If only our plants could talk. Like the cry of a baby, plant distress signals may be challenging to interpret as similar calls of distress can indicate very different problems. Improper watering can cause a plant to wither away or set the stage for future challenges with insects and diseases.
Wilted leaves usually prompt the gardener to head for the watering can or hose. When viewed from a distance, the effects of overwatering and underwatering may look similar, especially to the untrained eye. Make sure to check the moisture content of the growing medium before adding water to determine whether or not the plant is indeed thirsty. It may be drowning!
Plants do require the opportunity to make use of water before it exits the pot. Some plants prefer that their roots live in a medium with greater water retention while others, like succulents, prefer a medium with larger particles that allow water to flow through rapidly.
Orchids, for example, prefer a coarse, fast-draining medium. They respond favorably to a good dousing of water. A preferred method brings to mind rinsing strawberries in a colander. A draining period in the sink is also important for an orchid in a plastic growing pot that will be returned to a jacket pot with no drain hole. “Watering” orchids with ice cubes is said to be a good way to prevent overwatering although this method is much debated. All of the orchid’s roots must have their moment in the shower.
Bigger is often better when it comes to outdoor pots. The smaller the pot, the smaller the amount of growing medium available to expanding root systems. Smaller pots dry out more rapidly, requiring closer attention and more frequent watering. Note that a large pot housing a large amount of filler material at the bottom performs like a much smaller pot.
Drainage requires that pots have a hole or holes and that the pot be positioned so that water can exit. A piece of window screen placed over the holes will support the soil while permitting drainage. Using pot feet or bricks to elevate pots will help ensure good drainage.
Columbia gardener Pat Arnold is a true “plant whisperer.” She is in tune with her plants — every one of them. At 83, Pat relies on knowledge gained through years of experience as she makes plant care decisions. When it comes to watering, she has learned through trial and error how much water each plant needs — when to go easy and when to be more liberal.
Pat follows a weekly watering schedule. During this time, she also gives each plant a few moments of focused attention. This regular monitoring means most plant problems are noticed before it is “too late.” Pat enjoys taking care of plants. Many are passalong plants that have been with her for years. They are living connections to her mother, other family members, and friends.
Reading plant signals gradually becomes easier. Gardeners like Pat even come to believe that their plants really do talk to them. It’s just a matter of learning the language.