Plants Get Used to the Care You Give

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Your care is the best care. Source: clipartmax.com

Are you a bit slow to water your houseplants? You forget to fertilize them? It’s a bit shadier where you grow them than it should be?

Don’t worry too much about it: plants get used to the care you give. Or perhaps I should say those that are capable of surviving the conditions you offer will adapt to them. (Those that can’t died ages ago!)

What few plants can adapt to though is irregular, inconsistent care. If you water like a demon for two months, then fail to water at all for a few weeks, many will die.

The same happens in the outdoor garden. Many gardeners will have noticed that a dry spring leads to plants well adapted to drought right through the summer, because they adjusted to a less than ideal source of moisture that year, producing long roots seeking moisture deep in the soil. But if a wet, rainy spring is followed by a sudden drought, even a short one, most plants will suffer quite noticeably and many will die. That’s because they had produced shorter roots than usual (unneeded when soil moisture was abundant) and just can’t find the moisture they need when drought does occur.

Fortunately for plants, human beings tend to be more consistent than irregular in their plant care. Or if they are irregular, they are so in a fairly consistent way. If you chronically underwater, those plants that can adapt to it will. If you can’t pass by a plant without watering it, again, most plants will adapt (as long as the surplus water can drain away).

When You’re Away

20181223A clipart-library.com, GraphicMama-team Pixabay.com & openclipart.org

Your plants will sure be pleased to see you when you get home! Source: clipart-library.com, GraphicMama-team Pixabay.com & openclipart.org, montage: laidbackgardener.org

So, you’re off for a few weeks of fun and sun and you get your neighbor, locally renowned for her green thumb, to water while you’re away? Great! But expect at least some of the plants to go downhill while you’re gone. Two people rarely care for plants in just the same way and not all plants will adapt well to the change.

So, don’t blame the plant sitter when you get back from vacation and find a few plants have gone on to plant heaven. The carer probably gave the best care they knew how to give, but their care wasn’t your care.

Look at it this way. Your plants love you and only you. Isn’t that somehow reassuring?

Matting Makes Watering Easier

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A commercial windowsill tray with capillary matting.

One way of reducing the watering needs of houseplants and seedlings is to grow them on a capillary mat, also called a watering mat. You can find this kind of matting in better garden centers as well as in hydroponics stores. Or just use a piece of old acrylic or polyester carpet.

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Cut the mat to size.

The idea is to cut the capillary mat to fit the bottom of the saucer or tray. From then on, when you water, moisten the carpet too. That way as the potting mix starts to dry, water will rise from the mat by capillary action, keeping it moist longer. And capillary matting also helps prevent overwatering, as the same mat will also draw excess moisture from the soil of the pot above.

If one layer of capillary mat is useful, you can make it even more efficient by using 2 or 3 layers of fabric. This will allow for less frequent watering.

20160210CBetter yet, place a piece of plastic egg crating, cut to size, on a few supports and install the mat on top that its ends dip down into the bottom of the tray. You can then fill the tray – which has become a water reservoir – with water and moisture will rise up through the mat to your plants, ensuring up to 3 or even 4 weeks of watering autonomy, depending on your conditions.

Not in a do-it-yourself mode? You can easily find kits that include capillary matting and a water reservoir in hydroponics stores and on the Internet.

Helpful Hints

If you’re new to indoor gardening using capillary matting, here are two helpful hints.

First, plants will readily root into capillary matting, making them difficult to move. Just giving each pot a quarter turn every week or so will keep wandering roots under control.

Also, capillary mats become dirty over time and algae may even start to grow on them. You can easily fix this by washing your mat in the washing machine using laundry detergent and a bit of bleach. You can use capillary mats over and over if you wash them every few months.

Caveats

Note that capillary mats only work well on houseplants that like their growing mix a relatively moist at all times. That actually includes most foliage and flowering plants (African violets, philodendrons, ferns, etc.). Young seedlings too grow very well on a capillary mat. However, cacti, succulents and other plants that like their soil to dry out a bit between waterings are not good candidates for this technique.

Also, capillary action will not work if there is a “drainage layer” of pot shards or gravel at the bottom of the pot, as the layer of open substrate will prevent capillary action (water moving upwards from the tray). Of course, using a drainage layer is not considered good horticulture (see No Need for a Drainage Layer) at any rate, but not all gardeners are aware of that. If you do use a drainage layer, you’ll have to repot your plants using the same potting mix from the bottom to the top of the pot before you place them on a capillary mat.

The Golden Rule of Watering

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20160103ASo many gardeners complain they have a hard time correctly watering their houseplants. Yet it can be so simple! Just apply the Golden Rule of Watering:

Water deeply, enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again.

The Golden Rule works on 99% of indoor plants because it automatically takes into account the needs of each one. What novice gardeners don’t always understand is that the soil of each plant dries at a different speed. Therefore the potting mix of a florist’s hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) may be bone dry in just 3 or 4 days, while it may take an African violet 7-8 days to reach a similar state and a cactus, 2, 3 or even 5 weeks. And the technique even takes into account the plant’s growth cycle: the same plant may need watering after 8 days in summer when it is growing rapidly, but only every 90 days during its winter dormancy. It even takes the weather into consideration: a plant will dry out more quickly when the weather is hot and sunny and the days are long, more slowly when it is cool and gray and the days are short. The Golden Rule again? It couldn’t be simpler: wait until the soil is dry to the touch, then water thoroughly.

