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How to Troubleshoot in the Garden: Going Back to the Basics

Troubleshooting in the garden doesn’t always have to be such a mystery. When doing so, go back to the basics: plants need light, nutrients, air and water.

When we do this, we can often solve the problem on our own.

Think through each of these necessities and whether the plant has gotten too little or too much of any.

sunshine in the gardenPhoto by Gabriel Pangilinan on Unsplash

Is your plant getting enough sunlight?

What Problems Are Caused By Too Little Sun?

  • leggy/stretched out stems (they are reaching for the light)
  • yellow leaves
  • spindly leaves or stems
  • brown edges or tips on leaves
  • leaves dry up, droop and/or fade
  • stunted, or slowed growth
  • small, thin leaves

How to Make Sure Your Plants Are Getting Enough Sun

Observe your yard throughout the day and take notes of time when your growing area is in full shade, partial shade/partial sun and when it’s in full sun.

Determine the total hours of sunlight your plants are getting on average. Remember, this will vary depending on the time of year (e.g. your tree will provide more shade with all its leaves in the summer, while it may not provide any shade in the winter).

Full Sun = 6 hours of direct sunlight (the majority of flowering plants prefer full sun)

Is your plant getting too much sunlight?

This is especially important to think about if you are following the “full sun” label on a transplant. Full sun in different parts of the country can mean something very different. Ideally, you want more morning sun and less of the harsh afternoon sun.

Partial Shade/Partial Sun = 3 to 6 hours of sun (best to avoid the afternoon sun – look for a tree that shades the area or set up a shade cloth)

Full Shade = less than 3 hours of direct sunlight (few plants can survive with no sun at all – this just means less time in direct sunlight and more time in filtered light)

What Problems Are Caused By Too Much Sun?

  • discoloration of leaves
  • leaf scorch (leaves turn brown at the edges and tips)

How to Make Sure Your Plants Aren’t Getting Too Much Sun

If you start to notice signs that your plants are getting too much sun, here are a few options:

  • provide a shade cloth or a garden umbrella
  • move potted plants to a shadier location during the hottest part of the day to avoid the harsh afternoon sun

Is your plant getting enough nutrients?

It can be hard to tell the proper amount of nutrients that should be provided for your plants. I’m always cautious about overfeeding them, yet it’s almost always the first question I get asked if my plants are taking longer than I expected to ripen – “When did you last feed them?”

First, look for signs that your plants are lacking nutrients.

What Problems Are Caused By a Lack of Nutrients?

  • leaves or leaf tips turn yellow or pale green
  • stunted growth
  • poor flowering or fruiting (this can also be a sign of a lack of pollination)
  • weak stems
  • leaf curl
  • green leaves with bronze spots

How to Make Sure Your Plants Are Getting Enough Nutrients

If you are still unsure whether or not your plants are getting the right amount of nutrients…

  • get your soil tested (contact your local extension office to find out about soil testing in your area or test it yourself with a kit)
  • check the weather and feed your plants on a day that doesn’t have any rain in the upcoming forecast (rain can wash away those newly added nutrients)

Is your plant getting too much of its needed nutrients?

There’s a fine line between underfeeding and overfeeding your plants. I ere on the side of caution because I can always add more nutrients, but I can’t take them back from the soil once they are added in.

What Problems Are Caused By Excess Nutrients?

  • plant feeding insects and mites are more attracted to the plants that have a high nitrogen content
  • spindly growth of your plants
  • plants wilt (shortly after fertilizer is applied)

How to Make Sure Your Plants Aren’t Getting Excess Nutrients

  • get your soil tested (contact your local extension office to find out about soil testing in your area or test it yourself with a kit)

Is there enough room around your plant for air circulation?

I’ll be the first to admit that I have crowded my plants in the past and not pruned often enough to allow proper air flow – two key methods to preventing fungal disease.

What Problems Are Caused By Poor Air Circulation?

When plants don’t have enough room to breathe, they take longer to dry out after rain or watering. The high humidity can then lead to disease. Powdery and downy mildew can be signs that your plants need more air flow.

How to Make Sure Your Plants Get Enough Air Circulation

  • provide a trellis for climbing plants
  • space plants correctly at planting times
  • thin plants
  • prune, when needed
  • use fans or vents in greenhouses to control humidity

Rain on PlantsPhoto by Mike Kotsch on Unsplash

Is your plant getting too little water?

It’s important to vary the amount of water you provide for your plants based on the changing seasons and weather patterns in your area. For example, in the winter I may go months without watering, and, in the summer, I may water every other day.

Observe your plants in the morning, mid-day and at night to check for signs of too little water. In the hottest months of the year, it is common for plants to go limp, or wilt, during peak sunlight hours and then perk up once the sun starts to go down and temperatures cool in the evening hours. This doesn’t mean they aren’t getting enough water – as long as they perk back up – it is just a sign of the intense heat.

What Problems Are Caused By Under watering?

  • tough/dry/brittle/crunchy leaves
  • shriveled stems or fruit
  • misshapen fruit
  • small roots
  • bitter or sharp flavor
  • Wilting plants
  • Soil is dry and/or cracked

How to Make Sure Your Plants Get Enough Water

Is your plant getting too much water?

Did it rain a lot this week and you continued to water your plants? Overwatering can lead to diseases, which may then lead to an increase in pests.

What Problems Are Caused By Overwatering?

Soilborne diseases can become present in soil that is too saturated. Additionally, fungal spores germinate in conditions where humidity is high.

Other signs that your plants are getting too much water:

  • lower leaves turn yellow and drop off plant
  • rotten roots
  • soft or mushy stems (this can also be caused by freeze damage in the winter)
  • mold or moss on soil surface
  • limp or floppy foliage
  • soil is soggy or soaking wet
  • potted plant is wilting (check that the saucer it is sitting in isn’t full of water)

How to Make Sure Your Plants Don’t Get Too Much Water

  • provide a drainage system for wet soil
  • install a drip irrigation system with a timer so you can water during the best time of day
  • don’t water after a heavy rain (and turn off your drip system)
  • dig down approximately 6 inches into the soil (being careful not to damage roots) to check the moisture level in the soil – if your soil is soggy a few hours after watering, you are overwatering
  • grow in raised beds instead of the ground if drainage is an issue or you have standing water after heavy rain

Troubleshooting in Your Garden

Well, it’s not a short list and there are some duplicates, but don’t get discouraged. Check one basic necessity at a time by going through the problems/signs and pair that with the knowledge you have about your growing space.

For example, yellowing leaves can be a sign that your plant is getting too little or too much water or it is lacking nutrients. Pay attention to the location of the yellowing leaves and whether or not the leaves are dropping off the plant. Then, think through what you know about your growing space – are you experiencing drought conditions, did you water in addition to experiencing days of heavy rain, when was the last time you fed your plants?

You are the best expert of your growing space. Observe, take notes and use this list to help you troubleshoot in your garden.

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