When the going gets tough, the tough get better. Adversity breeds strength, character and resilience. These are common sayings, recited with the intent to help put a perspective on one’s current ailments and the positives that they can bring.
The messages ring true for more than people, however. In fact, the plants in and around your garden also rely on hard times to turn them into fully developed and well-rounded beings. While we all want to raise paragons of perfection when it comes to our plants, overly pampered gardens can lead to wimpy growths destined to fail at the first sign of inclement weather, disease or drought.
It’s a good idea to practice a light hand when helping your plants, since in reality the healthiest and longest-living are usually those that have been given a chance to weather their environment mostly on their own. In general it’s better to trust your plants than to be a helicopter gardener.
Some plants, especially young sprigs and saplings, appreciate a little help every now and then. For new plantings that are especially top-heavy and in exposed locations, standard procedure calls for the plant to be propped up by stakes, sticks or other similar structures. This obviously holds the addition in place until its roots are sufficiently spread out and can more readily support the whole.
Although this is a good thing, it is important to keep a close eye on any staked plants, and only give them support for as long as they desperately need it. Similar to muscles, as roots strain and break under stress they are quick to regrow and reinforce the compromised area. A plant that experiences long term stress from winds and inclement weather ends up with stronger roots, limbs and trunks because of their troubles.
Consequently, plants left tethered to a stake for too long will end up with comparatively weaker support systems, leaving them more vulnerable to intense gusts later in their lives. I usually tend to remove stakes and other props after the first year of planting at the latest, sometimes earlier if the plant seems to be standing on its own well and/or is in a sheltered spot. Keep the bonds loose to avoid girdling the plant, but tight enough that the plant doesn’t rub free and chafe in the wind
Another common way a well-intentioned gardener can hamstring their plants is through constant, shallow watering. Plant roots are highly advantageous and will change their growth patterns in order to have access to the most readily available water and nutrients in the area. In a natural setting, most plants start with a flush of roots sprawling out in every direction. As the topmost layer of soil tends to dry out between rains, plants then send roots down to wetter depths in the search of water, anchoring them in place and giving themselves a lifeline in the case of prolonged droughts.
Short, daily waterings from a hose or sprinkler end up saturating this upper layer of soil, which encourages the growth of shallow root systems. This turns into a vicious cycle as the plants grow larger, and if these plotted parasites don’t receive their daily pound of water they can quickly become dehydrated as they lack the ability to tap into the local water table.
In general, letting your plants slightly wilt between spring and summer rains means that they will put some extra work into growing their root systems. This can help eliminate the need for frequent watering marathons that some gardeners find themselves stuck running during the mid to late growing season.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping, focused on nature education and habitat restoration. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.