Plants are much like humans; they need water, food, space, air, suitable habitat and a degree of care to thrive, and even the most careful gardener can get it wrong at times. Knowing what could be killing your plants is the first step to fixing the problem and restoring your garden to its healthy best.
It’s good to remember that no plant is indestructible, and even the likes of drought-tolerant or shade-loving plants still need a little TLC from time to time. To help you iron out the issues we’ve put together the top 10 ways you could be harming your yard to help you dodge these common mistakes…
Under- and over-watering
It’s a frequent mistake to think your plants need constant watering in order to grow healthy and strong, when in fact this could have the opposite effect. Excess water can drown a plant as it stops the roots from breathing and can cause them to rot. Equally, under-watering can be just as harmful as it deprives roots of the moisture needed to survive, preventing the plant from getting essential nutrients.
As a rule of thumb, feeling the top 1-2 inches of soil for moisture is a good way to check if your plants or garden beds need watering or not. Often a liberal watering two or three times per week in summer, and much less in the cooler months, will be all your plants need, though this can vary between species. Watering deeply, direct to the roots, is best as this avoids wetting the foliage, reducing the chance of rot, and ensures moisture goes directly where it’s needed. Hoselink’s Root Waterer & Soil Breaker is the ideal tool for deep root watering. It’s also worth getting to know your plants' needs before sowing so you can choose species with similar requirements to help make watering easier.
Planting in the wrong location
Like people, every plant is different, which means every plant has its own list of special needs. Companion planting is one way of approaching your garden planning as it requires similar species to be planted together, often sharing similar demands, with specific plants chosen that will benefit one another and even prevent things like pests. Some plants will prefer shade, like Sweet Box, whilst many others need full sunshine for a minimum number of hours per day to flourish. Location can also vary depending on the climate in which you live. Much warmer, more tropical areas of Australia may find plants will do better to have morning sun and afternoon shade, like Billy Buttons, whilst that same plant will require full sun all day in the cooler South. Read what a plant needs before digging – the amount of moisture it requires is a good indicator of where to position it, as the more moisture it needs the less hot sun it may require.
Finding out what nutrients your plants need before reaching for a fertiliser bottle is the key to successful feeding. Often the wrong fertiliser – or too much fertiliser – is the cause of sick or dying plant beds as it can burn the roots and make the plant more vulnerable to pests. Reading the instructions on the back of a fertiliser bottle is important to learn how much to use and what you can use it on. Many plants will only require fertilising once a month, whilst a lawn will only need it twice a year, so it’s a good idea to add fertilising dates to your calendar so you get the frequency right.
There’s a time and a place for planting, and though you might assume most sowing and planting occurs in spring and summer, this is not the case for a huge range of plant seeds that prefer the cooler soil of autumn and winter to germinate in. Planting at the wrong time of year often means the wrong temperatures, sunlight levels and conditions for the plant, so it won’t survive for very long. Read seed packets, speak to your local nursery or find a wealth of information online before planting to discover the best time of year to get out in the garden for the species you’ve chosen.
Spraying flower beds to rid your garden of weeds like dandelions, or using chemicals to deter or kill pests and treat disease, can inadvertently have the opposite effect on your yard. Synthetic herbicides and pesticides can threaten the environment and be particularly harmful if you’re growing any fruit, veg or herbs. Though these chemicals may effectively eliminate common pests and problems, they can in turn damage the soil and affect the beneficial insects and wildlife visiting your garden. Many natural and organic alternatives exist and there are even a few simple homemade solutions that can do the trick just as well, such as a solution of vegetable oil and mild soap to treat insect issues, or simply mulching with straw to prevent unwanted plants and weeds from growing. Making a few small swaps could make a big difference to your garden’s health.
The source of every gardener’s woe, especially if you’re trying to grow your own produce, critters including aphids, whitefly, snails, fruit fly, cabbage moth and spider mites feed on and damage a range of fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, tubers and seeds. Many species can reproduce rapidly, so pest problems can quickly get out of control. There are some preventative steps you can take, including encouraging beneficial insects such as ladybirds and damsel bugs - who literally eat these guys for lunch - into your garden by planting nectar-rich species such as sunflowers, dill, cosmos and sweet alyssum to feed on. Another useful method is covering susceptible plants with lightweight row covers, cloches or netting. Sowing disease-resistant plants and properly disposing of infested plants (not on the compost heap) can also help.
The weather plays an important role in the health of your plants, and extreme high or low temperatures can cause a few issues. Take into consideration which climatic zone you are in (Australia has eight zones) and plant accordingly. If you are in an area that suffers searing summer heat then consider choosing drought-tolerant plants like agave and verbena, or if you’re in an area that gets winter frost, such as Tasmania, then choose hardy plants like banksia and agapanthus, whilst if you’re in a rainy region of Victoria you might want to look at plants that don’t mind a bit of damp, such as sedges, calla lilies and native violets.
Some soil will be naturally low in nutrients that will affect how fertile the earth is and how plants grow – or not! If you find your plant's leaves are discolouring or falling off, or you have a lack of crop growth, it could mean you have poor soil and this can usually be tested using a home kit or by taking a sample to a local nursery. Adding compost or manure to your soil and mulching can drastically improve the quality, as can adjusting the pH balance according to the result of your soil test. Once you’ve improved the quality of your soil, clear any weeds and turn and cultivate it to give new seedlings the best chance of survival.
Identifying the needs of your chosen plants includes knowing how large each one will grow and providing ample space for them to flourish in. Compacting plants closely together, or not paying attention to root requirements, can cause damage to the roots which means eventually your plants will die. This is particularly relevant when planting trees. Whilst a plant may not grow particularly wide above the soil, down below it may have a sprawling root system, so research and plan what you want to grow before making any purchases to ensure you plant within the means of your outdoor space.
One of the simplest yet most common reasons for a declining garden is not giving it the time or care it needs. If you’re going to plant a range of beautiful exotic species or colourful flowers, then you will need to put in a bit of work to see them thrive. Leaving plants to die or beds to become weedy can cause unwanted pests and diseases, making it much harder to recover your backyard later on. If you don’t have much time, are on a water restriction or perhaps lack knowledge, then choose easy-to-grow or drought-tolerant plants that can take care of themselves for a while. No plant can be ignored entirely, but species such as air plants, chrysanthemums and hellebores will be quite happy with only occasional attention.