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Why All Your Plants Are Dying

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Why All Your Plants Are Dying

Preface: I’m (not) good at math

I’m sure a lot of people can relate to being in a classroom and dreading the fact that the teacher may call upon you at any moment to calculate a problem, or explain what he is talking about. The North American school system is not really designed for comprehension, but rather for you to retain enough knowledge to complete a test (proving such knowledge) and moving on to the next concept. If you didn’t understand the concepts, you would just keep quiet at the back of the room and hope the teacher didn’t call upon your name.

For the longest time, I thought I was no good at math. My brain just isn't wired to comprehend it properly so there was no point in trying. It wasn’t until I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” that I realized, no one is inherently good at anything, really, it’s about how much time and energy you want to spend with a concept until you can fully comprehend it. Outliers is an amazing book that I highly recommend, I won’t go in to all of the concepts here, all you need to take away from this is that, 

Researchers have found that one of the most reliable predictors of whether or not a student will be good at math is not their IQ or the quality of their schooling. It is their willingness to complete tasks carefully. In one study, when students were given a long and tedious questionnaire, the students who rushed through and skipped questions along the way performed consistently worse on mathematical exams than students who carefully completed the questionnaire without taking shortcuts. - Litcharts

Lately, I’ve found that when I talk to people about plants, the common trope is, “I’d love to have plants, but I kill them all.” I would attribute this to the same reason I didn’t like math.

I didn’t comprehend the craft, so I just moved on to what I was good at.

Plants improve our physical and mental health, all while looking absolutely stunning - especially from a mathematical perspective. (Golden Ratio, anybody?)

So, I want to educate people on the 3 main reasons your plants are dying. Each concept isn’t just a simple answer, but rather a tool for comprehension of what is actually happening, so the next time you get a plant you know how to properly care for it, like you would care for anything else you love.

Watering

All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti

Succulents are all the rage right now. People love them because they’re small, cute, colourful and come in all shapes and sizes. However, people have a really hard time keeping succulents alive.

So, what is a succulent?

Well, the word comes from the Latin sucus which means juice, or sap. It got this name because these plants store... literally, juice or sap. To protect this liquid interior, they have evolved to have some parts that are more than normally thickened and fleshy, to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions.

Retaining water in arid climates or soil? Sounds a lot like a cactus to me. This is because all cacti are part of the succulent plant species.

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

Even though it may not have hair-like spines or short prickles, if it has thickened and fleshy skin, it’s probably a succulent. So, for succulents, think of it like a cacti and water it as much as you would water a cacti.

The Water from the Sky

We humans are pretty amazing creatures. One oft under-appreciated invention is that in North America, we can drink water any time we’d like, basically no cost. One of the greatest logistical feats humans have created was that of water supply and sanitation to millions of people living in large metropolitan areas. 

Over many, many years, we humans have grown accustomed to water from the tap and all of the rich nutrients that come along with it. Plants, however, are a bit more particular about their water diet. Plants that are living in your home are originally from all different parts of the world, but one thing unites them all; they get water from the sky.

If you’ve noticed your soil turning white, it may be from the tap water you’re feeding your plant which contains a lot of calcium. Calcium makes the water high in alkaline, which is really bad for plants and their growth. So, if you have a water filter, use that for your plants.

Light

You’re Literally Radiating

If you’ve read the blog post Why Plants Are Green, you’ll know how important the energy from the sun is when it comes to producing photosynthesis. The sun emits radiation and we’re inundated with it every time we interact with it. Although it obviously has many positive health benefits, when you get too much of it you get burnt, we call it sunburnt. While that’s correct nomenclature, it’s a very serious thing. Perhaps we should start referring it to a more scientific, scary sounding name so you’ll start wearing sunscreen.

We should start calling it radiation burn because that’s what it actually is. Now, what else can you get radiation from? 

  • Microwaves
  • X-Rays

You wouldn’t put your plant in a microwave would you? The majority of plants (except for those succulents we were referring to with the tough skin) do not like direct sunlight. When they get too much, the leaves start turning brown. Why? Much like humans, direct sunlight can give the plant radiation burn. So unless you’ve got a succulent by the window, I would suggest indirect sunlight as the best method for producing a healthy plant.

Soil

Enjoy Your Volcanic Cereal

Volcanoes are really great for soil. Well, more-so the after effects; the ash. Nearly the whole of the United States west of the Mississippi was completely covered in ash during the last Yellowstone Volcanic Eruption that happened around 2 million years ago. There was enough ash from that eruption to bury the entire state of New York to a depth of sixty-seven feet. It’s an excellent source of lime and potassium. In its wake it leaves the sort of rich volcanic plains that are ideal for growing potatoes. This soil works really well for wheat as well. This passage from A Short History of Nearly Everything captures the sentiment well,

The ash fall from the last Yellowstone eruption covered all or parts of nineteen western states (plus parts of Canada and Mexico) — nearly the whole of the United States west of the Mississippi. This, bear in mind, is the breadbasket of America, an area that produces roughly half the world’s cereals. - A Short History of Nearly Everything

Plants have evolved to thrive with soil that is rich in nutrients from many, many years ago.

Don’t do what a farmer wouldn’t do

Farmers in North America can’t grow the same crop year-over-year because those plants require certain nutrients. Once all of those plants get harvested, the nutrients it absorbs so with it, so a farmer has to change to a new crop. It’s not really a sustainable model, but it’s what we do for now as the wheels of resource accumulation continue to turn.

If you’ve had your plant in the same soil for over a year, it’s time to give it some new nutrients. There are a total of 6 essential nutrients plants need in their soil to thrive; nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulfur and calcium. The ideal way to feed your plants is through your own natural composter full of all the rich garbage you throw out, but if you can’t get that, go to your local convenience store or garden center and get some compost with those ingredients and your plant will be happy with their new diet.

Epilogue

Math has never really been a strong suit of mine. To be honest, it can sometimes be embarrassing the things that I have to take my calculator out for. I used to attribute it to my personality type, but over the years I’ve grown to understand things at a level I haven’t previously known.

When I was in high school I stopped taking math as soon as it was no longer a requisite course. I just figured I was no good at it, I didn’t like it, and I probably wouldn’t have to use it in my future career, so why would I continue on this painful track?

Fast forward 12 years or so, and I love math now. I have a Golden Ratio tattoo. If you love nature, you can come to love it and be fascinated by it as well. Math is found everywhere in nature, from the smallest atom, to the galaxies many lightyears away.

Don’t stress if your plants are dying, the first step towards a healthier lifestyle is not to not surround yourself with plants, but rather comprehend the nature of plants, what they like, what they don’t. Plants are a lot like humans, they even have feelings. They’re a living entity and require care like you would for any other living entity and the more you care for it the more you appreciate and fall in love with it even more. 

Nature is amazing. Math is amazing. Existence itself is amazing. We might just not fully comprehend it yet.

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