If you had problems with a particular plant last year and want to avoid the same problem this summer, ask yourself how you treated that plant in relation to the 5 points listed below. When I answer the phone for Backyard Farmer, or answer the questions called in to the radio program, or answer questions about a plant at the garden center, I usually ask about these 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. Or when someone asks about planting grass, a vegetable garden, a tree or shrub, or a flower, I also cover these five basic areas.


          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 or will it be planted 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? New seedlings need to have the light just above the top of the plant. Usually no more than 2 to 4 inches or it will get leggy stretching for the light.


          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.

          The needles on a conifer or evergreen tree continue to perspire in the winter but the ground is frozen so the tree roots are unable to replace the water, so the needles dry out and the tips turn brown. We call that “winter desiccation” but most of us call it winter kill. Keep the ground watered all winter. I try to water my most valuable evergreens around New Years Day, Valentines Day, and Easter if at all possible. I get out the hose and run just a trickle between the trunk and the drip line.       


          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 is usually the first thing someone adds to a plant that is struggling. Too often nutrients are added even if they are not needed and may even make a problem worse. 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. Do not over fertilize!!!

          Learn what cultural conditions a plant needs before you buy it and then decide if your landscape or house is the right place. 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 2013