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7 ways to NOT kill your plants

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

June 30, 2014

I’ve killed hundreds of plants. If I had bought and killed as many small animals as I have plants I would have long ago been arrested and rightly condemned as a butcher and murderer. I’ve done them all – death by neglect, death by maltreatment, death by misunderstanding and even death by capricious change of mind.

My bought plants

Death by neglect – and ill-advised purchase


I’m not proud of this record and no doubt a fruitarian somewhere is putting out an APB on me, but I know I’m not alone. Even self-confessed good gardeners have a guilty pile of tell-tale old plant labels lurking in a drawer somewhere. Or there are stiff, dried out little corpses in tiny pots tucked out of sight near the compost bin, in the vain hope they might somehow resuscitate while you’re not looking.

So what to do? From bitter (and expensive) experience, I share with you my:



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1. Plant out (or pot up) what you’ve bought

This might seem in the bleeding obvious category but the sad fact is that more than half of all bought plants die in their pots, having never made it into the ground. We go off on our plant-buying expedition with the best intentions in the world, full of plans to ‘get cracking’ and real dirty the same day.

“I’ll get those beauties today and pop them straight into the garden when I get home!”

And like poor little deluded orphans, the plants have hopefully accompanied you home only to find that when you get home, you dump them on the back deck, or in the Dickensian side passageway or, worse still, in the spot in the garden where you intend to plant them. But then don’t.

Days, weeks, months (or in my case, even years) can go by and they remain in their pots. Some alive and, some sooner or later, dead. You forgot to water them, or they outgrew their pot or they got knocked over……..there are endless ways for small plants in pots to die. Just ask a nursery.

Photo vetcw3

Photo vetcw3


Why do we do this? Somehow, in the traffic jam between the plant nursery and home, the fire goes out. Maybe the plants don’t look as amazing arranged in your garden as they did in the shop display. Maybe you lingered too long over your latte and ran out of time when you got home.

The big problem with not planting them out or potting them up is that they’ve been timed for sale exactly when they’ve completely filled their pots. The roots have maxed out the room inside as well as the original fertilizer, and the plant has possibly even got a little top-heavy too, when compared to its root ball, making it prone to tipping over.

Newly bought plants are living on borrowed time, and the clock is ticking.

Make a rule for yourself that you MUST either plant out or pot up anything you buy within one week of purchase.

The other reason we don’t plant them when we get them home is the uncomfortable realization that we’ve bought completely inappropriate plants, leading me to #2…..


2. Only buy the plants you’ve planned to buy

This is me. I want, I want, I want

This is me. I want, I want, I want


I know, I know, it’s impossible. You wanted to go along to the nursery just to see what they have as, after all, how can you be sure you’ll like something until you see it in the flesh? Or the other argument – there’s no point in taking a list and being disappointed when you get there to find they don’t have it. Better to browse and choose on the day.

Plant fairs are the worst – full of enticing rarities that you can’t resist, like a rampant climber when you live in townhouse, or the cool-climate bulbs for your warm temperate garden.

“I KNOW I can find/make just the right spot in the garden or on my balcony for you…”

You convince yourself that you’ll find somewhere to plant or put them but you know in your heart that’s a lie. But you just want them anyway. Bad, naughty gardener! Leave them alone. Keep your hands in your pockets and leave them for someone else to cherish who really can grow them. (Or leave them for someone else to kill.)


3. Let Nature take her course

Much mischief is done to new plants by over feeding and over watering. Not content with letting nature take its course, we’re big on pushing her along a bit. Or a lot. We want the hedge plants taller by tomorrow, the tiny fruit tree to bear this year and the shrub to be smothered in blooms.

“C’mon, hurry up and grow already!”

We’re disappointed to find that rather than spring into growth, our new planted plants (if you got past #1) just sit. And sit. And sit.

So we throw on a good dollop of compost, and then some slow release fertilizer and then top it up with some of the liquid fertilizer that promises speedy, luxuriant growth. And maybe they need extra water. And we’ll do all that again soonish, as they obviously need a kick along.

Fertilizers at the readyTake a deep breath, go a bit Zen, and let them be. Except for #3 below, they will grow OK in their own good time. Newly planted plants are in a bit of shock when they first get into your garden. Just like the 28 year-old human fledgling pushed from the home ‘nest’, they’ve emerged from a cosseted environment into the real world, and they often don’t like it much. Many will sulk for weeks or even up to a year before their first big growth spurt and the last thing they need is force feeding. Be patient – it’s not you, it’s them.


4. Check the drainage before you plant

Poor drainage

This is water in the planting hole from the day before. The delivery of the morning newspaper with such devastating accuracy was an unexpected bonus.


If you dig a hole and put your plant in the ground without checking the drainage, there’s a chance you’ve planted your plant in what is, essentially, a bucket. The ungrateful plant drowns after only a few of your loving, care-giving waterings.

“Hello? I’m drowning, not waving”

You don’t have to have heavy clay soil to have areas of impeded drainage. There might be underlying rock with a depression in it that collects water, or your light sandy soil might have just the right amount of clay in it to set like impervious concrete when it’s been dug and exposed. Dig your hole ahead of time and fill it with water and watch how fast that drains away. If it’s still got water in it several hours later, you’ve either got to create a drainage channel, of adjust your planting scheme and go for bog-loving plants.


5. Learn how to water small pots effectively

Soak new plants for an hour or two

Soak new plants for an hour or two


If your new plants dry out at any time before you plant them in the garden (see #1 above), then it’s likely that the potting mix has shrunk away from the sides of the pot. When you next water them, you will see the water rushing out the bottom of the pot and feel satisfied they’ve had a good drenching. What’s more likely is either that the root ball has become hydrophobic (water repellent – a common problem with high-organic mixes when they’ve dried out), or that the water has run down between the mix and the inside of the pot wall and not even touched the main rootball. To avoid this problem, see #1 again, or soak your pots on a regular basis by submerging the whole pot in a bucket and letting them sit there for several hours. Weigh down the top of the pots with stones to stop them floating and tipping over. Just don’t forget to take them out again.


