When I answer the phone for Backyard Farmer, or answer questions about plant problems at the garden center, or answer a question for someone at church, I can usually put the question into one of three categories:

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

2.     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?”

3.     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 1 and 2 on “How” and “When” comes from experience or should come from University based research. The answers to the “Why” questions usually takes 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, if I don’t know what a plant is 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 air pockets. 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.

I will continue this article about “Plant Basics” next week in Part #2. A reminder, if you have not put on your second application of Wilt-stop or Wilt-pruf now is a good time. Have a good week and stay warm.

Copyright 2017