How to Grow a Plant

There's no one-size-fits-all answer for how to grow a plant, but use this guide as a great starting point for success with plants indoors or out.

You might want live greenery to improve indoor scenery. Or maybe you have your sights set on garden-fresh produce or beautiful bouquets. Whatever your gardening fancy, you can master how to grow a plant. All it takes is understanding what plants need -- and discovering how to deliver that. If you have raised a child, cooked from a recipe, cared for a pet, or built from a plan, you can learn how to grow a plant successfully.

Plants Need Three Things

At the most basic level, most plants need three things to survive:

-- Soil to sink or anchor their roots

-- Light to fuel growth processes

-- Water to sustain life

Provide these items in the right way, and growth will flourish -- and you can say you know how to grow a plant.

A Place for Roots

Every plant needs a place for its roots. Some plants sink their roots into soil. Examples include tulips, petunias, shade trees, and vegetables. Other plants are called epiphytes; these varieties don't need soil to grow. They anchor their roots onto tree trunks or branches. Examples include many orchids, bromeliads, and ferns.

For plants with roots in soil, it's important to provide the right kind of soil. Plants such as cardinal flower or sweet flag like consistently moist, even swampy soil, while Russian sage, yarrow, and pampas grass need dry, fast-draining soil to thrive.

When choosing plants for indoor or outdoor settings, research the plant or check the plant label to see what kind of soil the plant needs. If your outdoor soil isn't ideal, you can change it by adding different types of amendments, which alter the soil's consistency, draining pattern, and fertility. You can also create the ideal soil by building a raised bed that you fill with the perfect soil for your plant. For potted plants, look for specialized bagged potting soil blends.

Learn about different soil amendments.

Learn how to build a raised bed.

As you consider how to grow a plant, remember that providing the right soil can make or break your success. If soil isn't ideal, growth will be poor and the plant could even die.

Turn On the Light

Plants need light to survive. While plants may grow in dark conditions, growth will be long, lanky, and colorless -- and the plant eventually will die. Plants need sunlight to generate the energy they use to grow. The simple equation for plant growth is: sunlight + carbon dioxide + water = growth

Just as soil requirements vary, different plants thrive in varying amounts of light. As you select plants to grow indoors or out, you'll come across terms such as full sun, part sun, part shade, full shade, low light, or bright indirect light. These terms describe the amount of light a plant needs for best growth. What do those terms mean?

For Outdoor Plants

-- Full sun: Plants should receive at least 6 hours of sun per day.

-- Part sun: Plants need 3-6 hours of sun per day, preferably in morning or early afternoon, not during the hottest parts of the day.

-- Part shade: Plants thrive with 3-6 hours of sun per day and require shade during the afternoon, when sun is hottest.

-- Full shade: Plants need fewer than 3 hours of direct sun per day. Filtered sunlight or light shade is necessary for the rest of the day.

Use mulch to protect your outdoor plants from losing moisture; here's how.

For Indoor Plants

-- Low light: Plants should be placed away from windows that don't receive direct sun.

-- Bright indirect light: Plants should be placed in or right beside a north window or near a window that doesn't receive direct sun.

-- Bright light: Plants should be placed in or right beside an eastern or western window.

-- Sunny: Plants should be placed in or right beside a southern window.

In an indoor setting, light levels diminish greatly the farther a plant is located from a window.

-- Light levels drop 20-50 percent when plants are 39 inches away from the window

-- Light levels drop 50-75 percent when plants are 59 inches away from the window

-- Light levels drop 75-90 percent when plants are 79 inches away from the window

Light levels further diminish if the window is covered by shades, sheers, or blinds -- or if there's a roof overhang by the window (or if light is partially blocked by trees or buildings).

With indoor plants, stems and leaves naturally stretch toward light, producing a lopsided appearance. For evenly rounded growth, give plants a quarter turn weekly. Plants won't necessarily die without ideal light. Growth will diminish, stems will lengthen and flop, and flower buds might not form. Giving plants the right amount of light is another key in choosing how to grow a plant that's healthy and long-lived.

Give Them a Drink

Agricultural statistics report that 75 percent of all plant deaths are due to improper watering. Unfortunately, watering plants doesn't follow a simple formula, such as watering every three days. What makes watering so tricky?

-- Young plants have roots located closer to the soil surface, so they dry out more quickly and need water more frequently.

-- Different soil types hold water more efficiently than others. Sandy soils let water percolate away quickly; soils rich in organic matter hold moisture near roots.

-- Your local microclimate influences how often you need to water. Shadier gardens or houseplants in lower light conditions need less water than plants in sunny spots.

The secret to successful watering is to check the soil with your fingers. With young plants, if soil is dry to the touch about 1 inch deep, water them. For established, mature plants, don't water until soil is dry to the touch 4-6 inches deep. An easy way to tell if potted plants need water is to lift the pot. Dry soil is lightweight; wet soil is heavier.

How much water is enough? A light spray on the soil surface doesn't provide enough water to soak soil.

-- Newly planted plants: Before planting, wet the root ball. After planting, make sure soil is moistened to the level of the base of the roots.

-- Established plants: Check soil 4-6 inches deep. If it's dry, water deeply.

-- Plants in pots (indoors or out): Water until you see water starting to trickle through drainage holes. Don't allow plants to sit in water overnight.

The best time of day to water is early morning, especially with outdoor plants. Watering during midday means water may evaporate before it soaks into soil. Late-day watering can make plants more susceptible to fungal disease. Another trick to limiting disease is avoiding wetting foliage. If possible, deliver water directly to soil. Outdoors, that means using drip irrigation or soaker hoses.


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