Troubleshooting Your Plants: Symptoms to Look Out For

By Frank Rauscher
Published: October 24, 2017 | Last updated: June 14, 2022 05:48:37
Key Takeaways

Your plants give you signs when they’re not well; all you have to do is pay attention. Follow Frank Rauscher’s tips on plant checkups and you’ll be able to nip most problems in the bud.

Too often, we wait until there are obvious signs that our plants have a problem before we become aware of the individual symptoms. By this point, the damage is usually extensive and the losses in production, plant vigor, or even entire plants are inevitable. The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is very true in the garden.


So, what are the types of things we should be doing to spot plant maladies before they have done too much damage? There are three basic categories in which problems begin, and improper nutrition is the most important. This is true because plants that are properly fed have stronger immune systems and are much less likely to become infested by insects or disease (which are the other two categories).

An experienced gardener will able to spot many more potential problem areas with plants and crops than someone without any training. So, let’s get started with some additional training on recognizing issues that our plants may be having. There are many things that can make a plant become less vigorous or sickly. One of the most important checks we can do for our plants is to look closely at the nutrients we have been giving them. Taking notes for these issues is one of the best ways to stay on top of this.


Check Your Garden's Nutrient Levels

When we give our plants a checkup, how is it that we should check their nutrition? Starting with an examination of the label on the nutrient container is a good idea. Whether you are using an organic or ionized plant nutrient, there should be information for that product regarding the nutrients it contains.

Our plants need the right amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for growth, and the label on the nutrient tells us this content. Of course, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are macronutrients and only part of the plant’s requirements.

Micronutrients cannot generally be tested outside of a laboratory, so making sure we are providing a complete micronutrient formula and the right levels to our plants is important. In some cases, the label does not anticipate the product being applied to the type of grow media or at the soil percolation rate that you are using.


In this situation, application rates may need to be altered. Many fertilizers do not provide micronutrients at all while others are incomplete. Know your nutrients and add important minerals that might be missing. There are tests we can do to check for nutrient levels in the grow media.

The pH of the grow media will greatly affect the ability of the plant to uptake the nutrients in that media. So, checking your pH levels is very important. Many things can and do affect this pH level, therefore, this is one check that should be done more frequently. Most plants prefer a pH level between 5.5 and 6.5, but not all. Knowing your crop’s needs are vital.


Examining and Inspecting Your Plants: What to Look Out For

Checking on your garden can and should be fun as well as rewarding. It usually starts off by getting that sense of achievement by seeing just how well everything is growing. Then, there are times you get a surprise that you weren’t really hoping to see.

Having a good magnifying glass is really a must for doing the best inspections. Small microscopes that provide 60-100 power magnification are inexpensive and can help see things that otherwise would be hidden.

Learning to use these can be lots of fun too. You are also going to want to photograph various plants to compare how they look today with next or last month. Thanks to technology, all these photos can be stored and organized easily. Note taking also will maximize the benefit you get from your ongoing inspections of your garden or crop.

Plant symptoms may be caused by biotic or abiotic factors. Getting to the root cause for whatever is ailing a plant is every bit as important as knowing what the insect or disease is that has caused the symptom(s) that you observed. In addition to nutrient imbalances, there is drought or excessive water and the resulting lack of soil oxygen to consider.

Also on the radar are ambient air temperature and the use of pesticides or herbicides. Soil compaction or infestation by pests can be a big problem, and let’s not overlook varmints that come to visit without invitation.

Symptoms of an unhealthy plant will be visible changes in any or every aspect of its appearance. With many diseases and insects, these are most often found on only a single or few of the plants in your garden or crop.

You may find one plant infested while one next to it is completely unaffected. When observing a plant for its health and vigor, it is important to look beyond the first sign of trouble and see if you can discover the reason that the disease or insect you found has attacked that plant. Signs are vital but must be interpreted with care.