Photo Jan Bakker

Photo Jan Bakker


6. Grow anything EXCEPT vegetables

I know this one will cause some uproar but there’s no getting away from it – vegetables are by far the hardest plants to grow well. By ‘well’, I don’t even mean so they look like the bounteous plants on the seed packet, but just good enough that you’re prepared to actually put them in your mouth. After watching them get eaten into broderie anglaise, or stay small and spindly no matter what you do (see #3 above), or develop an unattractive and inedible greyish mould on their leaves, you will turn away in despair and let them die. You will declare to all that you can’t grow plants:

“I just have a black thumb”

and be put back in your gardening career for years, even life. Vegetable growing may be trendy, but it spells f-a-i-l-u-r-e.


7. Read plant labels with healthy scepticism


One size fits most


Grows well in most conditions‘. ‘Tolerates poor drainage‘. ‘Good in sun or part shade‘. These phrases on a plant label can be about as true as garments helpfully labelled ‘one size fits most‘, which really means you can’t be bigger than quite small. Plant labels have improved a lot over the past decade and most are accurate enough but, on some, the advertizing hype has taken over the truth. I find that ‘Full sun to part shade‘ really means at least 6 hours of sun a day, or it will rot. ‘Thrives in moist, well-drained soil‘ means it’s a fussy little nuisance that doesn’t like this and doesn’t like that, and probably too picky for my garden.

Hardy‘ is a tricky word for warm-climate gardeners as ‘hardy’ in most countries and in most garden books means ‘frost hardy’. In Australia, for example, it’s often interpreted or used to mean ‘tough’ or even ‘drought hardy’. Which of course raises the question – in what environment? Hardy in a cool temperate climate will not be hardy in a subtropical zone.

An indiscriminate belief in plant labels often leads to disappointment and, after a couple of years, to you losing your cool one day and sending it to the compost. The death was caused by a misunderstanding but it is a warning to do more research than reading a label.


So, in a nutshell, to keep your new plants alive:

plant, refrain, restrain, check, effect, avoid and research


But also learn to live with the vagaries of nature…….and be gracious in defeat.

'Clifford Davis found Mother Nature to be an unreliable source of colour and form' - Jane Owen 'Eccentric Gardens' Photo Eric Chrichton

Clifford Davis found Mother Nature to be an unreliable source of colour and form‘ – Jane Owen ‘Eccentric Gardens‘ Photo Eric Chrichton


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Bernard Chapman
Bernard Chapman
9 years ago

Sage advice indeed, Catherine! I, too, must admit that I have my own vegetative graveyard, hidden from the world!

When I soak plants, which I do for ALL plants brought home from the nursery, I also add a seaweed extract to lessen the shock of the arrival at their new home, and to nurture them before the possums eat all their leaves!

Greetings from The Languedoc, in sunny warmth,

Bernard Chapman

Anne Latreille
Anne Latreille
9 years ago

Great post Cath! I agree about installing the plants right after purchase (having given them a few minutes sitting in water first, try a wheelbarrow for this if you’ve bought a few). I swear they smile as you nestle them into the soil!

9 years ago

Guilty as charged on many accounts! Very timely post as my winter garden here in Bunbury WA is looking neglected. I’ve not excuse today as the sun is shining and that sage I bought a few weeks ago is looking rather sadly at me each time I walk past it on the deck – I’m off to rescue is right now! Thanks!

sandra pullman
sandra pullman
9 years ago

Hi Catherine
I giggled and smiled at what you wrote. So true is what you say. I loved the shot of pussy looking into the bucket wondering what the hell was going on. Where was pussy’s supervisory role when you needed it?
Keep warm

Jeff Howes
Jeff Howes
9 years ago

Hi Catherine,
A great article and a good read.
Great advice about drainage (so critical) and that word ‘hardy’ should be deleted from all plant labels.

helen mckerral
helen mckerral
9 years ago

“2. Only buy the plants you’ve planned to buy” – OMG, hahahahahaaaaa!
I can barely… hahahahaaaa! Oh dear, a worthy goal but, hahahaa (weeping with laughter)!

Very entertaining, Catherine!

PS. My mother had an area next to the shed for potted plants that were sickly. A hospital, I thought? Er, no. : A hospice.

helen mckerral
helen mckerral
9 years ago

PS. I think we should all send in pics of our “in-transit” plants, with a challenge to get them all in by the end of the following, oh, next 4 weeks. Though 4 years is probably more realistic, eh? ;-)))
Great post, Catherine!

9 years ago

Such confronting honesty about the guilty truths we all harbour! My nursery purchases find themselves gathered in a place we know as “Death Row”; some endure my planting apathy and some do not. Thank you Catherine for your frank observation and wisdom, which we simply must try harder to heed… geez it’s difficult!

Clare Bell
Clare Bell
9 years ago

What great email responses to this article Catherine!
You covered your subject very well except for one very important point;
The Nursery Industry et al loves you!!!
While not wanting to ridicule this common dilemma, I am looking on the bright side as you, and your fellow “black thumbs”, are so very good for business!
Call yourselves philanthropists (in providing jobs for nursery/hort people) if you like!
Clare Bell

Phileppa Doyle
Phileppa Doyle
9 years ago

Thanks, Catherine, excellent advice. When I dig (large) holes for new plants I always fill the hole with water and if the water moves too slowly I then add sand and fork well in, repeating till the hole drains well… it does help, particularly if your soil base is clay.