Here’s my confession: I’ve killed plants. I know I call myself a gardening expert, but it happens to the best of us, regardless of our expertise. It could be because we left a potted plant unattended while on vacation, or because we chose plants by their appearance rather than what’s suited to our garden’s conditions, but some plants are victims of something else entirely: too much kindness. For some reason, we always think plants need more attention, more water, more fertilizer, but this isn’t always the case—in fact, most times plants require not more but less attention.
Overwatering is the No. 1 killer of indoor plants. Think of it like this: Do you want to sit in a bath for 24 hours? Well, neither do your plants. Just like our skin gets wrinkled after an hour in the tub, a plant’s roots will rot if soaked for too long. We often forget that, from October to March, daylight is decreasing and even indoor plants begin to slow in growth, in effect reducing their need for water and fertilizer. Similarly, outdoor irrigation systems left on too long create soggy sections of the yard and drown established perennials and shrubs, while even possibly causing needles on evergreens to brown. Plants enjoy drying slightly in between waterings, and they’ll tell you with their happy, healthy white roots.
Consuming too much of any one thing is never healthy. Overfeeding stimulates rapid growth that causes plants to become soft, weak and susceptible to disease and insects. The healthiest plants are those that grow gradually, so the key is finding the balance between too much and too little fertilizer. Like watering, fertilizing indoor plants should be drastically cut back—if not eliminated—from October to March as shorter daylight hours have plants resting. The less you grow, the less you need. Just remember: Fertilizer is unnecessary in gardens with rich organic matter, whereas fertilizer is key for potted plants and containers, as most are planted in soilless mixes that usually lack nutrients.
Practice tough love
Sometimes plants require tough love to kick their performance into high gear. For plants lacking vigour or bloom, a hearty pruning of up to one third of their overall growth should stimulate success (but remember to prune only after bloom or check directions for proper pruning times). In late summer, you should always pinch back annual containers (such as wave petunias and million bells) by up to half to promote new growth that will have your pots performing until frost. And bulbs, too, need to be left alone in summer to trigger their bloom cycle.