As a nursery and landscape professional in the middle of a busy spring season I am constantly reminded of a thing called stress. It has been said that stress finally kills us all. While the name of the particular malady will vary from case to case it truly is stress that wears down our body parts and functional systems until they eventually fail. On the other hand it has been proven again and again that a little stress is not only a good thing but essential for human health.
Take for instance the fact that the skeletal and muscle structures of astronauts begin to atrophy in the weightless environment of space. Although rigorous exercise routines are followed by astronauts, the time that can be spent in weightlessness before serious damage occurs is limited. It seems our bodies actually require the stress of gravity to function properly. Most assuredly the stress of exercise strengthens bones and muscles if not overdone. So it is with all things in Nature. A little stress makes you strong while too much can be deadly.
Plants in the wild are subjected to many types of stress. Plants must adapt to a wide range of temperature, wind speeds, moisture, and soil conditions to survive any given place on the planet. The amazing thing is they do so quite readily and their response is to strengthen themselves accordingly. Then there are the extremes of floods, drought, excessive ice loads, fire, high winds, extreme temperatures, plus attacks from various insects and disease which can damage or kill plants……… yet most still survive. The old human adage that “What don’t kill you outright generally makes you stronger” would be applicable with even greater truth when it comes to the tenacity of plants.
I’m reminded of the time I was called out to consult a young couple living on the old family farm in a house built several generations back. There was this huge old pecan tree that was really too close and threatening the roof and foundation of the old house. When I suggested removal the answer I got from the young wife went something like this: ” I watched my grandma cut this tree many times. She poured hot grease on it, cussed it, and tried to dig it out without success. When she passed on the tree came back with a vengeance. I love this tree……..it wants to live…..it stays.”
On the other hand, plants will also adapt to the extra care given by us. Just as a person who sits around eating and watching TV becomes a “couch potato,” plants that are pampered will never grow to be as resilient as their cousins in the wild. Any plant can be made into a wimp or a fine strong specimen in accordance with the extra help we provide.
To get the best performance we should refrain from “spoiling” our plants with too much water and fertilizer. Even the most drought tolerant plant does not actually become drought tolerant until it is subjected to dry conditions. Without this stress the plant will never develop a deep extensive root system. Why spend the energy to make deep roots when you are getting all you need at the surface? Why send out lateral roots in search of food when you are constantly being fed? Certainly we don’t want our plants to die or perform poorly, but I think a lot of people draw the wrong conclusions. We should let Nature do the bulk of the work and step in only when a helping hand is needed. As long as things appear to be going alright why not sit back and enjoy the view?
Do this bit of observation if you haven’t already. Next time you spot aphids in the garden leave them alone and just observe instead of immediately reacting with some spray treatment. This is a very common pest which usually does not kill the plant. As the aphids increase in number they are soon spotted by a host of predators. You will see ladybugs or their black and orange larvae or perhaps the delicate green lacewing move in for the feast. Almost as quickly as it started the infestation will be over. The plant will soon recover from the stress. The predators will lay eggs to take care of the next invasion if and when it occurs. However, if a spray is applied the predators will be destroyed (and their eggs as well) along with the aphids.
This scenario is typical of most insects and diseases that afflict plants. The stress created by such things can be tolerated by a healthy well adapted plant. When you think about it you will realize that plants have existed here for many millions of years without human help. Truly the only plants that really need our help are the exotic plants we bring in from foreign countries that are not adapted to our conditions. We’ve spent so much of our time growing tropicals and man made hybrids that we easily make the assumption that all plants must be meticulously cared for. We are driven to stake, prune, water, fertilize, and spray everything. The mystical “green thumb” gardener is held in awe. Meanwhile……….the astute gardener chooses native and well adapted plants, works on improving soil health, and remains resolute in the knowledge that a little stress is good for the plant.
So if you are one of those gardeners whose plants are always wilting or looking like they need another dose of fertilizer, you may want to “exercise” those guys with a little tough love. They just might bounce back a become strong………….after a bit of stress.