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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.