Think like a plant

You know those pet-shaming websites you can visit when you really need to giggle hysterically? Dogs and cats wearing signs around their necks confessing “I jumped into a stranger’s car and stole a hamburger” or “I pooped in the AC vent” or “I’m the reason we can’t have nice things”? I won’t even try to be so funny with plants, but this is the season when we look back at what went wrong with this year’s garden, so:

Gardens are never perfect. But I have one basic piece of advice for those who are trying to fix plant problems: think like a plant.

Okay, so plants don’t think. But they do have basic needs just like we humans do. They need to eat; they need to drink and breathe; they have an urge to reproduce; they require certain conditions in order to exist at all. If you put yourself into their roots (since plants don’t wear shoes), you can recognize what might be missing and make them happier plants.

I warn you: anthropomorphism ahead, because it’s how we as humans instinctively express plant needs. And who’s to say plants don’t “want” to survive and be healthy? If we could ask them and they could answer, they’d probably say yes.

(Disclaimer: I write about vegetable gardening, so those are the plants I’ll use for examples. But thinking like a plant is a good approach to ornamental gardening as well. It’s usually known there as “right plant, right place.” Since vegetable plants are mostly annuals, usually non-native, and often not terribly well-adapted to our climate conditions no matter how much we want to grow them, we’re often talking more “right plant, wrong place” or the reverse—but we can still do our best to help them along.)

So how do you think like a plant? First, you have to realize that plants are not there to please you. Even if you grew them from seeds. They have no loyalty; they don’t care whether you get to eat them or not. Or, if being eaten is part of their survival strategy, they don’t care whether humans eat them, or deer, or rabbits. It’s your job to put up a fence if you want to keep the food for yourself.

What plants do want, more than anything else, is to make more plants. In the case of annuals (including most vegetables) that means completing their life cycle within one year (or a few months) and getting the next generation started. If you’ve ever had broccoli shoot up into flower rather than lingering in the flowerbud stage and forming a nice head, or if your basil looks like mine in the above photo, that is a plant telling you it’s stressed and really needs to go to seed before it dies, so the next generation can continue the struggle. If we relieve their stress, plants whose leaves are good for us to eat have time to make more of them before they bolt and get bitter. (We are often real killjoys, eating the whole plant or pulling it out before it reaches its goal. Become a seed saver and give a plant a reason to die happy!) With some other garden plants, we want them to make seeds and fruits, but when those plants suffer from stress they can’t do as good a job at producing those reproductive structures. (Yes, when you eat a ripe tomato, you are eating a reproductive structure, and that is exactly what the plant wants you to do. Our habit of using toilets rather than patches of bare ground would be very disappointing to plants if they only knew.)

What makes a plant stressed? Lots of things, but here are some of them:

  • Wrong temperature: too hot or too cold for healthy growth. Don’t wait too late in spring to plant cool-weather plants or try to get them started in the hot summer without shading them or cooling the soil. Wait to put in summer plants until it’s warm out.
  • Soil that’s short on nutrients, too wet or too dry, or too compacted. Plants need to eat; they need water, but not so much that there’s no room for air around their roots.
  • Crowding. Seed packets or other instructions will tell you how far apart the plants want to grow. Crowded plants compete for water and nutrients and often don’t produce well. Some vegetable plants are okay with growing close (ish) but they’ll require more feeding to compensate.
  • Too-small containers. Roots don’t like crowding either.
  • Not enough sunlight. Or (less often in the case of vegetable plants) too much sunlight.
  • Pests and diseases. Healthy plants are more able to fight these off, but sometimes they get overwhelmed.

I’m not going to get into detail about how to fix each of these problems, but there is lots of information in our previous Food Gardening blog posts and on the HGIC website. We can help plants by learning about their needs, especially regarding light and temperature, by watering regularly, and by providing nutrients when our soil is lacking them. Consider using fertilizer (apply according to package directions) and adding compost. Compost also helps make soil an excellent home for plant roots. Getting nutrient balances right can be tricky; if you have fruiting plants that produce lots of green leaves but no fruit, that might be due to an overbalance of nitrogen compared to phosphorus. Or it could be due to crowding or not enough light; assess those factors first. Get your soil tested, especially if you see persistent problems. Remember that plants need water to take up nutrients; don’t let them go thirsty, especially when it’s hot.

Take care of the next generation, too! Plants worked hard to bring you that packet of seeds, so give them the best opportunity to grow. Seeds need particular conditions to germinate; some are extremely picky, but luckily for vegetable gardeners, most of the seeds we deal with just want regular watering and the right soil temperature. The latter can vary depending on the plant; plants that prefer cool weather like cooler soil, and those that prefer warm weather will germinate better in warm soil. Makes sense, right? Also, seeds don’t last forever; the lettuce in my photo was the sole germinator from a packet of 3-year-old seeds. That’s old for lettuce; 3-year-old tomato seeds would mostly sprout just fine, and beans would have no problem at all. If in doubt, seed more generously; when you’re sure, toss the packet. (Self, take note.)

Some plants seem to germinate just fine when and where we don’t want them to; we call those weeds. Let’s respect their zest for life but not encourage it. Mulch your garden and weed regularly; don’t let the plants you put there on purpose be starved by the competition. Weeds don’t know they are cast as villains in our story; they just want to grow.

No matter how funny the pet-shaming websites are, we do have to remember that pet animals who act out are just following their instincts or getting confused and stressed by their environments. There’s no point in shaming plants, either; it’s our responsibility to get better at growing them. But it’s forever a learning experience, and we might as well laugh at ourselves along the way.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

One thought on “Think like a plant

  1. amandAVNiekerk October 2, 2020 / 3:02 pm

    Nice post- entertaining and informative 😊Yes indeed seed packets do have an expiry date just like all perishables. Easy to forget! These days I write my date of purchase on the packets in Big Black Lettering

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