Mantras for a healthy growth rate


Most green enthusiasts tend to hit a wall when they realise their plant is not doing alright and they have no idea what is wrong with it. This is where it helps to know some basics about plant health, writes Surabhi Johri

Growing a plant involves passion and a certain emotional connect. You know you are connected when a new leaf makes you happy or a flower from your favourite plant seems the most exciting thing. A lot of green enthusiasts tend to hit a wall when they realise the plant is not doing alright and they have no idea what is wrong with it.

This is where it helps to know some basics about plant health. Plants bear symptoms which, if observed with some attention, will help you identify the cause of the problem. Once you know what is wrong, the problem can be addressed. Most plants are resilient and recover under the right conditions.

A healthy plant is bright and shiny. It behaves true to its habit; its structure is firm and the colour is uniform. Stress in plants mostly comes across as limpness and lack of brightness in its natural colour.

Growth rate and flowering are also indicators of its well-being. There are a few factors such as growing conditions, nutrient deficiency or infection that affect the optimal appearance of the plant and the symptoms are mostly visible on the leaves and stems. Plants which suffer sub-optimal conditions for extended periods are more susceptible to infections.

Light, nutrition and water are basic requirements of plants. Both too much and too little light intensity alter growth rate and pattern. A stem elongated and bent towards the source of light, leaves and stem expressing washed-out colour are symptoms of insufficient light.

If unattended, the leaves may begin to droop. Relocating such plants to a brighter location will resume the normal growth pattern. Plants exposed to too much light may show scorching on the leaf edges and yellow/ brown patches; eventually the leaves drop. Relief from harsh lighting either by distancing or providing shade works.
How much water is enough?

A very common problem, that of  too much watering is reflected in soft stems and yellowed lower leaves. Wet, soggy pot soil with a green algae-like surface indicates poor drainage.

Blocked drainage holes or highly compact soil without enough porosity deter drainage. Allowing pots to sit in water for long will not let roots breathe, eventually letting them decay. Reduce the water quantity and frequency. In fact, some plants flower better if soil is allowed to dry between watering. Limp younger leaf growth and dry soil are early indications of insufficient watering. Overcrowded plants also show this symptom frequently between watering. Erratic watering symptoms are similar to high-light intensity conditions.

Check the drainage hole if problem persists. Before the pots are filled with soil, ensure that the hole is just covered to deter free flow of soil but not hinder water flow. Overcrowded plants will show soil packed with roots. Address this by re-potting. To rejuvenate plant from severe dry spell submerge the whole pot in water and let it soak water for an hour, and then allow it to stand by itself so that excess can drain off.

Many plants do not like wet feet but need atmospheric humidity like ferns, orchids. Such plants will also show symptoms similar to too little water but humidity in the air will be their need rather that putting more water to the roots.

Feeding chemical fertilisers needs care. Zealous gardeners may end up overfeeding the plants. Growth does get speeded up but it is weak. White crusty accumulation on outer surface of pots, or around soil surface are indications of over fertilising. Extreme fertilising damage is seen as leaf burn. Burn on leaf tips or entire plant happens when very high concentration of fertiliser has been applied. Watering the plant thoroughly and allowing the water to drain away helps.

Reduce fertiliser application until the extra chemicals are washed away. In burn cases, check for life by breaking the twigs. If those are still green and vital than prune back the plants and allow the nascent buds to grow afresh.

Check for pests

Apart from the imbalance of these factors, pests give way to unhappy plants and green thumbs. Most common pests are tiny insects stuck on surface of leaves and junctures sucking away the vitality of plant. A magnifying glass helps identify the infestation better. Check the growing tips, undersides of the leaf, along the midrib, in the corners of joints.

These are the favourite places for pests to hide and suck plant juices. Aphids are tiny insects in varied colours like pink, red black, brown or yellow. These suck juices from soft young growth. New growth appears curled and stunted eventually dying and falling off.

White deposition on the plant stems and underside of leaves may be cluster of white flies which fly when the plant is shaken or mealy bugs. The larvae and eggs are almost invisible and cause greater damage. Mealy bugs may appear like cotton fluff. Red, brown or yellow specks on the leaves may actually be spider mites living underside of the leaves.

Close observation will reveal webs too. Likewise scales are brown crusty dots on the leaf and soft tissue sucking away the sap. All these pests slowly but surely cause deteriorated growth, stunting, leaf fall and eventual death.

These also cause secondary infection of black mould which grows on the honeydew like substance secreted by these pests. Few infected plants and milder infection can be treated by simply washing the plant in tepid soapy water or swabbing away clusters by cotton dipped in sprit. Serious infestations need chemical intervention in well ventilated spaces.

As always, good fundamental practices help reduce problems. Plants growing in optimum conditions are sturdier and less demanding.

(The writer is a landscape designer.)

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