Common Plant Problems

The most important thing to remember when growing plants is that they are living beings, and will react to their environment. Read through this guide for troubleshooting problems with watering, sunlightfertilizing and organic alternatives.

Watering

The most common killer for plants is watering. Both over watered and under watered plants will show signs of stress if you are not watering properly.

 

Over watered plants wilt when the plant absorbs more water than it's cells require, causing the cell walls to burst. Leaves will often have blister like ruptures on the undersides of leaves. The leaves will feel soggy, and will often turn brown. Under the soil, the roots have drowned and started rotting. Rotten roots are black or dark brown, squishy, and break easily.

You may be able to save the plant if you catch the symptoms early. Gently cut away the dead roots, and repot the plant with new soil. Keep the plant in a bright but shaded area, and only begin to re-water the plant when the soil is dry enough to do so according to that plants care conditions (see below for more on when to water).

To prevent overwatering use a pot with drainage, always remove standing water, and plant plants in pots that are appropriate to the plants size. More soil will hold more water, and a small plant in a big pot will drown before all the soil has dried. If you know you are an over water-er, choose a potting soil that has contains a medium to help with drainage, such as sand or perlite. 

Under-watered plants will also wilt because there is not enough water to create pressure within the cell that allows it to keep its shape. This pressure is know as turgor pressure. Under-watered plants leaves will turn yellow and then brown, and will feel dry and crispy to touch.

If your plant is not too crisped, you may be able to revive it. Move the plant into a shaded location until it has recovered, then place back in its home. Increase humidity to get moisture back into the leaves as soon as possible. Mist it thought the day to help with its recovery. Water the plant throughly, and make sure the soil has absorbed water. Dry soil will repel water, so you may need to water a few times before the plant can rehydrate, if your pot has drainage. You can tell if the soil has absorbed water by the weight of the pot. If the weight is not changing then the soil is not absorbing the water. If the water comes rushing out of the pot immediately, then the soil is not soaking any of it up. Wait 5 minutes, then water again. Repeat until the soil is moist. Using lukewarm water also helps encourage the soil, careful the water is not hot though or you may burn the roots. If your pot does not have drainage, start by adding a little bit of water at a time (amount to start with is determined by the size of your pot). Let the pot sit for 5 minutes to absorb the water, and check the soil. Continue adding water until the soil is moist.

If your plant lives, it should recover over the course of the day. Over the next few months, slowly increase the frequency of your watering, and continue to monitor soil moisture before watering again. If you consistently under water, use a pot that is one inch larger than the size it is currently in, or add a potting medium like vermiculite that will help retain moisture. 

Watering Symbols

Most plants come with a care tag that has confusing symbols. Often, there will be one to three water drops to indicate watering, or a watering can shaded full, half full or part full. It is important to note that these symbols indicate the frequency of watering, not the volume of water.  A cactus and a fern in the same size pots should receive the same amount of water on watering day, but the cactus may go twice as long or longer between waterings as the fern. It is important to understand the care of each plant, and create a watering schedule that is best suited for it. If you are looking for watering information for your specific plant, please see the Plant page, or you can always Contact us directly. 

Keep Evenly Moist

Common for rainforest and tropical plants, or for plants in the flowering stages.  Let the top part of the soil dry,  but never let the whole pot dry completely, then fully water. 

Examples: Ferns, Citrus Trees, 

 

Let dry slightly, then water well

Common for plants that are used to regular rain, but also can handle dry spells. These plants often can stand the soil completely drying, as long as they do not remain dry for long. When the soil is 2/3 dry, water completely 

Examples: Prayer plants, Money Trees

Let dry completley, then water well

Common for dry weather or desert plants. Make sure the bottom of the pot is dry, not just the top few inches. A pot with a drainage hole is the easiest way to see if a pot is dry. If the soil is dark, or if you can make a clump into a little ball, it still has moisture and should wait another few days. 

