Discover the Secrets Behind Plant Nutrient Deficiencies

Are your plants looking sickly? Before you assume they are plagued by bugs or diseases, consider the possibility of a nutrient deficiency. Plants, just like humans, require a balanced diet to thrive. When they lack essential nutrients or receive an excess of any one nutrient, their health can suffer. In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of plant nutrient deficiencies and how they manifest in foliage. Get ready to decipher the secret language of your plants and uncover the hidden messages behind their discoloration or distortion.

Unraveling the Enigma

Recognizing nutrient deficiencies is no easy task. Many symptoms overlap, making it challenging to pinpoint the precise issue. Let’s explore some common problems and their possible causes.

  1. Insects and Diseases: Always rule out the obvious culprits first. Signs of insect infestation or plant diseases can masquerade as nutrient deficiencies.
  2. Water Woes: Foliage discoloration and stunted growth can be caused by excessively wet soil or poor drainage. Compacted soil can also hinder root growth, leading to similar symptoms.
  3. Weather Woes: Extreme temperatures, whether scorching hot or freezing cold, can impede plant growth, affect flowering, and hinder fruit production.
  4. Fertilizer Fiasco: Overfertilization can result in salt injury, causing scorched-looking plants or wilting, even when the soil is adequately moist.

Keep these factors in mind as you investigate the health of your plants. By eliminating other possibilities, you can accurately identify nutrient deficiencies and address them promptly.

The Essential Nutrients

Plants rely on a combination of macronutrients and micronutrients to maintain their well-being. Macronutrients are needed in larger quantities, while micronutrients are required in smaller amounts. Let’s explore each of these vital nutrients and their roles in plant growth:

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  • Calcium (Ca): This essential nutrient contributes to healthy plant development. In tomatoes, a calcium deficiency leads to distorted or hook-shaped new leaves and blossom end rot. Sources of calcium include compounds containing the word ‘calcium’ and gypsum.

  • Nitrogen (N): Nitrogen deficiency manifests as yellowing of older leaves at the base of the plant, with remaining foliage appearing light green. The stems may also yellow and become spindly. Nitrogen-rich compounds, such as ‘nitrate,’ ‘ammonium,’ ‘urea,’ and manure, serve as excellent sources of this nutrient.

  • Magnesium (Mg): When plants lack magnesium, growth slows, and leaves turn a pale yellow, particularly at the edges. New growth may display yellowing with dark spots. Look for compounds like Epson Salts, which contain magnesium, to rectify deficiencies.

  • Phosphorus (P): Inadequate phosphorus results in small leaves that may develop a reddish-purple tint. Leaf tips can become burnt-looking, and older leaves almost black. Fruit or seed production may decrease. Compounds containing ‘phosphate,’ ‘bone,’ or greensand can supply phosphorus.

  • Potassium (K): Potassium deficiency presents as scorched edges and wilted older leaves. Interveinal chlorosis, characterized by yellowing between the leaf veins, may also occur. Look for compounds with ‘potassium’ or ‘potash’ in their names to address potassium deficiencies.

  • Sulfur (S): Insufficient sulfur causes new growth to turn pale yellow, while older growth remains green. Plant growth may be stunted. Compounds containing ‘sulfate’ are excellent sources of sulfur.


  • Boron (B): In plants lacking boron, stem and root growth may suffer, and terminal buds may die. Keep a lookout for compounds containing ‘borax’ or ‘borate’ to ensure sufficient boron levels.

  • Copper (Cu): Copper deficiency can stunt growth, causing leaves to become limp, curl, or drop. Seed stalks may also become limp and bend over. Compounds with ‘copper,’ ‘cupric,’ or ‘cuprous’ in their names can supply the necessary copper.

  • Manganese (Mn): When plants lack manganese, growth slows down, and younger leaves turn pale yellow, starting between the veins. Dark or dead spots may appear, and leaves, shoots, and fruits may diminish in size. Failure to bloom is another common symptom. Compounds containing ‘manganese’ or ‘manganous’ help fulfill the plant’s manganese requirements.

  • Molybdenum (Mo): Older leaves turning yellow, with remaining foliage appearing light green, suggest a molybdenum deficiency. Leaves may become narrow and distorted. Compounds containing ‘molybdate’ or ‘molybdic’ can provide the necessary molybdenum.

  • Zinc (Zn): Insufficient zinc leads to yellowing between the veins of new growth, with terminal leaves possibly forming a rosette shape. Compounds containing ‘zinc’ can remedy this deficiency, although it’s worth noting that higher pH levels may limit zinc availability.

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Remember, all these nutrients are absorbed through the roots, with water playing a crucial role in their transfer from the soil to the plant. Adequate hydration and maintaining the appropriate soil pH are essential for optimal nutrient absorption.

Plant Nutrient Deficiency Chart

Decoding the language of plants is an art. By closely observing their foliage and understanding the nutrient deficiencies they may encounter, you can become a master gardener. Strengthen your bond with Mother Nature, and watch as your plants thrive, radiating health and vitality.

Originally posted on Ames Farm Center