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What kills plants? As a time of reflection of last year and for many of the years I have been involved with diagnosing plant disorders, I find plants dying mostly from being planted too deep, from under- and over-watering, and from fertilizing too much. Someone once told our class to look in the mirror to find your plant’s number one enemy. We are often the ones to kill our plants with kindness. Too much of a good thing can be bad especially when it comes to watering practices.
The most confusing words out of the mouth of an extension agent are your plant either died from over-watering or under-watering. What a contradiction!
The simple fact is the symptoms of plants dying from either of these two causes are almost identical. Loss of roots will manifest itself the same way no matter if the plant died from too much water or if it died from too little water.
The inability to transport necessary moisture and nutrients to parts of the plant needing water is critical to the performance of plants. Over-fertilizing practices can cause similar damage as tiny root hairs are burned back by the soluble salts found in fertilizers. Detection of the problem requires the agent to ask several follow-up questions to make sure of the correct diagnosis.
Sometimes new plantings are sensitive to cold damage in the winter. Extra care may be needed to get the newly establishing plants through the cold. Mulches help and so do some of the wraps. Better yet, make sure they are planted in the right location.
Cold damage can also occur if you fertilize in the late summer or fall months causing the plants to be stimulated with new growth, which doesn’t have enough time to harden off before the winter cold hits.
It is easy for people to plant too deep. After loosening the soil, there may be some settling of the plant in the planting hole. If the plant starts out just a little too deep and the plant settles some, then it is easy to see how a newly planted plant may end up being too deep, especially if some additional layers of mulch are added to further accentuate the problem.
What are the top reasons for plant mortality? From years of observations, and many of my colleagues may agree or disagree, here is what I have found:
1) Planting the wrong plant. You need to plant adaptive species that naturally do well here.
2) Planting too deep. Make sure the roots at the top of the root ball are close to the soil surface after planting.
3) Physical damage from landscape maintenance equipment. Be sure to mulch around the base of plants so you don’t have string trimmers eating away the bark at the base of the plant. Also, make sure mowing equipment doesn’t bang into your plants.
4) Over-watering. Don’t drown your plants. Our soils have a tendency to not drain well. You may need to resort to planting on raised beds.
5) Under-watering. Yes, we have long periods of drought and hot weather it seems. That is enough to spell doom for your plants. Water plants when plants need water.
6) Girdling of plant parts. This is split into two reasons. The first is from lack of proper planting technique to keep pot-bound roots from continuing to grow in a circular fashion. The other reason is people forget to remove binding materials used to stake plants after they have been planted to hold them in place until the root system can get well established
These are just a few of the big ones. I am sure you may have encountered some others. Notice most of these are related in one way or another with how people perform cultural practices on their plants.