Garden plant care: Stayin’ Alive 2

by Drucilla James

Dicentra suffering from dehydration and lack of sunlight

We take a trip to the nursery or garden centre and return home with booty which promises to transform our garden spaces. Full of good intentions, but too busy to check, the next time we look at our plants, we find them at their last gasp and in need of resuscitation. Before last rites are performed, we explain how to care for distressed plants and bring them back to life and suggest some simple procedures to reduce casualties in the future.

Planning and recording

It’s a good idea to have a  plan of your garden showing what you have planted where, together with the garden’s compass orientation and areas affected by weather conditions – direct sunlight, partial shade and full shade, frost etc .

Over time it’s also useful to list the growing needs of each plant you have, or at least gather together the nursery guide cards in one place.

All of this will give you an overview of the microclimate of your garden and individual plant needs; ‘right plant in the right space’ is still one of the secrets of success.

Sick plant symptoms and their treatment

The key advice is ‘Prevention is better than cure’ but if you do have a plant which is ailing, check out the following to make your diagnosis and apply the recommended cure.

Dehydration or overhydration

One of the main reasons for plant fatalities is too much or too little water; the correct regime is essential for each type of plant.

Under-watered plants may show leaves that have shrivelled and turned brown or stems and leaves that have wilted. To treat:

Some plants thrive in dry soils and may weaken or die back when deprived of oxygen and nutrients from soil waterlogged by overwatering. To help:

  • Stop watering and dig in grit around the plant to improve drainage.

Frost bite and sunburn

Plants burnt by drying summer winds or freezing winter blasts or damaged by frost, show leaves and new growth that are brown and shrivelled. So:

  • Protect the tender plant with other more robust plants or throw over garden fleece or other similar material;
  • Mulch to protect the plant roots from frost damage.


Some plants become “sick” and die as a result of being in soil that is low in essential nutrients. Rapidly draining sandy soils, are a particular problem due to the leaching out of essential minerals. Malnourished plants show different effects – for example plants low in magnesium turn yellow. To revive:

  • Apply a general balanced fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone or an appropriate feed for the deficiency.
  • Give a small amount of feed, regularly and avoid giving large doses of fertiliser, such as one rich in nitrogen, towards the end of the growing season. Otherwise the plant will produce lots of soft tissue growth which will become vulnerable to severe damage during cold periods or freezing temperatures.


Wrong soil conditions

Plants may fail to flourish in soil that doesn’t provide the right conditions for their good growth – like drainage, humus content, and pH of the soil. For example many Azaleas and Rhododendrons are lost because they require acid conditions to thrive. To treat:

Wrong planting position

As above, plants will not grow strongly without the right amount of light or shade.

  • Be prepared to dig up and replant in a more suitable position if needed.


Check plants for any signs of disease. Then:

  • Prune out dead and diseased stems;
  • Identify the disease and apply the best chemical to treat it;
  • If it is a particularly insidious infection then remove the whole plant and destroy it to prevent it killing other plants in the garden.

And finally

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