Examples: Cacti and Succulents, Snake plants

Sunlight

Another common killer for houseplants is lack of sunlight, or too much sunlight. Plants get most of their energy from the sun, so it is important to give them the sunlight they need to be happy. 

 

Choosing the right sun location in your home for your plant is important for your plants over all health, however, sunlight should not be the only factor in choosing your location. Be mindful of doors and window drafts, especially in the winter. Also take into consideration how close your plant will be to heating or air conditioning vents, as the air coming from these vents is typically very dry, and can be harmful to plants that need a lot of humidity. Keep in mind the time of day the plant will be getting sun in this location, as mid-day sun rays are much stronger than morning sun rays. A south facing window sill is ideal for cacti, but will burn a delicate fern, whereas a north or east facing window sill would be great for a fern, but would not be enough light to sustain a cactus. The following symbol guide will help you determine how much sunlight your plants need. For care information for your specific plant, please see our Plant page, or you can always Contact us.

Sun Symbols

Bright,
Direct Light

Must have a minimum of 3 hours of direct sunlight a day. 
 

  • Within 1 foot of an east or west facing window

  • Within 5 feet of a south facing window

Medium,
Semi-Shade Light

Can have up to 3 hours direct sunlight a day. 
 

  • Within 1 foot of a north facing window

  • Within 3 feet of an east or west facing window

  • Within 8 feet of a south facing window

Low, 
Indirect Light

Does not require direct sunlight. 
 

  • Within 3 foot of a north facing window

  • Within 5 feet of an east or west facing window

  • Within 10 feet of a south facing window

 

Fertilizing 

Like us, plants need nutrients to survive. Whether you choose to make your own organic food or use store bought, this section will explain why it is important to feed your plants, and how to identify what nutrients they are searching for. 

Plants need 6 main macronutrients to survive. The six nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are nutrients that a plant can get simply from air and water. In nature, decaying organic matter releases nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium into the soil that plants absorb through their root systems. In house plants, we mimic this decay and nutrient release by feeding plants with fertilizer.

If you are hesitant to use pre-made fertilizers, there are inexpensive organic alternatives that you can make from common household items. See the alternative fertilizing methods below for information on DIY composting and other options. 

A plant with nutrient deficiencies will show physical signs of stress. Check out this handy chart, originally published by the University of Arizona, for basic trouble shooting.

Guide to Symptoms of Plant Nutrient Deficiencies

Macronutrients

Nutrient

Deficiency Symptoms

Comments

Fertilizer Sources

nitrogen (N)

General yellowing of older leaves (bottom of plant). The rest of the plant is often light green.

phosphorus (P)

Leaf tips look burnt, followed by older leaves turning a dark green or reddish-purple.

Most plants absorb nitrogen in the form of ammonium or nitrate. These forms readily dissolve in water and leach away. 

Anything with the words “ammonium,” “nitrate,” or “urea.” Also manures.

Plants absorb phosphorus in the form of phosphate. This form dissolves only slightly in water, but pH strongly affects uptake.

Anything with the words “phosphate” or “bone.” Also greensand.

potassium (K)

Older leaves may wilt, look scorched. Interveinal chlorosis begins at the base, scorching inward from leaf margins.

Plants absorb potassium as an ion, which can be readily leached from soil. Desert soils and water generally have plenty of potassium, so deficiency problems are rare.

Anything with the words “potassium” or “potash.”

calcium (Ca)

New leaves (top of plant) are distorted or irregularly shaped. Causes blossom-end rot.

Desert soils and water generally have plenty of calcium, so deficiency problems are rare. Excessive calcium can limit the availability of other nutrients.

 Anything with the word “calcium”; also gypsum.

magnesium (Mg)

Older leaves turn yellow at edge leaving a green arrowhead shape in the center of the leaf.

Plants absorb magnesium as an ion (charged particle), which can be readily leached from soil. May be readily leached from soil if calcium is not present.

Anything with the word “magnesium”; also Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)

sulfur (S)

Younger leaves turn yellow first, sometimes followed by older leaves.

