Trees, shrubs, grass, row crops, et cetera all need essentially the same key components for maximizing growth and maintaining a healthy plant. Essential needs for plant growth include: water availability, soil drainage, soil aeration, access to sunlight, temperature, soil pH, and availability of essential elements.
At the top of the list of what a plant needs to flourish is the availability of water. No available water for a period of time can stunt growth or directly kill plants. All nutrients are transported up and down the plant via water inside the plant’s leaves, branches, and roots. The water needs for plants varies dramatically so it is important to understand what each plant’s specific needs are. Water drainage is often affected by the slope, soil type, and soil compaction. For instance, sandy soils may require more water and with greater frequency than soils that are heavy clay soils. Excess amounts of water can be just as damaging as drought conditions on a plant depending up what it is best adapted for.
Soil aeration is one of the most overlooked contributing factors to a plant’s health. Plant roots absolutely need oxygen and without it they will eventually die. Healthy soil will often have approximately fifty percent open pore space, which is to say the space between soil particles. This pore space allows for gas exchanges to occur. When soils are heavily compacted due to people, livestock, vehicles, etc. they can become largely impenetrable to oxygen as well as water. In the cases where there is adequate oxygen in compacted soils that still does not mean that a plant’s roots are able to grow through the hardened soil. Improved soil aeration can be accomplished by breaking up the compacted soils mechanically or by puncturing large quantities of holes in the surface with an aerator; this is often done on lawns or golf courses.
Without sunlight the energy-producing chlorophyll in leaves cannot be utilized and the plant will remain stunted or die. Some plants require long hours of direct sunlight, while others require shaded conditions. Knowing the plant’s specific sunlight requirements will help to know where to place the plants to fit their needs. Sunlight is the primary generator of heat in the atmosphere and many plants grow best within a range of temperatures. Excess in temperature in any direction can harm or kill a plant. This can be determined by knowing what plant hardiness zone the plant is suited for and the zone where it will be planted.
Soil nutrients and soil pH are directly interconnected. Soil pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a soil is. Without the adequate amount of nutrients in the soil plants will become stunted and likely become more susceptible to disease. While the nutrient needs will vary from plant to plant, the important thing to understand is that soil nutrients will not be available for a plant to uptake if the soil pH is not in the correct range. A soil test can determine the nutrient content of the soil as well as the pH.
For more information on topics such as plant hardiness zones and soil sampling, call the Marion County Extension office at 352-671-8400.