Common Plant Mistakes

Pinterest frustrates me. Garden magazines often do too. As an experienced gardener, it’s frustrating to see “projects” that will certainly lead to failure. I often have the same reaction when I walk through the garden center of a large box store. I see cacti that require full sun and arid climates being sold in humid Florida, or even worse as indoor plants for your desk or table. I also see planters with inadequate or non-existent drainage. It’s disappointing because I know young or inexperienced gardeners will end up with dead plants and believe it’s their fault. I see it often with customers and friends who easily get discouraged and give up on gardening completely. I am writing this article because I want you to know that a dead plant is often not your fault. You may have fallen victim to misleading marketing. If that’s the case, I hope this will give them the courage to try again with realistic expectations. So here are the most common misconceptions and mistakes I see:

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  1. Most plants don’t belong indoors. This is by far the most common misunderstanding I see on the internet and in magazines. Unless you have the appropriate grow lights, most plants slowly decline and die when you attempt to grow them inside. This includes herbs, vegetables, and most succulents and cacti. If you have a very sunny, south-facing window, you may be able to grow some of these with marginal success, but most indoor situations do not have enough light to meet their needs. The only plants suited to grow indoors are ones we already consider houseplants, and many of them also require a sunnier location near a window. If you want a healthy plant for your desk or countertop, you can choose from a variety of houseplants that have low light requirements. These are mostly plants that evolved in tropical understories and have attractive foliage year-round, but few have showy flowers.

  2. Using the wrong sized container. A common mistake is choosing a pot that is too small. When you pick out a plant, find out what its mature size and growth rate are. Fast growing annuals will need more space right away. Slow growing evergreens might not. Water requirements also come into play; thirsty tomato plants require more soil to hold the ample water and nutrients they need, while cacti and succulents can be grown in smaller pots because they have such low water and nutrient requirements.

  3. Most plants require adequate drainage. Some plants are able to grow (for a while) with bare roots in water alone, but if you are growing them in soil without any or adequate drainage, bacterial and fungal growth will eventually kill the plant even if you are watering lightly. Smaller pots should have a drain hole at least the size of a nickel, and larger pots will need several larger holes. If you don’t want your plant damaging the table or porch beneath it, use a saucer or set the well-drained planted pot inside a larger pot without drainage. You will need to take the planted pot out when watering, so water doesn’t pool at the bottom. I keep a lot of my houseplants in ugly, but well drained plastic pots and set them into attractive baskets or cache pots (pots without holes). I gather them in the sink or bathtub to water them thoroughly every few weeks. I also like to set them out in the rain, which has naturally occurring nitrogen to fuel new growth. I make sure to set them in a shady spot outside though, or bring them in before the sun returns to avoid burning their leaves.

  4. Over fertilizing. It’s easy to kill a plant with too much fertilizer, especially when using chemical or liquid fertilizers. Established trees and shrubs usually don’t require any fertilizer unless they’re growing in very poor soil. We are blessed with nutrient rich Tallahassee clay and plentiful nitrogen-rich rain showers to provide for them. Likewise, healthy lawns rarely benefit from fertilization. An unhealthy or patchy lawn has underlying problems like too much shade, compacted soil, disease or pest issues that won’t be fixed by fertilization. Over fertilizing is a waste of money and contributes to unhealthy algae growth in our beautiful rivers and springs and can actually stress, and even kill your plants. I fertilize my vegetable garden with organic, slow-release fertilizer, like Espoma Garden-tone, that feeds the soil and my plants. I also fertilize my houseplants lightly during the summer months with liquid fish and seaweed emulsion. Otherwise I just put them out for an occasional rainstorm which provides nitrogen.

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Don’t give up on your plant projects – they can be a lot of fun! Just be sure you understand the requirements of the plants involved before you get started, and know that what you see online and in magazines might not be successful in real life. Stop into a local nursery and talk with their knowledgeable staff to answer your questions and plan your project. Reviving your green thumb is worth the extra effort, growing plants can improve your quality of life. They clean toxins from our air and improve the aesthetics of our rooms and yards, but the best benefit is the fulfillment and excitement of watching a living thing thrive and flourish under your care.

Let's Revive Our Majestic Pine Tree Canopy

Today the most prevalent species of pines are slash, loblolly and shortleaf. These species have come to dominate after humans decimated the original longleaf pine forest. The resinous timber was excellent for many uses including building construction and boat building.

The prehistoric longleaf pine forest covered most of the uplands from east Texas across the southeastern coastal plain up to southern Virginia and down peninsular Florida. We are down to approximately one percent of the untouched virgin longleaf ecosystem. With replanting on private and public lands we are at about 10 percent of the original acreage.

