Plant Problems: Don’t Blame Yourself

I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.

papaver-poppy bloom pink
Beautiful poppy from wildflower mix. I have posted lots of photos of these on Instagram. But I didn’t mention it took more than five tries to get this wildflower mix to finally take!

First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.

pouring rain in new mexico garden
When it finally rained, it poured, flooding our garden paths. Note the lack of blooms on the rose bushes in front left of this photo.

Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.

This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.

hybrid and wild roses in xeric garden
Here are the same roses in early September of the same year. Rain does what our watering can’t, and these are loaded with blooms at the time they usually begin to fade.

Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.

basil leaf with brown spots
We depend on basil leaves to be pretty and look edible. This one had some sort of sucking pest on it. I have to cover all my basil all year long.

Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.

red and green foliage on Chinese pistachio tree
A beautiful Chinese pistache in full fall color. It’s supposed to be deer proof. Maybe the leaves, but…

Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.

chines pistache tree after deer damage
Here is the same tree as above. Unfortunately, we added the fence after the deer damage. They killed the trunk by rubbing their antlers on it, and only suckers grow below the damage.

A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.

Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.

violet start and violet flowers pink
An overhead view of a new African violet transpant (Frosted Denim) with wick watering. When my Rhapsodie Nancy’s blooms fade, I will repot it to have a wick as well.

Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.

chewed up lettuce starts
With all else equal in this raised bed, I can only guess the squirrels liked one type of lettuce better than others.

Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.