When I answer questions at the garden center where I work in the summer, or at church, or when someone calls me, or on the phone for Backyard Farmer, I can usually put the questions into one of three categories:

A.      “How do I ……?” For example, “How do I prune my tomatoes?” Or       “How do I or can I prune my Lilac, Forsythia, or Raspberries?”

B.      “When do I …….?” For example, "When do I prune my Lilac,        Forsythia, or Raspberries?” Or "When do I put Grub Control on my          lawn?” Or “When do I spray my roses for blackspot?”

C.      “Why is this or that happening to my plant?” For example, “Why don’t I have as many tomatoes as I did last year? Or “Why are my      pine tree needles turning brown and falling off?”

The answers for categories A and B on “How” and “When” comes from experience and should come from University based research. The answers to the “Why” questions (C) usually take some inquiry about cultural practices. Cultural practice means “How are you taking care of the plant in question?” One big problem is the person usually does not know the kind of plant, let alone the variety. If you are a regular reader of our articles you know that there are different plant families and within them are different varieties or cultivars. Some plants require more care or different care than other plants. This is why you need to keep the tag that came with a plant or write it down someplace so if you have problems you can find answers much faster. However, I try to determine what the plant is from the description, a picture, or a sample, and then try to answer the question.

Regardless of the plant, I usually ask about the 5 basic needs of a plant in order to see what may be affecting plant growth and development. How the person has been taking care of the plant in question makes a difference.


          Soil is one of the most important elements a plant needs in order to start, grow, develop, and reproduce. An old saying is, “When starting a plant or garden, for every dollar spent 90 cents should be spent on soil, and 10 cents on the plant material.

          I usually ask “What kind of soil is the plant in? If a houseplant, is it in the proper kind of potting soil? If outside is it hard clay soil that holds the moisture and does not let the water drain and then dries to a hard crust or have you added organic matter so the roots of the plant can grow?” Clay soil has very few air pockets which are important.        

          Plants do not grow in the soil, but the roots grow in the air pockets between the soil particles. If you have hard clay, there are very few. Compaction makes this worse and the main source of compaction in our yard and garden is from traffic by pets, kids, adults, bicycles and even lawnmowers, especially riding mowers. Don’t walk on wet soil.

If you have sand, the particles are farther apart and the water drains too fast so the plant does not get enough. If a plant is in a container the same holds true. However, some plants like CACTUS will drown in regular potting mix and needs lots of sand.


          Every plant needs light for photosynthesis. Light hitting the leaves and bark helps the plant produce food for its growth. Some plants require full sun or if inside a very bright light and at the other extreme some plants can not tolerate full sun and do best in dense shade or can live inside where there is very little light. So I usually ask the person to describe the kind of light the plant is getting. Is it in full sun, partial shade or full shade? If inside, is it in a sunny window, under artificial light, or in a north window?


          Every plant needs air and water to grow and survive. Most plants grow in soil in the ground or in a container and the air and water are taken in by the roots. However, there are some that are air plants and the roots get their oxygen directly from the air. They still need water. If a plant is in the ground or in a container and it gets too much water it drowns as it cannot get the air the roots need. Plants in my pond can survive as the roots get their air from the soil and water but do not rot. So I ask, “How often do you water your plant and how do you water?” Most plants do not like to have water on their leaves (especially African Violets) and even some water garden plants like water lilies and Lotus do not like to have water splashing on their leaves.       


          Humidity is defined as the amount of moisture in the air or how damp the atmosphere is. Here in Nebraska during the summer the humidity goes up and you notice it when you return from the Colorado mountains. Our homes in winter are very dry. Even with a humidifier the air is about like the desert and our plants dry out and suffer. Some plants require a higher humidity than others and that is why they usually have to be in a greenhouse where the humidity can be raised and controlled. The worst place for a plant in the house is where a furnace or air conditioner vent blows on it.


          I have left nutrients (fertilizer) to the last as it is the least important of the 5 but usually the first thing someone adds to a plant that is struggling. Too often nutrients are added even if they are not needed. Many times we take too good care of our plants as we add too many nutrients and too much water. I ask, “How often do you fertilize this plant and with what kind of fertilizer?” All fertilizers have three numbers. The first number is for the amount of nitrogen which makes the foliage grow. The second is for phosphorous which is needed for good root growth and flowering. The third is for the amount of potash which is needed for hardiness. The bag or box will also list some of the micronutrients that are important but most plants do not need a great amount.

Learn what cultural conditions your plant needs, then diagnose your own problems by asking yourself the above questions. If you know what cultural conditions your plants like, and then you treat them accordingly, you will be amazed how much better they grow.

Copyright 2012