If there is one thing a gardener can count on, it’s that there will be problems in the garden. Holes, spots, plants that disappear entirely… the options are endless.
You don’t have to be a plant pathologist to ferret out the problem. You just have to observe with an impartial eye and ask the right questions. I can help you with that. Listen in or read the transcript, below.
1. First Determine if a Problem Really Exists.
For that, you’ll need to know what the plant is supposed to look like. Some plants are naturally yellow or naturally die back after flowering. Find a good source on the growing habits of the plant. We’re going to need it again at Step 5.
2. Try and Pin Down When the Problem Started.
This isn’t always a good barometer because some plants, like trees, don’t show symptoms until they are well into decline. But in general, knowing how long the problem has been going on can help you determine what is causing it.
❦ Was it already in the beginning stages when you checked the garden last week, or was it fine?
❦ Is this the first time you’re noticing symptoms.
❦ Do you remember it happening in prior years? (If you have a garden journal or photos from recent years, check them out.)
❦ Did it start after some wonky weather? Lots of rain? No rain? Overcast? Scorching?
3. Look for Patterns
❦ Is it happening to just 1 plant? All of that type of plant? Diseases will usually spread through an entire clump of plants. Animals and insects are more random.
❦ Different types of plants? Most diseases and even most insects focus on one type of plant at a time. The problem could be cultural or environmental.
❦ Is there anything significant about the area around the problem? Is it on the edge of the garden or crowded in the middle? Is the area particularly damp or dry. Is it shaded? Is it somewhere you haven’t fertilized in awhile?
4. Narrow Your Questions?
❦ Is the problem just on the leaves? Does it extend onto the stems or fruit? Are the flowers or buds healthy?
❦ Are there holes? Uniform or jagged? On leaf edges? Along the veins? Random? Does it look like chewing, sucking, or piercing?
❦ Are there any insects or eggs present? Don’t forget the underside of the leaves?
❦ Is there discoloring? Yellowing? Browning? Red? Is it just the older leaves that are affected? Just the new leaves?
❦ Are there spots? On the leaves or also on the stems? Regular or irregular shaped?
❦ Are the plants wilting, even though you’ve watered? (Sometimes too much water can cause plants to wilt.)
❦ Is there any sign of disturbance to the roots?
❦ Have you been working in that area recently? Digging? Spraying? Planting something new?
❦ Is this a runoff area from the driveway, roof, or walkway?
❦ Is it near an air conditioner, or dyer vent, or something along those lines?
5. Start Your Research Engine
Now that you’ve narrowed done the symptoms, it’s time to look up the specific plant and see what the common problems are. (Pictures will help – a lot.)
❦ If there are holes, pay attention to insect problems.
❦ If there is discoloration, it could be disease, a nutrient problem, or a cultural problem like soil deficiency, poor drainage, excessive salt, or an out of whack soil pH.
❦ If the problem spans multiple types of plants, it could be weather related or cultural.
❦ It’s especially helpful to know if the same problem occurs year after year. Japanese beetles and 4-lined plant bugs do a lot of damage, but they’re only around for a brief period. Treating them when the damage is done is pointless. Botrytis and cabbage moth damage can be averted if you take action before they take hold.
This may seem like a lot to go through every time you spot a problem, and it probably is. The real point here is to get you thinking in a way that zeros in on the symptoms. Having a general idea of whether the problem is an insect, a hungry animal, a disease, or simply the weather will keep you from reaching for the wrong solution and possibly killing your plant with unneeded kindness.
Once you get in the habit of breaking the problem down into patterns, it will become second nature. You’ll begin to noticed patterns across years and you’ll know when to take proactive measures and when to let nature take its course.
Of course, none of us have any problems in our perfect gardens, right? But just in case you need any of this info – to help out a friend – it’s here for you.