very sunny environment, and Hydrangeas, for example, flourish in shadier areas, like north faces of homes.

Take pictures of your proposed planting area in the morning, midday, and afternoon. This allows you to see where the shade and shadows really are. If you see the site in only the morning or evening, you may be missing critical shade intel. Only plant those varieties compatible with the shade conditions - don't assume a plant will adapt to a condition it detests.

If you have any questions at all about sun and shade requirements, any good nursery will be happy to give you the rundown. They are highly passionate experts with easily accessible resources from their vendors. Occasionally, the pot will have a label expressing sun/shade needs. Lowe's and Friedman's, as much as their plant care standards and perpetually low stock anger me, is very good about detailed labeling.

4) Bad Stock

Doing all the right things won't matter if the plants you bought are in miserable shape. Mishandling, mistreatment, blights, and neglect can doom a nursery plant before it leaves the nursery. We always recommend visiting the nursery and handpicking the plants you want - it's what we do at this company. The nursery wants to move stock, so occasionally you'll get a few wimpy plants in your order. It is the job of the conntractor to keep the nurseries honest, and reject bad stock before it leaves the nursery. Wilting, yellowing, damage, or an overall "bad look" are grounds for rejection.

Bad stock hit an all time high during the tail end of the pandemic in 2021. Demand was raging, and growth and production was limited due to worker layoffs and shortages across the board. Nurseries like to claim they only sell good stock, but in a desperate effort of survival, they would sell anything, regardless of quality. This is when we vowed to never call a delivery again - instead, we would make the two hour round trip from the wholesaler to ensure plant health. Did we lose jobs due to it being laborious? Yes. Did our success rates go up? Totally. Did plants still die? Yes - but far less often.

5) Soil

Plants can adapt to a wide range of soils, but dealbreakers exist. We recommend homeowners get a professional soil analysis before planning a gardening project - even if the site "looks good" or nobody requires it. Soil sampling and analysis isn't cheap. There are nice kits available for under $200, but they aren't perfect and require a lot of work. If you don't like engaging in science experiments, paying 200-1000$ will get you an amazingly comprehensive analysis of every part of your yard you wish to plant in.

The most common nutrient deficiencies are nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and iron.

Nitrogen encourages photosynthesis, and vigorous leaf and stem growth, Phosphorous levels dictate how well the flowers and buds do, and potassium stimulates rooting. Plants that refuse to bud or flower may lack phosphorus. Thin, slow growth may indicate a nitrogen deficiency, and a deficit of overall vigor and seemingly high vulnerability may be linked to a deficit in potassium. I recommend gentle starter fertilizers. They're formulated to be nicer on roots. Once a plant is heartily established, you can give them higher nitrogen foods.

Soil Ph is a harder to remedy, but equally important variable. Most soil problems can be amended or at least negotiated by adding compost, fertilizers, additives, or supplements. Examine your plant choices as well. Lilies, aromatic plants like lavendar, lilac, rosemary, eunonymus bushes, yew, and arbutus tend to thrive in alkaline soils. Citrus, hydrangea, blueberries, many vegetables, roses, magnolias, and many broadleaf evergreens enjoy more acidic conditions.

Animals, accidental damages, pestilence, excessive heat or cold, and environmental toxins can easily doom your plants as well, but these are the most common killers I run into.

When you install a new plant, be cautious, be prudent, but don't get too attached. It may simply not make it through it's Harvey Cheyne moment.

Shit happens. Especially when it's the key ingredient in compost.

- Sam W

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