Now is the Time When Plants Need Help the Most

By Jeff Falk

Photo: Evening Primrose by Becky Urban

Since the beginning of our time on earth, humans have co-existed with plants, somewhat peacefully. It is an imperfect symbiotic relationship.

We give them carbon dioxide, and they give us oxygen. They give us food, clothing and shelter, and we give them …

The truth is we need plants more than they need us. But that doesn’t mean we humans can’t enjoy taking care of plants.

Perhaps that privilege is just another one of the things they give to us.

Becky Urban is a professor of biology and the Director of Environmental Sciences at Lebanon Valley College.

“It can be a symbiotic relationship,” says Urban. “We’re choosing the plants we want to have a good relationship with. With corn, for instance, we’re spreading their genes all over the place. But sometimes it’s good to look at it from the plant’s point of view. They are an aspect of our culture. There are ways where we have different relationships with plants.

“They produce oxygen,” adds Urban. “They are the source for every food we eat, either directly or indirectly. We get medicine from plants, we get lumber from plants, we get paper from plants. They are very intertwined in our daily lives. I think they’re very underappreciated, because they kind of just sit there. Plants have to withstand a changing environment, and there are competitive plants competing for the same resources. The more you learn about plants, the more interesting they become.”

Locally, that ideological concept of caring for plants manifests itself in gardens – both floral and vegetable – landscaping and agriculture. While the climate of south central Pennsylvania presents us with a unique set of challenges in our caring for plants, it also provides us with different ways to enjoy them.

As a pursuit, planting and gardening is like no other hobby in the world.

“I think gardening is quite popular locally,” says Urban. “And I think it’s gotten even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. I think people are spending more time at home. I can’t think of a house that doesn’t have sort of plant around it, maybe in a city. Even then, you have weeds growing out of your sidewalk.

“Plants can certainly grow on their own,” Urban adds. “It depends on the species, how much maintenance and care they need. There are certain plants that don’t need maintenance. But for plants to be more successful, it doesn’t hurt to help them along.”

Autumn is the time of the harvest, the time when leaves change color, the time when the earth exhales. If spring is the time for re-birth and summer is the time for growth, then fall is a time to look both back and ahead.

There exists hundreds of thousands of species of plants on the planet, many of which have their own unique life cycles and many of which are affected differently by their environments.

“We’re getting close to the time when many perennials are going to go dormant and many annuals are going to die,” says Urban. “A lot of it will happen after a few harsh frosts. You want to trim some perennials to within a couple inches of the ground. It’s time to pull off the parts of plants that look like they’re dead.

“For some species, this would be the time to be planting bulbs down into the soil, so they’re ready to sprout in the spring,” Urban continues. “It’s also a good time to plant trees, because they’re dormant. Early spring is fine as well, but before they bud. They need enough water for their root systems. With annuals, you want to plant them in the spring.”

So it would seem that all maintenance and caring for plants is in preparation for the coming of winter. Put in human terms, winter is a time for plants to hibernate.

“A lot of times, the cold is going to put plants in dormancy,” says Urban. “But a lack of water can affect them too. When the ground freezes, plants can’t get water, especially the ones with shallow roots. And things like that can be damaging to trees. In Florida, grass is going to be grown all year round. It all depends on the species.

“With annuals, the seeds sprout in the spring time, they’ll produce nice leaves and nice flowers through the summer time, and then they will die in the fall,” continues Urban. “Bi-annuals live for two years. Bi-annuals sprout in the spring of the first year and what they’re doing is photosynthesizing, making sugar and then storing it for the second year when they flower. Perennials can live for more than two years, but it’s going to take some time for them to flower. Things like evergreen trees and grass might be green throughout the year.”

Gardening and caring for flowers, bushes and trees isn’t for everyone. But for the many who do enjoy it, it can be a remarkably rewarding pursuit.

Gardening appeals to one’s caring nature, and it requires patience, persistence and a certain level of understanding.

“I honestly don’t know where the phrase ‘green thumb’ comes from,” says Urban. “Do I have one? It depends on the situation. I’m really good at growing plants at work. But when it comes to my house plants, I’m not so good at that. They’ve been neglected in the past. But for my professional life, I’m fantastic.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with smarts,” adds Urban. “It has to do with how much you pay attention, just making sure you care enough to water them on a regular basis. I think it’s also important that you have a desire to get dirty and that you appreciate plants. I’d like to see people appreciate plants throughout the different seasons. Plants change throughout the year, and people can help maintain them.”

It may be the benefits of gardening are a bit under-appreciated. Caring for plants can be therapeutic, an opportunity to interact with nature and it can lead to a greater understanding of the world around us.

“A nice garden on the outside of your house can raise a property’s value,” says Urban, who resides on a 1.3-acre lot in Manheim. “When you drive by a house that has a beautiful garden, it catches your attention a little more. It helps with staying relaxed. It helps with aesthetics. You feel better when you look at flowers. I like to see what happens with them, and see different plants.

“I like having our trees, but it’s more yard than I like,” continues Urban. “We have two main flower gardens, mostly perennials with shrubs. I like my flower gardens to be low maintenance. I don’t like to have to plant every year. I like spending my time in our vegetable garden, and I really like our orchard. I do like the aesthetics, but I also like growing things we can eat.”

When it comes to caring for plants, we just owe it to them.