For example, a fungus growing on the surface of a plant might only be non-parasitic and not the actual cause of the disease symptom observed. An insect observed on the leaves of your plant may appear to be a pest, but may actually be beneficial, like the larvae of a lady bug.

Among the other issues to check for are tracks on the soil, bite marks on leaves, chemical residue or honeydew, egg masses, frass, or other signs of a pest.

The following are some other examinations to make:

Overall Plant Issues

  • plant looks dead [how to know if it is dead > what to do next > don’t just throw it out > find out why it died] [what to do if it is alive > reduce strong sunlight and provide moist, not wet soil]
  • straggly growth
  • slow growth
  • erratic growth [different sides or sections with very different type growth]

Seeds and Seedlings

  • seed germination [seeds are late to emerge] [seeds don’t germinate at all]
  • germination is good, but new growth is poor
  • seedling normal but not growing
  • seedlings look distorted or not natural
  • seedlings have tip discoloration
  • seedlings have discolored stems at soil line


  • color [yellowing of new leaves] [yellowing of old leaves] [dead or yellow spots] [speckled or mosaic patterns on leaves] [yellow or white rings on leaves] [raised spots] [spots penetrate through to back of leaf] [brown/ burnt edges or margins] [yellow vein versus green interveinal] [green vein versus yellow interveinal]
  • holes in the leaf
  • leaf curl
  • leaf tunneling
  • webbing
  • spongy or fibrous looking white stuff on leaves
  • discolored or dead leaf margins or tips
  • brittle leaves
  • wilted leaves
  • powdery leaf surface
  • premature leaf drop


  • appropriately thick and sturdy for plant type [or thin and spindly]
  • spacing between petioles can be telling about growth vigor
  • stem tips are too small
  • too many stem tips [too few stem tips]
  • stem at soil line swollen or discolored
  • stem base soft or mushy
  • discolored patches on stems
  • white spots/specks on stems


  • too few flowers
  • healthy leaves and no blooms
  • flowers don’t set fruit
  • new buds drop off
  • flower buds fail to open or only partially open
  • flowers are small with burned edges
  • visible insects


  • scabs of surface of fruit skin
  • spots or unusual markings on skin
  • too small
  • cracking
  • visible insects
  • rotting or discoloring on tip
  • holes
  • too few fruit [new fruit drops off]
  • nearing harvest?
  • time to harvest?


  • roots are too close to soil surface
  • roots are dark colored or limp
  • swollen or galled (lumps or bumps)
  • root bound (too many roots at edge of pot)
  • root girdling


  • white crust on soil
  • mold or moss on soil
  • mushrooms on soil
  • surface is always wet,
  • significant number of insects [know beneficial versus pest]
  • cannot locate fibrous roots
  • pulling away from the edge of the pot
  • is there enough mulch on soil
  • soil is very hard [water penetration is poor]

Make it a point to walk through your garden routinely to take a look at how everything is doing. Do any plants stand out? Are some doing better than the others or perhaps considerably worse? Notice whether some whole sections of your garden are faring differently than others. When you see these things, you’ll want to know why.

Discovering the reason could be the beginning of correcting a watering, drainage, or lighting problem. Maybe making improvements to the other areas will help them catch up with that area doing the best. Doing these check-ups every week or two, depending on your available time, is vital for maximum crop yield.

Making seasonal inspections based on the type of crop or plant and comparing observations to what is anticipated during that time of year can also be very helpful. Catching that problem that only shows up at a certain time of year before it gets out of control is a real money saver.


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Written by Frank Rauscher | Writer, Owner of Garden Galaxy

Profile Picture of Frank Rauscher
During his many years of service in horticulture, product development and sales, Frank has performed innumerable visits to landscapes to facilitate a correction for struggling plants or assist with new design. He also writes for Southwest Trees and Turf and The Green Pages, is the owner of Garden Galaxy and manages several websites. He has four children and eight grandchildren.

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