A Lesson in Plant Health

In our urban landscapes we try to create our own version of utopia, a little piece of nature that we mould to our liking. We make decisions that please our eye, protect our privacy, and cool our patios. We wish for low maintenance yet strive for the decadence of an English garden. Sometimes the planning goes solely into what we want and not into the needs of the plants.

One thing we know about plants is that the more stress a plant is under the more pest and disease problems they develop. Pest organisms can detect plants under stress and tend to inhabit them first. Plants that are healthy can literally grow faster than the spread of their pests and diseases. If plants are located in an environment they don’t like or can not easily adapt to, they simply can not grow fast enough to stay ahead of their enemies.

I have a theory about plant health. The theory is that if you look back to what Mother Nature has provided for plants and try to replicate that, you will have great success in creating an ecosystem that plants will quickly adapt to. In nature, no one goes out into the forest and rakes up all the leaves or cleans up around each plant. What happens over time is nature creates its own surface mulch covering the forest floor. This forest litter forms a compost mulch made up of particles of many different sizes and different stages of decomposition. Coarser particles on the surface with the more decomposed or composted particles down underneath. Branches, leaves, strands of grass and even animal waste all form together to create a wonderful living environment for micro-organisms. Fungus and many other living creatures make this mulch a living organism on its own. Many of these organisms are beneficial to plant health. Plants over time have evolved to depend on this natural mulch. They have developed relationships with many of the fungus and bacteria families that grow in this debris. They live together with plants roots to make them more effective at finding nutrients and water. These organisms grow over the plant’s root surfaces helping to protect the roots from root rot diseases and other detrimental pests.

This complex ecosystem that occurs in nature can easily be replicated when landscaping. After planting your areas, cover the surface of the exposed soil with about two inches of a well composted organic matter.

This mulch should be composed of particles of varying sizes. In the Okanagan there are several great sources for this type of material. Our local municipality has a great composting program through the local landfill site and similar products are sold in bags or in bulk at the local garden centres. Try to avoid products that are too fresh. Newly chewed up wood wastes are invitations for diseases to come into your landscape and suppress your plants healthy growth. A medium to large sized bark mulch may also be used as long as it has been properly aged. It is important to have a variety of fine, medium and course particles. A perfect combination would have 60% coarse, 20% medium and 20% small chunks.

Mulches serve more of a purpose than just supplying life supporting organisms to the plants; they also act as a moisture retentive blanket over the ground helping to maintain water during hot dry weather. Mulches also reduce frost penetration down into the root zone during cold weather. Mulches suppress weed growth by covering weed seeds that require light to germinate. The mulches also make it easier to pull weeds when the time comes. Mulches absorb heat rather than reflecting it up to the plants the way that rock would, reducing heat stress. A nice organic mulch improves the soil over time without tilling. I almost forgot about all the nutrients that are released as a by-product of the breaking down of organic matter. These mulches may require touching up from time to time for a tidy look and to keep the mulch layer uniform.

In conclusion, the next time you’re thinking about landscaping think about plant health. Look to Mother Nature for tips and remember – healthy plants planted in the right conditions require considerably less maintenance.

Happy Gardening!

Ken Salvail
General Manager