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Stick your index into the soil.

By “dry to the touch”, I mean that you have to literally stick your finger into the mix, ideally to the second digit. If you don’t like getting your finger dirty, you can learn to weigh the pot: when soil is almost dry, it weighs much less than when it is moist. Some people are whizzes at pot-weighing! You can even go by eye: dry soil is lighter in color than moist soil. A warning though: judging watering needs by the color of the soil is most effective in the case of small plants because their root ball is smaller and dries out fairly equally. The soil in a large pot can be dry on the surface and still very wet deeper down. That’s why, for larger plants, checking with a finger or weighing the plant is more effective.

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You can let the pot soak for up to 20 minutes.

When you water, apply it slowly, letting it sink into the potting mix. Water until excess water starts to drain out through the drainage hole. Now, let the plant soak in this excess water for 15 or 20 minutes. If there is still any water left in the saucer at the end, empty it. Job done!

Some gardeners prefer to water from below rather than from above and that’s fine too. Fill the saucer with water and let the plant soak. After 15 to 20 minutes, come back and empty the surplus, if indeed there is any.

Note that you simply can’t water plants on a schedule. The “I water only once a week” gardeners will lose most of their plants over time. If you check your plants every 3 to 4 days and always apply the Golden Rule, watering only those that are dry and watering thoroughly when you do, you’ll find yourself with the greenest thumb in town!

Bag Your Houseplants Before You Leave

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20150323Watering houseplants when you’re away is always a problem. Even if you ask a friend or relative to water them for you, you’ll probably get home to find a plant or two either forgotten or overwatered. That’s unfortunate, because there is an incredibly easy method of watering houseplants while you’re absent, even when you’re gone for weeks or months!

Simply water the plant normally before you leave, draining any water remaining in the saucer. Remove any dead or dying leaves or fading flowers: anything that will be likely to fall off and rot while you are away (not that a bit of rotten plant tissue will do any harm per se, it’s just that you plant will look better when you return home). Now install the plant in a clear plastic bag: a dry-cleaning bag would be great for larger plants. You could also put several plants together in a large bag. Next, simply seal the bag with a twist-tie and move the plant to a moderately lit spot with no direct sun. The latter point is important: if you put a plant enclosed in plastic in a sunny spot, it will quite literally cook!

Inside a plastic bag, your plant will be able to survive for months without any water at all. This is because most of the water you normally apply to your plants is simply lost to transpiration and evaporation: inside a sealed bag, the humidity level will be essentially 100%. There will be no transpiration or evaporation and therefore your plant will use almost no water.

I can just hear you saying: “Yes, but how will my plant breathe if it’s sealed inside a bag?” I can assure you it will breathe perfectly. Remember that plants use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen during the day. Well, at night, they do exactly the opposite. Yes, that’s right: plants provide all the “air” they need for their own survival. They’re perfectly happy sealed in a plastic bag.

How long can you keep your plants sealed up like this? Easily 6 months, quite possibly up to a year. There are sealed terrariums that have never been opened in decades and the plants are still alive. Eventually, of course, your plant’s growth will be hampered because it will use some of the water and carbon dioxide for its growth, but that will take months or even years. Even if it does occur, your plant will still be in fine shape, just growing more slowly than usual.

Just think! A year of autonomy means you’ll have time to take a world cruise! The truly annoying thing, though, is that generally your plant will be in better condition when you get back than when you left!

20150323BOne warning: most arid-climate plants (cacti and succulents) will not appreciate the high humidity present inside a plastic bag, but they’re even easier to care for while you’re away. Just water them well, move them back from a sunny window (to slow down their growth), and go off on your travels. They’ll be good for at least 6 months, although they may be looking a bit shrived when you get back.

Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

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The Golden Rule of Watering

283.KSo many gardeners complain they have a hard time correctly watering their houseplants. Yet it is so easy! Just remember the Golden Rule: water deeply enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again.

The Golden Rule works on 99% of indoor plants because it automatically takes into account the needs of each one. What novice gardeners don’t always understand is that the soil of each plant dries at a different speed. Thus, the potting mix of a florist’s hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) may be bone dry in just 3 or 4 days, while an African violet may take 7-8 days and a cactus, 2, 3 or even 5 weeks. And the technique even takes into account the plant’s growth cycle: the same plant may need watering after 8 days in summer when it is growing rapidly, but only every 90 days during its winter dormancy. The Golden Rule again? Couldn’t be simpler: wait until the soil is dry to the touch, then water thoroughly.

By “dry to the touch”, I mean that you have to literally stick your finger into the mix, ideally to the second digit. If you don’t like getting your finger dirty, you can learn to weigh the pot: when soil is almost dry, it weighs much less than when it is moist. Some people are whizzes a pot-weighing! You can even go by eye: dry soil is lighter in color than moist soil. A warning though: judging watering needs from the color of the soil is most effective in the case of small plants because their root ball is smaller and dries out fairly equally. The soil in a large pot can be dry on the surface and still very wet deeper down. That’s why, for larger plants, checking with a finger or weighing the plant is more effective.

Note that you can’t water plants on a schedule. The “I water only once a week” gardeners will lose most of their plants over time. If you check your plants every 3 to 4 days and always apply the Golden Rule, watering only those that are dry and watering thoroughly when you do, you’ll find yourself with the greenest thumb in town!