Pines are very desirable. They provide a light shade that lawns can thrive under and that native understory trees and shrubs prefer. They provide free mulch every autumn for use in landscape beds. They are long lived and make excellent carbon sinks.

They harbor a world of insects that become food for birds. Seed bearing cones are an important source of food for birds and mammals.

 The pollen cones of a slash pine have an unusual purple color. (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

The pollen cones of a slash pine have an unusual purple color. (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

Pines are great structures for the nests of hawks, kites and bald eagles among many others. It’s a special treat to watch an eagle perched high in a pine at local lakes or the Gulf coast. Red-shouldered hawks have nested in a tall pine in our parking lot for the last few years.

Between lightening strikes, hurricane losses and irrational fear of pines the region is loosing its pine canopy. As owner of a retail garden center, I see that customers buy probably 500 hardwood trees for every one pine tree. The old pines are not being replaced.

On our Centerville Road property, we have lost some grand old pines mostly due to lightening strikes and resultant pine bark beetles. Each time we replace the missing pine with a young one – sometimes longleaf, sometimes spruce pine.

 The Gopher tortoise is a currently threatened keystone species that relies on healthy pine forests for habitat. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

The Gopher tortoise is a currently threatened keystone species that relies on healthy pine forests for habitat. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec (Photo: Lilly Anderson-Messec)

To plant a pine, choose a sunny area. If you are at the Gulf coast, choose a slash pine which is the most salt tolerant species. Most typical soils around Tallahassee support loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf, slash and spruce pine.

I prefer to plant longleaf since it is less common and it is a strong, long lived tree reaching ages of 300 years. No, I won’t be around to see it into old age but I am planting for future generations.

For lightly shaded spots, plant a spruce pine because it is shade tolerant. It is a soft, graceful, short needled tree with small cones. If you have space, plant a small grove of pines. Their proximity to each other will help protect them during high winds.

The best planting time is November through February. Start with small trees from six inch bare root plants up to ones growing in three gallon pots.

Pines are such beautiful, stately trees. I love to listen to the wind rustling their needles. Let’s start planting more pines in our yards and parks. Wildlife and future generations of Tallahasseeans will reap the rewards.

The Trees in Your Yard are Part of the Urban Forest

There are many reasons to preserve and manage forests and the trees within. Trees cool us. They give us oxygen. They are carbon sinks. They filter pollution. They buffer sound. Trees provide beauty and a sense of place and promote mental well being. They provide wildlife habitat.

 American Beech beginning to show it’s fall foliage. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

American Beech beginning to show it’s fall foliage. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

We are fortunate to live in a region that includes the large St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the vast Apalachicola National Forest, many state parks, forests and wildlife management areas, most of which contain well managed forests. We know how important these large holdings are to both resident and migratory birds. But how important is our urban forest to birds? Tallahassee’s urban forest is made up of trees in your yard, in my yard and throughout residential and commercial areas including local park land and school yards.

Let’s take a look at just one in-town yard in the Doomar Drive area and see how birds are doing there. When Ann and Don Morrow bought their home over 25 years ago, the house was shaded by a grove of shortleaf pine trees which surround the house and a few big sweetgums. As biologists, they understood the importance of trees to birds, particularly this pine grove. These large pines and hardwoods harbor abundant insects which are then eaten by birds – warblers, woodpeckers, wrens and many more – throughout the year. They also understood that pines in a grove like this move together and protect each other during storms. In all these years, through several hurricanes, their grove of pines has stood.

Over the years, they have encouraged the natural seeding and growth of other species such as black cherry and have planted a diversity of trees – red buckeye, American beech, blue beech, Florida sugar maple, silverbell to mention a few. Their yard is now beautifully forested.

 Red Buckeye blooms in spring, just as migrating hummingbirds return from South America. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

Red Buckeye blooms in spring, just as migrating hummingbirds return from South America. Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec

Don, an avid birder, has recorded 121 species of birds in or flying above their yard. Feeding guilds of nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, warblers and downy woodpeckers move along the limbs of trees hunting for insects. Flycatchers and gnatcatchers capture flying insects above the branches.   Mississippi kites have nested high in the pines. Goldfinch and pine siskins cling to sweetgum balls to eat the tiny sweetgum seeds. Without this diverse forest, they would have far fewer birds.

Most people in Tallahassee realize the value of a healthy urban forest and, for that reason, we now have an urban forester who will oversee an evaluation of the current state of our urban forest and the development of a plan to protect, increase and manage the forest in the future – the Urban Forest Master Plan.