You are new to gardening, or recently moved into a new home. You invested money and time into setting up what you pictured as a little paradise, but it isn’t working. The plants seem to be doing nothing, the weeds are more interesting, and some days you wish you hadn’t got into this.
If this sounds like you, then you are not alone. It’s common on the learning curve of gardening to feel frustrated, and even garden in a new learning experience, especially if you have switched zones and move into a different climate. Let’s see if we can help. Here are some of the most common issues that are likely to be unsettling you, and some ideas on how to deal with them.
My New Plants Aren’t Growing
We are all impatient, and live in a world of instant gratification, where we track the delivery of a meal to our door by the second. Plants live in a different world – one of seasons, and the yearly cycle of growth and rest. There are lots of ordinary reasons why you might be seeing less growth than you expected:
Season of Planting
If you plant your garden in fall, you get that advantage of better prices, and often slightly larger plants, but you have to wait until next spring to see anything much happening. Most plants don’t grow much or at all after mid-summer. This is especially true of trees. In fact, you really don’t want to see a big outburst of growth in the middle of fall, especially in colder zones, because that new growth can be damaged by winter, since it won’t have time to ripen. That wastes the energy of your new plant, and it only has to make that growth again in spring.
You can help keep your plants resting through fall, and help them get to sleep. Don’t use short-term fertilizers when planting at that time (long term, high phosphate fertilizers are fine). Avoid water-soluble fertilizers, evergreen foods containing lots of nitrogen (the first number of the three shown on the box). Don’t waste slow-release ‘once a season’ fertilizers either, (unless they specify fall use), as their goodness will usually be gone by the time spring arrives.
Time to Establish
When a plant finds itself in a new situation, the first thing it does is grow roots. That’s a good thing, because it builds a strong plant that will resist future drought, and have better winter survival. So that plant that appears to be doing nothing is working hard out of sight. Lots of root growth happens in fall – another benefit of fall planting, and established plants are doing it too. Just because you don’t see it, it’s happening, and will result in more growth next year.
There is an old gardener’s saying – “First year sleep, second year creep, third year leap”. That is pretty much the way it goes with everything you plant, except for annual flowers. Gardening will slow down your life – a good thing, surely, in this time of rush and constant action. So when you don’t see much happening, give it time.
However. . .
Perhaps you have done this already, and waited through 2 or 3 summers, and still things aren’t going well. There are some very real things that can slow down or stop the development of your garden.
How much attention did you pay when choosing your plants? Some research is always a good idea (or read the detailed descriptions and information about every plant we sell, a unique feature of the Tree Center, and one our customers love. We give you honest, accurate and balanced information.) Here are some factors that you might not have considered.
Shade: We tend to underestimate how shady a spot is. Our eyes adjust, and we don’t see just how low the light levels really are, if you are a plant. For a detailed insight into shade and plants, check out this earlier blog post. It emphasizes one thing that is often overlooked – shade where you can see the sky overhead is very different, and much lighter, than shade underneath leaves. The shade underneath evergreen trees and bushes is especially difficult, as it is often combined with dry earth and low nutrients. Many plants will do find in open shade, beneath a blue sky, but will decline once they are overhung with leaves. So perhaps you underestimated how much sun a particular plant needed?
Solutions: Besides moving the plant to a brighter spot, what about having the trees above trimmed? This will let in more light, and also reduce the water needs of the now-smaller tree.
You can deal with the water and nutrients issue with rich, compost mulches, and putting in irrigation.
When planting, good soil preparation, and creating a sizeable ‘tree root free’ zone is important. Once a shrub or shade perennial is established, it will do much better, and the couple of seasons it has in a prepared area (before the tree roots invade, which they certainly will) can make it sturdy enough to survive much better.
Not Winter Hardy: We all want to grow different plants, and something can look deliciously tempting in a picture, or at a garden center. That doesn’t mean it will grow for you. When you grow plants at their coldest limit, there is always a risk. So your garden should be mostly filled with reliable, fully-hardy plants, not a selection of ‘might grows’. This is especially true if you garden in containers. If shrubs and plants in pots or planters aren’t coming back, remember that they need to be at least 2 zones hardier than you are. So in zone 6, you can only be sure of winter survival if the plants are hardy to zone 4. This is often overlooked.
Unsuitable soil: Apart from the obvious issue of wet or dry, pH (acid or alkaline balance), and soil type (sand, loam or clay), general low levels of major or minor nutrients will slow down growth, and stop your plants reaching their potential. I don’t favor using landscape fabrics and bark or gravel mulches – these do nothing for your soil. Organic mulches like compost, rotted leaves or rotted farm manures are so much better – and also form an attractive, weed-reducing surface. Yes, the do need renewal every few years, but that is the point. As they break down they send food for your plants directly into the soil, turning poor soil into excellent soil as the years go by.
You often see ‘well-drained soil’ as a requirement, and that can be confusing – what exactly is that? This blog post will give you details.
Unsuitable Climate: this is the trickiest one of all. Some plants are easy-going, and will grow almost anywhere in the country. Some are much more particular. If summers are usually too hot and dry, some plants survive OK, but they never thrive. Plants from dry places may flower late, or not at all, when growing in cooler zones, even though they grow leaves just fine. If you have moved across the country, starting a new garden is a real learning experience. You might have your favorites from your old home, and automatically plant them – but they won’t grow well. Check around. Are they growing in other people’s gardens? Do they sell them at smaller garden centers? If you don’t see them, there is a good reason – this is not a place they love.
Hang In There – Life is a Learning Experience
It is easy to have a decent-looking garden, it’s much harder to be a good gardener. If that is your ambition, and you are feeling frustrated, don’t give up. Growing plants is hugely rewarding, and a refuge from the stresses of daily life. It can be frustrating, and disappointments are part of it, just as much as successes. The longer you do it, they better you will become, so keep reading – our blog posts are a wealth of information – and keep gardening.