Why Do All My Plants Die?


Do you cringe whenever someone gives you a plant as a gift?  Does the Home and Garden section of your local hardware store stress you out?

Some people have green thumbs.  They rescue dying plants from peoples homes and do SOMETHING that makes them come back to life greener than ever.  To a lot of folks, this seems like magic.  Many people self-classify themselves as Serial Plant-Murderers for this exact reason, and to these people I bring good news:

You Are Not A Plant Murderer.

At least not intentionally.  There are a few easy things to consider when making sure that any plant you are given doesn’t instantly go on death-row.  Even better, it all boils down to three basic things:

  1. Water
  2. Soil
  3. Light

These three things are always important, whether your plants are indoor or outdoor, these are the Big Three.  Here is what you need to know about each:

1. Water

One of the biggest reasons people accidentally kill their plants is due to a water issue. Over-watering can cause all sorts of issues with the roots.  If they are constantly wet, they could drown, or they could even develop fungus. Under-watering can keep any plant from getting the necessary hydration and will slowly die of thirst.  Each plant has it’s own preferred watering schedule, and it’s important to understand how much and how often.  This information is found on soil tags in potted plants you buy in nurseries.

How to test: Stick your finger an inch into the soil.  If it feels wet, it’s fine and you don’t need to water it.  If it feels dry, go ahead and water it.

Short Version:  Make sure you understand the watering schedule.   

2. Soil

Making sure you have the right soil is just as important as making sure you are give your plants just the right amount of water.  You may remember talking about PH levels back in high-school chemistry. This is important information to understand for your soil.  Thankfully, you didn’t have to ace Chemistry in order to not kill your plants.  All you really have to know is this: Soil that’s too acidic won’t be great for your plants, the same is true for soil that’s too basic.  You want your soil NEUTRAL.  Neutral soil (measured on a scale if 1-14) has a PH of 7.  A reading of under 7 means your soil is more acidic, and a reading above means it’s more basic.  The closer you get to 7, the better your plants will grow.  Cheap test kits are available at your local garden supplier.

For potted plants, you can skirt this whole issue just by buying a bag of potting soil.  If you are planting things in beds outside, you may need to treat your soil in order to get it closer to the neutral PH level of 7.

If your soil is mostly clay or is very sandy, you’ll have a hard time getting anything to grow.  Too much clay means that the plants aren’t likely to get enough oxygen at the roots, too much sand means that they aren’t likely to get any nutrients.  For either of these issues, you may have to consider digging out the clay or the sand and having some good gardening loam brought in from elsewhere.  Your local nursery will know where you can find some.

Short version:  Find out what the PH is, and make sure you’re not planting in soil that contains lots of clay or sand.

 3. Light

You can have the perfect watering schedule and the best dirt ever, but your plants won’t grow unless you give them enough light.   Some need a lot, while others don’t need so much.  Usually, the amount of light your plants needs is indicated on that little tag that the folks at the nursery have stuck in the soil (the same tag that tells you how much water to use).  Most plants fit into three categories (there are in-between categories too, but these are the basics):

Full Sun: These plants are huge fans of direct sunlight.  They do best in wide open areas away from trees where they spend very little time in the shade.

Light Shade:  Accustomed to a mix of sun and shade, they can tolerate both but not either for too long.

Full Shade: These are plants that get the light they need just from being in a light area and don’t need direct sunlight.

Signs of Light-related issues:

  • Too much: plants look burned, browned or faded.
  • Not enough: Plants look thin, growth is sparse, stems are weedy, they lean towards light sources.

*Note: With flowers it’s not the direct sunlight that makes them bloom, but the WARMTH from the sun.  This is why greenhouses are great for this sort of thing.

Short version: Either match your lighting to your plants needs, or match the plants to the lighting thats available.

Understanding these three things will DRAMATICALLY improve the life expectancy of your plants.  As always, if you aren’t sure about any of these things you can always ask someone at your local nursery.

Happy Gardening!