Growing Concerns 596: Kindness can kill Jade

In this issue:

Wrong watering can kill indoor plants: Jade (first, below)
Solving problems caused by repotting too soon
Preventing soil damage during home construction/remodel
On guard against rabbit damage
Green thumbs: To volunteers and pruning when you see it

Tough characters like jade plants can be killed with kindness

Dear Janet,

I hope you can tell me what is wrong with my jade plant and how to fix it. It is an old plant that my parents had. It was doing very well at their house. After their death in the summer of 2003 I brought it to Michigan from Ohio and repotted it. Now its leaves are falling off, branches are drooping, the leaves are wrinkled and some are gray. It is not doing well.

I have it sitting in our foyer out of direct cold and heat with some afternoon sun. I don't keep it very wet and have not fed it. - S.S. -


Dear S.S.,

Jades can definitely be killed with kindness. That may be the case with your plant.

We grow jades (Crassula species) as houseplants but they evolved to thrive in the hot summers, mild winters, clear skies and sparse rainfall of western South Africa and Namibia. They develop problems if they have too little light, too much moisture or temperatures below 35F . I'm guessing yours first declined as a result of a moisture problem that was then compounded by low light.

Wild jades live where rain is sporadic and a year's total may be less than ten inches. When those infrequent rains fall, the jade absorbs water quickly, stores it in its leaves and draws on that reserve during dry periods. To be healthy, its roots must be downright dry between waterings, as they are between rains "back home."

So water by the feel of the soil and look of the leaves, not by the calendar. Let the soil dry right down and the leaves lose some of the thickness they had from stored water.

Also, be aware that a plant's water use is tied to sunlight. The lower the light, the slower stored water will be used. I water my jade every week or two during summer when it's in good sun on the back porch. During winter it has less light, even though it's under supplemental grow lights, and needs water only every four to six weeks.

We're supposing you repotted your plant into a bigger pot. In doing that you put roots on the outer edge of the original root ball into contact with new, root-free potting mix. That layer is always much wetter than the root-filled soil. The soggy root tips rot and die, causing branches to wither and die, too. Then, with fewer leaves, the plant can't trap enough solar energy to enlarge its root system, so the new, moist soil never fills with roots, remains wet and continues to kill more root tips.

Take the plant out of the pot, let loose soil fall off, and set the bare ball on a stack of newspapers for a few days so extra water will be drawn out. Clip off all rotted branches and any rotted root tips you see. Then put the plant back into a smaller pot. Move it into a south or east window or under grow lights for 12 to 14 hours per day. Don't give it any water until the soil in the pot has been warm and dry for a week or two, not just on the surface but an inch below the surface.

Fertilize only after new growth appears, which may not happen until March or April when the days become significantly longer.

Leave it in that smaller pot. Up-pot only if the top ever outweighs the pot by so much that the plant tips over readily.


Short reports

Winter can be great for outdoor home repairs...

...that in other seasons would devastate gardens. But the ground isn't frozen yet so beware the harm that can come to the soil.

Trucks, tractors and even feet can press so much air out of the soil that roots there will die.

If vehicles leave ruts in a lawn or garden, use a garden fork to loosen the soil. Push the tines into the compacted soil, then lean back on the fork's handle to pop up the depression.

Now add loose soil just to level the area.

Simply filling a rut is like putting soil into a pot with no drainage holes. It's a recipe for root rot.

Winter's here. Do you know where your rabbits are?

If you had rabbit trouble this year, you should guard your shrubs and small trees now. With few greens left to eat, rabbits have started stripping buds and bark.

Fence the rascals away from new, low-branched and thin-barked plants. Fruit trees, euonymus and burning bush are rabbit favorites.


Green thumbs up

to people like Paul Emanuelsen, a star among stars in that hard-working category of angels called volunteers.  For two years Paul not only did the work and bore the cost of keeping up a beautiful adopted garden, but also wrote for a newsletter, keeping his fellow gardeners informed. Thanks for that turn as communications officer, Paul!


Green thumbs down

to delay when there's bad pruning to correct. If the leafless season reveals stubs or ragged edges that need recutting, don't wait, start sawing.


Originally published 12/11/04