Tips for Beginners: The Gentle Art of Plant Resuscitation...or How to Get More from Less
John M. Keshishian, M.D.
For years readers of this Journal have been told and taught how to propagate plants: how to make cuttings grow when they otherwise would not - cute little greenhouses, vapor laden containers - and even how to air layer and make branch peggings in peat moss and get a plant from each pegging. I even devised a method of creating an instant plant: find a healthy plant with many branchings. Clip off a whole branch with many smaller branches. Newer growth is better than old. Score the stems and rub indole butyric acid on them all, and plunge the stem and scored branches into a potting medium which has been mixed, moistened and ready in a large pot and awaits the branch. Make sure the medium is tamped lightly around it all, flush out the air by gentle soaking. A surprisingly high number of these will be rooted by the next year and, voila! an instant plant!
But we've never really addressed what to do with a dying or almost dead plant. I refer specifically to those potted plants set out in the nurseries of our box warehouse stores - those with huge outdoor nurseries crammed to their borders with plants of every sort and variety. And in that huge mass of vegetation will be some rhodos and azaleas. And out of that batch one may espy one or two that look unhappy...for various reasons.
Those unhappy plants will not attract buyers. They'll sit around unwanted, neglected by shoppers, salespersons and eventually may start to wither and die off. Whether for lack of water, shade or a host of other reasons the next step will be the toss pile. That's when I zero in. And here beginneth the lesson.
I think about all the effort that went into propagating that plant and all the work to raise it from cuttings, layering or from seed and then after all that work to get it to the growing plant state (I once snagged a dying 'Klondike'). It may have been lined out, or placed in a gallon pot, sold as part of a shipment and sent to a retail nursery, there to be purchased by a plant lover or, if things didn't go well, began to wither and maybe die. And soon this plant goes to the discard pile. This would be a sad and dismal ending for such a noble member of the plant family.
It's up to nursery managers to look after their charges, but occasionally a plant gets neglected, unwatered usually, and then dries out. This is zero time. And, as I said, I zero in on those plants the moment I spot them.
I find the manager and offer to "ìrescue" - —read buy the plant but haggle for a reduced price. Managers are in business to make money. A dead plant generates no revenue. But if a guy comes along and makes an offer, well, why not? Better to get something for a dying plant than nothing for a dead plant. So, a deal is truck. I get the plant.
But wait. I don't zero in on every plant. I size up the unhappy thing first. If there is hope, that is, if there are viable leaves, if the stem will bend without snapping, if I scrape bark and see viable tissue beneath, and if the plant's soil is not solid rock, then maybe, just maybe, there's hope.
First: Get the plant to your work area and sink it immediately in a bucket of water. The reasoning goes like this - and I add quickly that not all plant experts will agree with me. But humor me (you have no idea how many I've saved to later garner a prize ribbon at our local shows). As I was saying, the water will soak into the dry soil and displace air which has gotten in as water is sucked up by the plant or has evaporated from the soil.
If it has gone bone dry, more than likely the tiny hair roots, which are the real lifelines for the plant, may have dried up, died off. So we're in a precarious situation. Further, when roots are deprived of moisture, air surrounds the root system. An air barrier prevents fluid/moisture from bathing these hairs and other fine roots and they cannot support life for that plant. So it's imperative to get the air out, water in, and bathe the root systems. If hair roots have been knocked out, taken out of operation, it's up to the next higher system of roots to take over. And they don't always oblige. We enter, then, the "dicey" period.
Second: I let the water soak in overnight, or even twenty-four hours if the plant is in a several gallon pot. Then I prepare a larger pot, that is, several sizes larger than the pot it came in. In the case of plants that have been balled and burlapped, use a pot large enough to adequately hold the flattened-out roots, and this may be up to another several gallon-sized pot.
The prepared pot should contain any of the newer moisture controlled mixes, or make your own. I use a combination of milled sphagnum moss, fine peat moss, several handfuls of Perlite, several handfuls of crumbly loan or well rotted leaves. Add to this several handfuls of good sharp river sand. This material is thoroughly mixed and then wetted but not soaking wet. Line the bottom half of the pot with this mixture and then gently insert the plant with its roots splayed out. It's often helpful to make a cruciate incision in the root ball and then gently tease the roots out horizontally before potting. Make sure the top of the soil mass lies above the mixture. Do not add any top dressing. Then gently water this whole combination, to again purge out any air pockets. Two indicators here are either bubbles coming from drain holes in the pot or bubbles from the plant soil surface. When bubbling stops we then begin to watch and wait.
The rest is up to the fates. One should know in about a week if the plant will survive and thrive or not. If after a week or ten days there is evidence of survival, then a small serving of nourishment is indicated. Discount all the glowing claims from various fertilizer manufacturers. Plain old 5-10-5 is good enough. Or if you have some liquid fish emulsion, that's not a bad choice. But the important factor is to make the final solution ¼ the recommended amount. I often use Mrs. Schultze's mixture for household plants. Dilute the droppered amount so as to have a quarter of the final strength and gently drop liquid on the plant root ball surface, but I drip it on the outer periphery of the potted soil. With 5-10-5, I take a spoonful of the raw stuff, dissolve what I can in a gallon and then spoon it off. Is this scientific? Heck, no. But sometimes one has to go with one's gut feelings. I've been doing this ICU stuff for years (and, yes, I'm a retired surgeon, did some big-time surgery, and sweated many an hour in the ICUs)
So, I hope this information is helpful. I make no claims for instant success. Not all plants will survive. But you'll have a feeling of exhilaration when you've pulled one through.
Dr. Keshishian is a member of the Potomac Valley Chapter.