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Friday, October 24, 2008

To water or Not to Water ... That is the Question!

If I had two quarters for every time I tell folks the following "secret" about taking care of houseplants ... i could probably take my family out for a nice steak dinner.

"YOU can kill a plant one of two ways: Over water it or underwater it!"

I read a book a couple of months ago that I got from cleaning out my aunt's estate. The book was written by a lady who had a show on TV several years ago. Unfortunately, I don't remember viewing the show or the name of the lady because that didn't seem very important. What struck me was that the beginning chapter (or maybe even the introduction) of the book was explaining to the audience how hard it is to get the watering issue down. There was this feeling of immense relief ... I kind of thought that the reason why my patients kept drowning my plants was because I was not explaining the situation effectively ... it seems so easy for me to understand. Just like electrical formulas to some, I guess!

One of the hardest things to teach individuals who are not experienced with plants but anxious to try this past time in horticulture therapy is how to take care of their plants successfully and properly. Taking care of plants involves watering and this is where the issue of moderation and judgement come into play. It is my challenge of late to teach patients these issues. It will be my challenge for the days to come ...

I think people are most traumatized by circumstances of plant loss involving over watering. Often as a reaction to seeing the plant being dry or droopy, the plant owner or patient diligently and then overly diligently waters this plant. It just seems unfair... one tried to pay attention and nurture the plant by giving it sustenance and it rots out and dies. When this happens more than once, many people just say, 'well, plants are just not for me!' and their belief is that they just can't take care of plants - Not one, never, nada, nunca...done, done, done! But in horticulture therapy, we try to overcome those negative experiences and retrain with good instruction so that this healthy past time can be enjoyed by all!

So I have started this orientation to patients that the two extremes of watering are deadly. One of the first lessons that I teach patients, is that plants are on their own schedule and not to put your schedule on them . Plants have no idea that it is Friday and you will be gone for the weekend or Monday, but they do respond to heat, light, bugs, and water. Most of these variables are things that you can control rather easily.

If you water when the plant is dry (look at the soil...it is light brown versus dark brown when moist or wet) then you will decrease rot immediately. Don't let plants sit in water. Nothing except for marsh and/or pond plants like to sit in stagnant water. The best way to determine if large houseplants need water is to take your forefinger and press the dirt down up to close to the first digit. If the soil is still moist, come back another day.

Then we introduce the issue of light and heat and its effect on growth, moisture absorption, and bugs. Light is an important part of every living plants life. Even shade plants need a little bit of light every now and then. Light with heat will dry out the soil of any houseplant quickly therefore requiring more frequent watering. Low light without heat will diminish the water evaporation thereby reducing the need for watering. Therefore, the plants that live in a full sun environment will require more frequent watering than the same plants in a low sun environment because there is less heat to evaporate the water from their pots.

We review that plants take different types of sun. A shade plant's leaves will actually get sunburned if it is put in hot direct sun for too long. A sun plant will grow spindly and not bloom.

A happy plant is living in the correct environment for its genus - paying special attention to light conditions. Finally, we discuss the effect on plants of bugs. Bugs are every present but adverse living conditions encourage multiplication of fungus gnats, and root rot diseases. The biggest contributor to bugs invading plants is adverse living conditions such as over watering. So, control what you can, which is water, light, heat and you will see your houseplants flourish.

Good luck!

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