Plants absorb sulfur in the form of sulfate. This readily leaches from the soil. Sulfur may acidify the soil (lower the pH).

Anything with the word “sulfate.”

Micronutrients

Nutrient

Deficiency Symptoms

Comments

Fertilizer Sources

boron (B)

copper (Cu)

iron (Fe)

Terminal buds die, witches’ brooms form.

Plants absorb boron in the form of borate. Problems are seen in intensely cropped areas.

Anything with the words “borax” or “borate.”

Leaves are dark green, plant is stunted.

Plants absorb copper as an ion. Arizona soils have plenty of copper, so problems are rare.

Anything with the words “copper,” “cupric,” or “cuprous.

Yellowing occurs between the veins of young leaves.

Plants absorb iron as an ion through their foliage as well as their roots. Uptake is strongly affected by pH. Chelated iron is readily available for use by the plant, other forms of iron may be tied up in the soil.

Anything with the word "iron chelate."

manganese (Mn)

Yellowing occurs between the veins of young leaves. Pattern is not as distinct as with iron. Palm fronds are stunted and deformed, called "frizzle top." Reduction in size of plant parts (leaves, shoots, fruit) generally. Dead spots or patches.

Plants absorb manganese as an ion through their foliage as well as their roots.

Anything with the words "manganese" or "manganous." Often required with zinc application.

molybdenum (Mo)

General yellowing of older leaves (bottom of plant). The rest of the plant is often light green.

Plants absorb molybdenum in the form of molybdate. Problems are rare in Arizona soils but are occasionally seen on legumes where it mimics nitrogen deficiency.

Anything with the words "molybdate" or "molybdic."

zinc (Zn)

Terminal leaves may be rosetted, and yellowing occurs between the veins of the new leaves.

Plants absorb zinc as an ion through their foliage as well as their roots. High pH may limit availability.

Anything with the word "zinc.

What does this even mean?

The easiest way to understand fertilizers is to remember "1-2-3, Up-Down-Around". On the labels of fertilizers, you will see three numbers, often as 10-10-10 or some variation similar to this. These three numbers, in order, represent percent concentration of (1) nitrogen, (2), phosphorus, and (3) potassium. Nitrogen helps stimulate lush green foliage or any other green leafy growth, thus the 'up' part of the plant. Phosphorous helps with root growth, or the 'down' part of the plant, which in turn helps plants produce flowers and vegetables. Potassium is crucial for general plant health, and helps with roots and leaves, or 'around'. 

Caution!

Plants show similar symptoms for different stressors. Yellowing leaves could be a nitrogen deficiency, but could also be a symptom of incorrect watering or sunlight. It could also just be the plant shedding old leaves. Feeding should be part of an over all plant care routine, and be included in a regular schedule. Always follow the directions on the manufacturer label, or dilute concentrations further if you are an irregular feeder or feeding your plants for the first time. This will give them time to adjust to changing nutrient levels in the soil. Do not feed plants every time you water, or the soil will become oversaturated with nutrients and burn the roots. They will require regular clear water between feedings to flush any unused nutrients and prevent toxic buildup. Plants will require less food, or none at all, during winter months when they are dormant and grow slowly. Be cautious, over feeding or feeding at higher concentrations than recommended can burn roots, and will kill the plant. If a plant is already sick, suddenly feeding it will overwhelm its little system, and could cause it to die faster. Always fix the original cause of the problem (overwatering etc) and then begin introducing fertilizer when your plant is happy and healthy again.The easiest way to manage fertilizing is to start your plant on a feeding routine as soon as your plants have settled into your home. Simply maintain a regular feeding and clear water schedule and your plant will flourish!

Organic Alternatives

If you prefer to make your own fertilizers, check out the following sources and examples for inspiration and ideas. If you are among the DIY feeders, it is recommended that you use a soil test kit, to ensure you are not over or under feeding or altering the soils acid levels.