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Plant Grooming

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 1 Februrary 2002

Once my husband noticed me pinching a browning, ugly, half-dead leaf off a plant. “Aha!” he said, “I caught you cheating.” He had thought my plants all looked so good, he said, because they never had any problems — but obviously this one did, and I was removing the evidence.

Laughing, I explained that plants do better if you groom them. Sometimes plants just outgrow parts of themselves, which wither and die. Other times disease, malnutrition or pests strike; in this case the whole plant is stressed trying to cope with the problem. Sometimes you can reverse the stress with proper care. If the plant lacks something important — the moisture or dryness it needs, a nutrient (especially enough sunlight, plants’ primary nutrient) — that’s the only way to heal it. But you can also reduce the stress by removing damaged tissues.

In any case removing damaged parts reduces the risk of secondary infections and insects, both of which thrive on dying cells. This is the reason to clean up any leaves which have dropped on the soil under a plant. They’ll make good compost, yes — after they’re properly decomposed. Also the reason, if you see insects, to feed the plant.

Plants have sensation, and preferences; they move toward some things and away from others. But they react differently than animals do, to losing parts of themselves. Getting cut up is clearly dangerous to plants, but they adapt to it better than we do: most put out more new growth in response. To help a plant adjust to transplanting, encourage root growth by cutting back the parts above ground. To keep a plant flowering, remove faded flowers before the fertilized ovules send out their enzyme messages “bloom mission accomplished; move on to seed mission.” To encourage thicker, more luxuriant growth, prune the stems: they’ll branch into many.

Is this cruelty? I don’t think so, I think it’s just collaborating with the natural growth tendencies of plants. It can go too far: a hedge that has been sheared year after year, responding with ever-thickening tangles of branches, eventually dies in the middle from the shade of the dense growth on the surface. This is not collaborating with nature, but forcing it into what the human mind prefers.

How do we draw the line? By paying more attention to the plant, than to our preconceived ideas about it. Is it perky, green, growing well? Does it respond well to grooming?

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© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark