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Understand what plants need to grow and thrive

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All plants require light to grow and thrive. Some plants seem to worship the sun and can bask in it all day. But there are other plants that will burn up and die if exposed to more than a couple of hours of direct sunlight each day. Plants that require full sun need at least six hours of sunlight each day.

The terms “partial sun” and “partial shade” can be quite confusing. Partial sun refers to an area that gets four to six hours of sun a day. Partial shade is less than partial sun, and is defined as an area that receives two to four hours of sun a day.

Full shade refers to plants that thrive best when they get very little direct sunlight. Shade plants, such as astilbes, ferns and hostas, generally grow the best if they receive less than two hours of direct sunlight a day. These plants also prefer morning or evening sun instead of the harsher midday light.

What is hardening off? In many climates, especially in northern parts of the country, plants are grown in climate-controlled greenhouses or in someone’s sunny window. These nursery plants have not been exposed to strong winds or harsh sunlight. Taking a plant from a nursery and immediately placing it outside can cause a great deal of stress to the plant and can even kill it.

To help the plant adjust to life outside, it needs go through a process known as “hardening off.” To begin the hardening off process, set the indoor started plants outdoors in a sheltered area for a couple of hours on a nice, mild day and bring it back inside at night. If it is warm enough outside, the plant can be placed in a garage or garden shed.

For a few days it’s important to protect the plants from strong sun, wind, cool temperatures and heavy rains. Each day, expose the plant to an additional hour or two of sunlight.

If the wind is strong, the plant should be placed in an area where it has some protection, such as against the wall of a house or garage.

Continue placing the plant outside for a few hours at a time for five to seven days. Once the plant is used to the harsher outdoor conditions, it can be planted into a bed or container. As spring can be unpredictable, bringing with it strong winds or thunderstorms, the plant(s) should be monitored for a few days.

If the plant shows any signs of stress, it can be covered with a pot or box for a few more days until it acclimates to its new surroundings.

It’s important for all gardeners to remember that bugs are not the enemy. Some gardeners think the only good bug is a dead bug. Nothing can be further from the truth. A healthy garden requires the presence of insect life of all shapes and sizes.

Bugs can definitely be a problem in area gardens. However, there are many beneficial bugs that either pollinate flowers or help to keep the bad bugs in check.

Pollinating insects include bees, butterflies, ants, beetles, moths, flies and wasps. Other beneficial insects are ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, ground beetles, dragonflies, praying mantis, beneficial nematodes and lightning bugs.

These beneficial bugs control a wide variety of common insect pests, such as aphids, scale, whitefly and chewing larvae, such as caterpillars.

If some kind of pest control is needed, start with the least toxic, such as an insecticidal soap. Soap has been used for centuries as an all-purpose pesticide. Insecticidal soap is a contact poison, which means it must be sprayed directly on the bugs for it to be effective. The soap can be bought at garden stores or can be mixed up at home.

To make your own insecticidal soap, mix the following together:

1 teaspoon of Murphy’s Oil Soap

3 tablespoons cayenne pepper

1 quart warm water

Pour mixture into a spray bottle and shake well to combine. It is best to use this before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Before using a large quantity of the soap, test it on a small part of the plant to make sure it does not cause any damage. Once the pests are killed, the plant can be rinsed off with water to remove any residue from the spray.

Plants will not grow without water. If there is a lack of rain in the area, it is best to give your plants a really good drink once a week, rather than small, frequent waterings. The best time to water is early in the morning. Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day because a lot of the water will be lost to evaporation.

If at all possible, avoid watering at night. Plants with wet leaves during nighttime hours are susceptible to fungal diseases.

Another point to remember is that soil was not meant to be bare. Bare soil hardens and dries out. To prevent drying out, it is important to mulch around plants. Many items can be used as mulch, including pine needles, straw, shredded paper or bags of mulch purchased from a nursery or garden center. Keep in mind that the mulch will break down in a year or two and will need to be replaced.

Donna Evans lives in Merrifield and is a freelance writer and website designer. She owns Plants to Your Door, a landscape nursery that specializes in hostas.