Plants are like us people. No matter which biological classification kingdom we’re in, all of us are affected by stress. In humans, stress comes from an infinite variety of circumstances that involve family, health, work conditions, finances, social contact and just plain worry. Plants are stressed in physical ways and not that many.
Give plants enough sunlight and moisture in the right soil conditions and, other than whatever thinning is required to establish non-competitive space, they’ll thrive pretty much stress free.
But if one of those requirements is short-changed, in other words if we grow our crops without appropriate watering or are unlucky enough to suffer a cool, damp and often cloudy summer or, more likely, an exceptionally hot, dry one, our plants can suffer.
When plants are stressed, they’re more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Like us when we’re sleep-deprived and stressed at work and susceptible to colds and flu, our garden vegetables and otherwise hardy perennials are less able to withstand feeding larvae or spreading fungus.
Plants compromised by stress are stressed further as bugs and spores spread. In worst cases, it’s a death spiral.
Of course, we gardeners know it’s not as alarming as I’ve made it sound. Plants aren’t really that demanding and providing them with consistent care and attention gives you a great chance at success. Giving our gardens proper moisture, good soil, and a place best suited to their sunlight needs is a big step towards keeping them free of pests and diseases. This is one of the roots, you might say, of organic gardening.
How do you avoid using chemical pesticides and fungus toxins in your garden? Avoid having any reason for using them.
Sure, there are a host of important variables involved in gardening, some completely out of our control, any of which could make the difference between fabulous success and so-so. But taking care to avoid these four causes of plant stress go along way to yielding best results.
Plant stress; Moisture
This heading, for many of us the last several years, could easily be “drought.” Gardeners must compensate for the lack of rainfall. This can mean a serious drag on you home water bill. Some regions limit home watering or ban it all together.
More and more having enough water on hand for your landscape means rain collection or the use of grey water, household water gathered from sink, tub, shower and other household drain systems (not toilets) and then delivered to outdoor plants.
Gardens are also designed to capture rainfall and direct it where needed. These gardens do best with native and other xeriscape-friendly plants.
It’s important, as we seek to conserve water even as we give our garden enough, that we recognize drought and low-moisture damage to plants. Hand-watering — with a sprinkling can! — is a great way to give specific plants just what they need where they need it. But make sure you’re giving them enough.
Too much watering, mostly a rookie mistake, can also cause problems. Allow the last watering to dry completely at the root line. Stick your finger in the dirt (don’t damage the roots) and see where the moisture starts. When you’re finger tells you the soil is dry to a depth of an inch, it’s time to water most crops. Shallow rooted plants, especially leafy greens, will need water when the soil is dry to a half inch. Don’t want them wilting!
Of course, sometimes nature takes care of over-watering for you.
Plans stress; Sunlight
Sunlight may seem out of your control, but placement is not. Consider where the shadows fall and plant accordingly, doing your best to position plants calling for full sun in a place where they’ll get it.
The label “partial shade” can mean a lot of things when it comes to plants that don’t need full sun. How many hours of sun a day does your plant need is the better question. And can this plant take full sun, even if it says partial shade?
Be on the look out for sun damaged leaves which have a washed-out or bleached look. Check them carefully. Drying and leaf curling is also a sign of attacks by gnats and mites.
Plant stress; Soil Conditions
This is the component with the most variables. We’ve gone into all the considerations that mean less stress for plants — pH, water retention, necessary nutrients including micro nutrients, levels of compost and organic matter including beneficial microbes — elsewhere on this blog. Soil is crucial when considering a plant’s moisture needs.
Suffice to say, the more alive the soil is, the better for our plants.
Plant stress; Spacing
Give plants the space they need to prosper. Most seed packets give spacing recommendations. Use them.
Crowded plants compete for water and sunlight. When you notice plants are shading or crowding each other, thin them. Crowded plants invite pests and, once in your garden, encourage those pests to be fruitful and multiply.