Look Who’s Talking!
Do your plants appear stunted or spindly? Are their leaves splotched with unexpected colors or riddled with holes? If only gardens could talk!
Actually they can, but with pictures rather than with words. Yours might be trying to tell you that there is something wrong with its location or soil—or that it has come under fire from pests or even from you. Signs of many plant problems tend to result from too much or too little of something. So, like Goldilocks, you want to aim for “just right.” Following are a few of the things your garden might be saying to you that can help achieve that balance and keep plants healthy.
“My soil is too sweet or too sour.”
A pH of 6.5 typically is considered “just right” for garden soil, since most plants will do well in soil near that level. Exceptions include acid-loving plants such as blueberries and blue-flowered hydrangeas, or those that prefer alkaline conditions, such as asparagus or carnations.
Overly alkaline soil often causes iron deficiency chlorosis, indicated by yellowing leaves on which only the veins are green. Overly acidic soil, on the other hand, can darken foliage with a bronze hue or purple spotting.
Related: How To: Test Soil pH
“My soil is too soggy or too dry.”
If your soil usually compacts into a non-crumbling sticky ball when you squeeze it, that clay probably remains too wet for optimum plant health. If it won’t hold together at all, it might contain more sand than is ideal.
Plants in overly dry soil often appear stunted with a matte look instead of a glossy sheen. Those in soggy soil might eventually wilt and yellow, their roots a rotting brown rather than a healthy white color.
“My plants receive too little sun or too much.”
Plants that don’t receive enough sun will reach for more and develop spindly stems. They sometimes lose natural variegation or refuse to flower. Those getting too many rays will appear to shrink, with downturned leaves, bleached foliage and flowers, and sometimes burns in the centers of those leaves.
“My plants are too hot or too cold.”
If you disregard the weather report and set your tender plants out too early in the spring, they likely will shrivel and turn to mush under the evil spell of Jack Frost. However, hardier sorts that prefer cooler weather, such as lettuces or cabbages, should be set out before your last frost date if hardened off first. If planted too late, they might “bolt” (send up flower stalks rather than concentrate on making leaves) and turn bitter when they receive too much heat.
Related: How to Harden Off Plants
“My plants are overfed or underfed.”
As with food for humans, what is good for plants at the proper doses can become bad for them if they receive too much of it. If your tomato plants, for example, are big and beautiful, but showing very few blossoms, they likely have been overfed and want to keep growing rather than settling down to the task of fruiting. On plants receiving too little nitrogen, the older (lower) leaves often will yellow prematurely.
“My plants are suffering from friendly fire.”
If your vegetables or flowers unexpectedly develop “variegated,” yellowed, or reddened, distorted foliage and brown spots on their blooms after you sprayed the weeds along the fence, they might be suffering from herbicide damage. Sprays or their vapors drift—especially on windy days—even hours after applying them. They easily can damage sensitive plants you want, such as tomatoes, as well as the ones you don’t.
“My plants are suffering from pests.”
Whether you just spotted with a few holes in leaves or wholly eaten stems, plants missing pieces generally are victims of garden pests. Greenery with large chunks removed likely has fallen prey to vertebrates such as deer, groundhogs, or rabbits, while plants that show holes only in their foliage probably are under attack by invertebrates (bugs or slugs).
Related: 8 Ways to Combat Garden Pests
“My plants are suffering from fungus diseases.”
Dark sunken spots or powdery films on leaves point to fungi. Sometimes the spots will dry up and fall out of the foliage, leaving holes. Those outlined with a dark color often indicate fungi rather than insects. At any rate, such molds usually happen under damp or humid conditions when the air isn’t moving enough but spores are—often on your hands or tools.
Whether you're a lawn care novice or a master gardener, everyone can use a little help around the yard. Subscribe to The Dirt newsletter for tips, recommendations, and problem-solving tools that can help you tame your great outdoors.