Knowing The Difference: What is Wrong with my Garden?

By Jeff Walters
Published: January 1, 2017 | Last updated: November 23, 2021 11:59:23
Key Takeaways

Knowing the difference between a nutrient deficiency, a virus and a disease is what sets better gardeners and cultivators apart from the rest. Jeff Walters offers some reasons why your garden may not be performing to your standards, and why the cause may not be what you think it is.

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If your plants don’t look good, then you know something must be wrong. However, sometimes finding out what the problem is can be a real hassle, which is why so many problems are either ignored or misdiagnosed. Working to identify and solve the problem with your plants not only leads to better plant performance, but it makes you a better grower.


Let’s look at some common viruses and how closely they mimic nutrient deficiencies. I’ll start with the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. This virus is a big problem with cultivators who smoke or use tobacco products because the virus can travel very easily from your hands to your plants. Often it is overlooked as a zinc deficiency, leading growers to try and correct it by adjusting zinc levels in their nutrient mix. This common mistake can wipe out your entire garden in just one short season.

Conversely, a magnesium problem may present as a virus or pest problem and be incorrectly treated as such. The brown and burnt looking spots may lead a grower to believe that the problem is caused by something in the air, rather than a nutrient-deficiency in the soil or grow medium. A magnesium deficiency makes the plant look beat up and shriveled, with tips of the leaves and the larger spots crumbling to the touch.


Just like in school, when one kid gets a cold the entire school gets a cold. It’s the same with your garden. If one plant is infected with a disease or virus it is just a matter of time before the entire garden is infected. Knowing the difference between a nutrient deficiency and a disease or virus infestation could be the difference between success and failure.

Transplanting, smoking or using tobacco products, interaction with other plants, different soil mixes, dirty equipment and containers can all spread pathogens.

Here is a list of some common nutrient deficiencies that are misdiagnosed as a disease or virus:


Magnesium Deficiency

Magnesium deficiency causes white or light brown looking strips along the leaf veins, some purple on the underside of the leaves, small dark spots, surface eruptions on leaves and/or dry spots that crumble to the touch. It looks very closely related to a root aphid infestation.


Phosphate Deficiency

Phosphate deficiency in the early stages leaves reddish spots, purple reddish on the underside of leaves and stems, dry cracked spots, and an overall mess that is commonly treated as chronic spot virus.

Nitrogen Deficiency

Nitrogen deficiency causes a wide range of symptoms ranging from yellowing of all lower leaves and purple and reddish coloring of the stems that is often misread as a calcium problem or as the Gemini Virus, which causes circular looking spots or areas surrounded by yellow strips that seem to outline the affected areas, more common in trees or shrubs.

Problems in the garden can be caused by more than just pathogens and nutrient imbalances. There are many other conditions that are not in your control such as the unintended effects from nearby pesticides, herbicides and fungus control application. These items are commonplace in outside gardens in populated areas where lawns are kept using some of the above mentioned items.

These sprays, liquids or powder granules can transmit via water, wind, rain and human activity. The weed killer your neighbor or municipality uses can indeed become airborne and land on your garden, causing havoc. Most herbicides are tailored through the wonders of science to attack only certain DNA in certain plant life, but these sprays and powders can also affect your garden.

The overuse of local herbicides can give your garden the appearance of mold, flower rot and other ailments. The rain can carry these products to your gardens locations simply by run off if your garden is not in containers. The wind can carry insects, mold spores, chemicals, unwanted pollen and a host of other items into your garden, causing some problems along the way. The joy of having an indoor garden is that these issues can be significantly reduced and often avoided altogether.

The take-away message here is to be careful when using nutrients as sometimes the ailment may not be what it appears to be. Make sure you understand what may be happening and make corrective actions that will help. Sometimes contacting a growroom consultant can help, or take some pictures and show shop employees who may be able to identify what is going on.

There are many ways to keep your garden happy and healthy simply by knowing what to look for, how to determine what it is and how to keep your garden squeaky clean and productive.


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Written by Jeff Walters

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Jeff Walters is a former marine who spends most of his time outdoors fishing, hiking, hunting and gardening. He is a self-educated former martial arts instructor, published author, hot rod enthusiast and co-founder of many outdoor-related websites. His current focus in on green energy and learning how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

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