Year One, Lesson Three
Fundamentals of Flora: “Groundwork”
Hello again, students! Come in, come in. Welcome back to Greenhouse One. Today we will be going over the basics of how to care for plants. As this is a compulsory subject, I know many of you have been dreading attempting to actually care for a plant, but even those of you with black thumbs can overcome your plant-based fears! There’s really nothing to it other than a little tender, loving care. In addition to basic plant needs, we will go over a few simple, but useful, spells, the general life cycle of a plant.
Basic Plant Needs
The basics of herbology extend to understanding that each plant has its own unique requirements as well as special qualities. I’m sure all of you know that plants need sunlight, soil, and water to grow, but you may be a little hazy on the specifics. In truth, those specifics vary from plant to plant. While some of this will seem to be common sense -- the Morphanous Cactus will not grow next to the ocean, just as the Aquagius Root will not grow in a dry desert -- some of the finer details are lost upon uneducated witches and wizards. Therefore, it is not just as simple as sticking a plant in some dirt and watering it every day. For some plants, this may even weaken or kill it! While it's important to consider an individual plant's needs before planting, we will only touch upon the fundamentals today.
While we will be talking more about the various kinds of sunlight in Lesson Eight when we discuss plant categorization, it is important to note that not all sunlight specifications are what you would assume. There are, in fact, plants that are placed in deep shade, rather than in the sun, and thrive there. In fact, some plants cannot handle direct sunlight at all!
When planting, you need to make sure that you know how much sun an area gets during a normal day, yes, but there are many other specifics to consider. Not only is how many hours of sun that patch gets an important factor, but also when those hours are. Sunlight during the morning, afternoon, or evening can have different effects on a plant, depending on its fragility. Some plants cannot handle the intense morning rays, and prefer to soak up the gentler evening sun. With all that out of the way, you also need to note how much shade an area receives before you plant anything there, as many plants cannot handle direct sun for more than a few hours at a time, depending on their sensitivity.
Perhaps this has happened to you: you carefully water a plant every day with high hopes for it to blossom into a beautiful, full-grown plant. Instead, it begins to wilt and droop. Desperately, you water it more, assuming you have neglected it somehow, and yet it makes no improvements. If this has happened to you, don’t despair. You were likely dealing with a plant that doesn’t like being overwatered. As stated earlier, every plant has personal needs and preferences, and some plants simply cannot survive with too much water! Succulents, for example, may comfortably go weeks without water, so it’s all a matter of knowing the kind of plant you’re dealing with. Additionally, when watering a plant, you must also consider the drainage of the area you are watering. If it is a potted plant, does the container have drainage holes? If not, you will need to water less frequently, as no excess water will be able to escape and overwatering may cause root rot or other complications. If the plant is outside, you must consider if the soil is very fine or rocky in order to make this same judgement.
It may surprise some of you to know that not all soil is created equal. Different areas of land have different nutrient levels, which depend on climate, what other plants have grown in the area, and other extraneous factors. It is important to know what kind of soil you have and, as mentioned above, if it’s fine and sandy, rocky, or rich with loam. Additionally, knowing if it is nutrient rich or stripped bare is useful. Along those same lines, the pH balance of the soil is quite important and can either help or hinder the growth of your plants. For those of you who are not aware of what the pH scale is, it simply measures how acidic or basic a substance (in this case, soil) is.
The range as it pertains to soil is generally from 4.5 to 9, though the entire scale reaches from 0 to 14. 7 is considered the neutral point from which basicity and acidity are measured.1 If your soil is above 7, it is basic. If it is below 7, it is acidic. Most plants prefer somewhere in the mildly acidic to neutral range because of the minerals present in those types of soil, but I will note it when possible! Fortunately, there are plenty of Muggle and magical soil supplements to adjust and correct the soil if it is not at the right level for your needs, which we will discuss more in depth at a later date. To ascertain the pH of your soil, there is a spell you can use to test the ground. The spell’s details are below and it will reveal the pH level by producing a colorful mist that rises up to hover above the ground. You can then compare this mist to a color chart to narrow down your soil’s pH. At the front, I have sturdy cards with the color chart printed on them. They should prove very useful, as after you cast the spell, you can simply hold the card up to the mist to decide what color it is. There are enough for all of you and are yours to keep, so don’t forget them on your way out. There are also Muggle scientific tests that can be done, but I am not an authority on those! The wand movement can be a little tricky, so I have included a diagram as to how exactly to move your wand.
A Little TLC
While most plants are not sentient (we will be discussing the exceptions to this rule next week), they will thrive if you treat them that way. Think of it this way: would you ever buy a pet without knowing what it eats or in what kind of cage or living accommodations it needs to be kept? Of course not! Similarly, when you set out to take care of a plant, make sure you know how much shade or sun it needs, how often you should water it, and any other special considerations necessary. The more care and attention you pay a plant, the less likely you are to have a brittle, dead stalk of dittany on your hands.
