Sometimes a plant’s failure is obvious … sometimes not so much

By Dan Gill

I love lazy June days when it’s too hot to work in the garden. The temperatures are not quite as torrid as they will be later on. And that certain desperation that comes as scorching day follows scorching day has not yet set in. You can relax in the shade with a glass of iced tea and pluck the petals one by one from a daisy.

When I do this, I often look out in my garden at some new plant I’m giving a try, and wonder how well it will tolerate the next three months. As I pluck the daisy petals I may mutter, “It lives. It lives not. It lives. It lives not.” After all, any gardener will tell you, “If you’re not killing a few plants, you’re not staying on the cutting edge.” The question though, is not just will it survive, but will it thrive.

When it comes to plants, failure to thrive is an especially troublesome problem for most gardeners. It is distressingly common; we’ve all been there with one plant or another. You might have said yourself, “I wish the poor thing would just die and get it over with.” In fact one of my best gardening friends simply calls it failure to thrive or FTT (as in, “What do you think is wrong with this plant?” “Well, gee, it looks like a bad case of FTT to me.”). Determining exactly WHY the plant is not thriving is the frustrating part.

It usually takes some real thought to come up with an explanation for a mysterious case of FTT. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious. If information in references tells me a certain plant I’m trying to grow is not likely to do well here, it shouldn’t surprise me if the plant is not a happy camper.

Let’s all avoid failing to take it easy in the heat this summer. Be sure to relax and pick a few daisies.

Most of us have probably tried to grow plants that we have been told won’t grow well in Louisiana. And if we have even the tiniest bit of success, we love to gloat. At those times, it’s a good idea to look at pictures of how well the plant grows in its preferred climate. Those pictures will often show us that the plants are definitely not living up to their full potential here. Seeing those pictures puts our limited success in perspective. In that case, we understand the FTT – the plants need a different climate to grow their best.

Often, however, the reasons are not so obvious. First, we should always compare the growing conditions the plant prefers with the growing conditions we have provided. It is not unusual to put a plant in a spot that doesn’t drain well enough, or gets too much or too little light. In those situations, the cause of FTT can often be identified and corrected by moving the plant.

You should also consider recent weather conditions. Every winter I hear from gardeners wondering why their tropical hibiscus bushes (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) have stopped blooming and don’t look as healthy as they did in summer. Hibiscus hate it when it gets cold. They look terrible and won’t thrive again until the weather warms up in spring (should they survive the winter).

Many ornamental plants have dormant periods, and when entering dormancy and during dormancy they can look pretty pathetic. But that is a natural part of their life cycle, not FTT. I have been contacted in November by gardeners gravely concerned that the leaves of their Hydrangea (a deciduous shrub that drops its leaves in winter) are getting spotted and sick looking. Bless their hearts; they just don’t know hydrangeas are deciduous.

You know that we have all been that (what’s the word I’m looking for?) “uninformed” when we first started learning how to garden. It is always a good idea to be thoroughly familiar with the general life cycle of the plants in your landscape.

Sometimes the problem is not with the plant’s performance as much as our expectations. I call this the “You didn’t really believe the description in the catalog, did you?” syndrome. Sometimes we may expect more from a plant than it is able to provide under normal, healthy conditions. Sometimes the problem is a failure to be patient. It will take fast-growing hedge plants three to five years to make a screen no matter what you say or do.

Let’s all avoid failing to take it easy in the heat this summer. Be sure to relax and pick a few daisies.

Photo ©marienalien/shutterstock.com.

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