Take Two (But Don’t Call Me)

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Helping Gardening Headaches

Several readers recently asked how to nurture new plantings that are not thriving. This cold, wet weather is making for very slow starts, but really, that is not unusual. Spring weather is often stressful, and young plants are especially vulnerable.

To promote deep-reaching roots that can forage effectively for nutrients and water, provide deep (2-4 inches) of mature compost mulch on all beds. Both edibles and ornamentals will benefit, so also spread some mature compost around the entire root zone of stressed trees and shrubs.

Resist The Need To Feed

When plants are failing before our eyes, it’s tempting to force-feed with soluble chemical fertilizers. In spring, when root growth is slowed by cold soil and chilly nights, strong artificial fertilizers can maim or even kill an ailing plant that might respond better to less aggressive measures.

As doctors classically suggest, try aspirin first. That may sound weird, but aspirin (salicylic acid) is derived from the willow family (Salix). Medicinal willow extracts have been used for thousands of years, and similar preparations can also benefit plants.

A Natural Rooting Extract

Few non-professionals realize that proprietary rooting hormone products have a very short shelf life. Once opened, they are good for a few weeks at most. The good news is that in most parts of the country, nature’s own version is available for free.

Willow water, steeped from chopped willow twigs, encourages strong, rapid root growth in cuttings, divisions, and young transplants and can also aid ailing established plants. To make it, cover a quart of chopped willow twigs with two gallons of water and let steep overnight or up to several days. Use this natural rooting stimulant on seedlings as well as any plants that are struggling after the cold, wet winter. You can also use it generously when you plant, transplant, or strike cuttings.

Strike While The Willow Water Is Fresh

To strike cuttings easily, plunge them into a bucket or large jar of willow water and leave them there until they start to produce roots. In some cases, this takes only a few days. For slower-to-root cuttings, add a handful of freshly cut willow twigs every few days along with some fresh water.

Because water-formed roots are not always equipped to deal with heavy soil, transfer sticks with new roots to tall jars with straight sides (this helps you get them out later), filing the jars with fresh willow water. Every day or so, sift in some compost and soil every few days so the roots can grow into soil. Transplant when new growth is evident.

Aspirin Works For Plants, Too

Recent research shows that many plants produce salicylic acid and similar substances in tiny amounts. These benign compounds trigger natural protective responses, increasing root length and strength and promoting denser, stronger foliage. Plants watered or sprayed with a solution of water and regular aspirin tablets exhibited many of these protective responses. Treated plants grew faster and were better able to fend off pests and diseases than untreated counterparts.

At the University of Rhode Island’s organic trial gardens, aspirin water significantly increased the productivity of tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplant and other herbs, fruits, and vegetables. The  trial gardeners grow mixed food crops in raised beds with compost-enriched soil and drip irrigation. Every three weeks during the summer, foliage is sprayed with a blend of 975 mg aspirin (3 tablets) to 4 gallons of water. This ratio has been found to be the most effective, both for crop improvement and plant health benefits.

Use It Fresh And Mind The Bees

Aspirin water should be used fresh, preferably as soon as it is made. For best results, spray plants every three weeks. Never put aspirin water in a sprayer that has been used for pesticides of any kind. If you don’t have a clean sprayer, use a watering can with a large sprinkling rose (3-4 inches across) for watering delicate seedlings.

To avoid foliage problems, spray early on a warm, still day, so leaves dry off thoroughly before cooler evening hours arrive. To avoid harming bees or other pollinators, spray before these beneficial insects are present (usually before the sun reaches the plants you are treating).

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2 Responses to Take Two (But Don’t Call Me)

  1. Richard says:


    If a sprayer that has been used for pesticide application is washed thoroughly, why cannot it be used for aspirin water solution application?


    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Richard,
      Many garden toxins are not water soluble and are not safe to be washed down a sink or even into groundwater. It’s almost impossible to get all residues out, so when you are spraying a wholesome solution like aspirin water, there can be unintended damage from previously used toxins, many of which are harmful even at low dilution rates. Hope that helps!

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