Why Isn’t My Garden Thriving? 5 Tips for Troubleshooting Unhappy Plants

I’m convinced gardening is one of the best hobbies there is. After all, it’s rife with health benefits, gets you outside, relieves stress, and provides daily rewards—like fresh vegetables, lush flowers, and happy pollinators.

Of course, that’s assuming all goes well, which, in gardening—as in life—it rarely does.

Unless you’re the next Vita Sackville-West (the famous writer-gardener behind Sissinghurst Castle Garden), you’ve likely run into at least a few road blocks this summer. Maybe your plants look droopy and sad, crispy and withered, or munched on by countless pests.

Whatever the issue is, we may just have the solution. After chatting with experienced gardeners about the most common reasons behind unhappy plants, we’re here to help you mediate and give them a new take on life.

1. Move that plant!

One of the biggest reasons newly planted specimens are unhappy is simply that they’re in the wrong spot. Fortunately, if you can figure out what it is they need (e.g., more shade or more sun), it’s easy enough to move them, especially while they’re still relatively small.

“Every plant has specific demands for sunlight, and you have to fulfill them,” says botanist and gardener Ronnie Collins, of Electro Garden Tools. “Plants that need a lot of sunlight may refuse to bloom or may grow low if there’s too much shade for them during the day.

“On the contrary, shade-loving plants can simply get buried under excessive sunlight,” he adds.

Do some research or talk to your local gardening experts (nurseries are a great resource) for help deciding what kind of spot would make your plant happiest. Then get out the trowel and carefully transplant it to its new home.

2. Give your garden a good, long drink

If location isn’t the issue—and your plants are looking droopy and sad—it might be that they’re simply underwatered.

Another telltale sign of an underwatered plant: It refuses to flower or isn’t growing to its full potential.

“Plants need water for their metabolic processes,” says gardener and musician Tony Grenier, of Instrumental Global. “Both respiration and photosynthesis need water. If plants don’t have enough water, they won’t be able to perform these processes and they will die.”

Don’t make the mistake so many new gardeners do of thinking those daily light rain showers are enough, especially if your unhappy plants are in pots. Go ahead and give your sad-looking plants a good, long drink, then come up with a more rigorous watering schedule and stick to it.

3. Amend your soil

Having healthy, nutrient-rich, well-draining soil is a huge factor in the success of your plants. So don’t be surprised if you just plop a plant into the ground without amending (i.e., improving) your soil only to find it isn’t happy.

“Soil is the second most important factor after the sun,” says Collins. “If the soil lacks essential nutrients, the sun isn’t likely to fix the situation. The best solution you can make is to balance out the nutrients in the soil every time you want to plant something new.”

If you’re not sure what to do, try ordering soil analysis with your local lab or nursery, and restore what’s lacking with the right fertilizer. In most cases, you’ll need a balanced organic fertilizer to enrich tired soil.

4. Stop pests and disease

When you’re dealing with disease or pests, it usually presents itself fairly clearly. For pests, plants will look eaten or may have chunks missing from leaves—or flowers and vegetables could entirely disappear overnight.

If, on the other hand, you’re dealing with a diseased plant, the leaves might be mottled, withered, or otherwise discolored.

“Spraying pesticides might seem like the most obvious solution, but it will also kill entire colonies of beneficial insects,” says Collins. “Most garden plants have specific pests and diseases. All of them have particular signs. Once you identify the problem, choose the gentlest solution to start, as you always want to save pollinators and other beneficials.”

For larger pests like squirrels and deer, try creating a perimeter around your garden, which includes fragrant plants they tend to dislike. Then spray (downwind, dear gardener) all your tasty plants with a product like Liquid Fence.

5. Be sure you’re planting for the right hardiness zone

Sometimes, everything is hunky-dory in a garden until the first winter season comes and goes. If this is your very first summer as a gardener, you’ll want to be sure you’re planting things that can survive the winter at your house (i.e., plants suitable for your hardiness zone).

“The environmental conditions for each hardiness zone differ, especially if the numbers are very different from each other,” says Grenier. “That means that a plant thriving in hardiness zone 8 to 10 will most likely not survive in zone 6. Though there are some exceptions, most plants won’t be able to survive because their mechanisms are built for certain climatic conditions.”

Learn your hardiness zone, and create a garden around plants that thrive in it. That way, you’ll give your garden the best possible chance of coming back healthy and happy, year after year.

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