Along the same line of thinking, if you attempted to go days without feeding your Kneazle, you’d have a fairly irate feline on your hands, as well as a very stern Care of Magical Creatures professor. This concept applies to plants as well. While you don’t need to “feed” it every day, checking on your plant at least once a day is a great habit to get into. This makes sure you never miss a day on its watering schedule, it gets pruned when dead foliage weighs it down, and that if signs of sickness show up, you catch on immediately. Even if the plant requires no care that day, it makes sure you never neglect your plants for too long, and also makes you more familiar with your plant so you are more easily able to tell when something is amiss.
Another thing I would highly recommend in terms of caring for your plants is singing to them. Some plants, particularly magical ones, have a sort of sense of what is going on around them even if they are not sentient. It has been hypothesized that singing is beneficial to the growth of plants, though perhaps it just makes us enjoy taking care of them more, and therefore makes us more likely to do it! No matter the cause, there does seem to be a correlation between plants that get sung to and plants that thrive, so give it a try! The plants won’t mind if you’re an alto, a tenor, or can barely carry a tune. In my experience, roses enjoy a good love song (I like “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and “December’s Rose”), and I find that vines thrive on jazz. Autumn and winter blooming flowers often enjoy songs with sad lyrics, such as “The Phoenix Lament” by the Ministry of Magic. Additionally, as might be expected, trees tend to like older songs, so with them I stick to hymns and symphonies. Interestingly, bushes often like songs that have attitude and dangerous plants might very well have a preference for something with a bit of humor. If that is too much to keep straight for you, don’t worry, any song is better than none. Just sing what comes to mind and make tending your plants go a little bit faster!
The Life Cycle of a Plant
Lifespan is a delicate topic due to the fact that we often must cut a plant's life short for medicinal or experimental purposes. Ignoring these occurrences, a normal plant’s lifespan can range wildly, between mere weeks and five thousand years -- although the records kept on these much older plants lack sufficient information on planting dates to confirm this. As a rule, your average annual plant, like pansies or peas, have the shortest lifespans, whereas trees tend to have the longest lifespans. However, cacti also have lengthy lives. A plant’s lifespan becomes important when considering the many stages of a plant’s life. If it is relatively long-lived, the harvesting stage may happen repeatedly, over many years, or may only happen once after a very long wait. On the other hand, if a plant is rather short-lived, you must be prepared to repot or harvest it fairly quickly. These are just a few of the things we should consider during the rest of the lesson.
Those of you with some experience with plants know that this stage is an oversimplification of a few, smaller stages. Essentially, we are combining the plant’s life from seed, to sprout, to maturation. This stage typically ends when the plant grows into what is generally recognizable as a fully-formed plant and is a very exciting time for both you and the plant, particularly if you are new to herbology. The little shoots that you are tending may seem so fragile, and you may have little experience with growing that particular type of plant, but the most important thing you can do during this stage is be patient and aware of your timeline. Don’t overwater or disturb the plant in an attempt to get it to grow faster! Reassure yourself by checking in the library that your plant is growing according to schedule. For some plants, particularly flowering ones, this stage may be immediately followed by germination or reproduction, to allow for the next generation to continue.
Repotting may be required quite often, or not at all, depending on how you are caring for your plant. Naturally, an outdoor plant will not need to be repotted, for example! A plant needs to be repotted when it has grown too big for its current container and has stopped growing due to a lack of room, or has even begun wilting because of it. The plant will enjoy the extra breathing room of a new pot, and this will often boost a plant's growth. Because of this, at the time of repotting, a plant’s diet may change. Flesh-eating plants usually double their intake, while Gaviat Roots will eat two-thirds less than before. While most plants will require the same amount of sunlight, the amount of water needed will often either increase or decrease. All of these factors are very important and not to be taken lightly.
Again, depending on the plant, harvesting may happen rather frequently. This typically involves cutting off one piece of a plant for use apart from the original plant. For example, picking an apple off of a tree is the harvesting of apples. With some plants, like an apple tree or dandelions, harvesting can be as simple as plucking something with your hands. However, with some more finicky or dangerous plants, using your hands (even with dragonhide gloves) may not be an option. When this is the case, we use a handy spell called the Severing Charm. You will be studying it again later -- though in a different light -- in Charms class, so if you have any questions feel free to approach Professor Virneburg or myself, but the spell’s details are as follows:
That’s all we have time for today! I hope you are leaving today’s class a little less nervous about growing your plants and more confident in your abilities. Next week we will touch on what differentiates a magical plant from a non-magical one and look at an example. Don’t forget to take your quiz on your way out!