To grow healthy plants that produce well you will have to become a plant detective. Observing your plants and knowing what looks right, and what doesn’t look right, is a vital part of being a successful gardener.
Knowing if plants are getting enough water and light will require close observation. The plants can’t tell verbally you want they need, so they show you what they need by displaying different signs, like leaf color and posture.
These tips will help you understand what your plants are trying to tell you and apply to indoor or outdoor-grown plants.
Too Much Water
More plants are killed from being drowned than from dehydration. Over-watering plants is a common problem that can easily be identified. Plant roots take up water and nutrients, they also need air to breathe. If the soil is soggy the plant roots can’t breathe and the plant drowns.
- When a plant is receiving too much water the leaves can turn brown and feel soft and mushy when touched. Leaves can also turn yellow if the plant is receiving too much water. The leaf color change will vary between plants, but note that a color change indicates your plant is trying to tell you something.
- Wart-like lesions appear on leaves and/or stems if the plant is being over-watered. The plant cells take in all the water they can hold, then they form watery blisters that burst and leave behind tan, brown, or white wart-like lesions.
- Stunted growth accompanied by yellowing leaves and/or leaf drop is also a non-verbal sign that your plant is being over-watered.
- Wilted plant posture alerts you to a problem. If the plat looks well-hydrated yet it’s wilting and bending over, the plant is overly full of water and can’t remain upright. This problem is often referred too as ‘drunk flowers’ or ‘drunk plants’ because the plant has drunk too much and can’t stand upright.
- Leaf drop occurs when the plant is getting too much water. Both young and old leaves will drop off the plant along with unopened flower buds or immature produce.
- Check the soil for moisture content by pushing your index finger down into the soil 2-inches. If the soil is moist and your plant is displaying any of the above signs, the plant is drowning. Reduce watering immediately and the plant may recover.
Not Enough Water
After going through a near-drowning experience with plants it is easy to lean in the opposite direction and not provide enough water. Daily life also keeps us busy and sometimes plants get neglected. Plants will let you know if they need a drink, just look for the signs.
- Leaves will turn brown if the plant is over-watered or under-watered. If the plant is not receiving enough water the brown leaves will be dry and crisp to the touch instead of soft and mushy.
- Wilted plant posture is caused by both over and under-watering. Over-watering creates a drunk plant, under-watering causes the internal cells that are supposed to be rigid to hold the plant upright to become limp and unable to keep the plant upright.
- Dry leaf tips indicate the plant is not receiving enough water. This is caused by the plant trying to conserve water by reducing moisture to its’ extremities. if the plant is not given water soon, the entire leaf will dry up and fall off.
- Slow growth occurs in dehydrated plants and bloom or food production will be slow and reduced in size.
- Dry soil, especially if the soil has pulled away from the inside of a planter, indicates the plant is thirsty. Unless the plant is a member of the cacti family, the soil should be kept moist but not soggy at all times.
Not Enough Light
Photosynthesis actively uses sunlight (or artificial light) to produce energy for plants. This energy enables the plants to create roots, stems, leaves, flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Plants will suffer greatly from insufficient light exposure, and they will alert you to their suffering with outward signs. A plant detective will notice the subtle changes at the onset and move the plant to a brighter location to recover.
- A change in leaf color, going from dark green to pale green or yellow indicates the plant is not getting enough light. If lighting does not improve, the leaves will eventually become yellow and fall off the plant.
- Move potted plants to a brighter location and remove any tree or shrub branches that are creating shade in the outdoor garden.
- Stunted plant growth is also caused by it not receiving enough light. If the plant has stopped growing or is growing much more slowly than it did previously, it may be because it is not receiving enough light in its present location.
- Leggy plants need more light so they can develop more leaves and look fuller. Leggy plants have extra long space between stems and thin, small leaves.
- Leaning plants are trying their best to lean towards the light they so desperately need to survive. The plant will lean as far as possible toward the light, extending their stems and leaves toward the light also. Potted plants that are grown in a bright location can become uneven on the side that faces away from the light. Rotate potted plants weekly so each side can have a little time soaking up the light.
- If the new growth on the plant looks different than the old growth, the plant needs more light. The leaves may be smaller, shaped slightly differently, and be a paler green color. New stems may also be elongated and produce thin leaves. Different-looking new growth doesn’t mean you have a mutant plant, it means the plant needs more light.
- Leaf cupping is the plant’s way of trying to capture the light. The leaf edges will turn up to form a cup if this is the problem.
- Sparse flowering is a result of inadequate lighting. The plant will resume normal flowering when it receives enough light.
Too Much Light
Plants that are not getting enough light and those getting too much will display similar signs. Plant observation is key to determine which problem the plant is having.
- If plant leaves begin to look pale and washed out, it could be getting too much light. Leaves will not be discolored but will look old and tired.
- Burnt leaf tips alert you the plant receiving too much light. Burnt patches may also occur on the leaves or stems if the plant is in light that is too bright for it. A tomato plant will thrive when planted in direct sunlight where it will receive 8-10 hours a day of intense, full-on sunlight, but that mush light will kill other plants. Burn marks on the plant will tell you the plant is being cooked alive in the sunlight.
- Mid-day wilt indicates the plant needs some mid-day shade. If a plant looks fine in the morning, wilts in the afternoon sun then recovers and looks normal after sunset, it’s getting too much light. provide the plant with a shady reprieve in the afternoon.
- Vegetable plants, like squash, will display mid-wilt if planted in direct sun. Plant low-growing squash and similar plants on the east-side of taller garden plants, like corn, so plants prone to mid-day wilt can be shaded in the afternoon.
- If the leaves are drying up for no other apparent reason the plant may be getting too much light exposure. Leaves will retain their green color but slowly dry up and fall off the plant.
- Chronically dry soil indicates too much light. The excessive light causes moisture to evaporate too quickly and the soil is in constant need of water. This causes the plant to fight to stay upright and alive, rendering it unable to grow normally.
If your plant is getting the correct amount of water and light, then it will be a rich, pleasing green color and produce what it’s supposed to produce. When a plant is not performing as expected or looks a little unusual, something is wrong. It will take plant observation to discover the problem and sometimes a little trial and error to correct the problem.
Plants will have some less-productive seasons through no fault of your own. Growth may be stunted during a colder than usual spring and growth may stop during times oppressive heat and drought. As long as the plants bounce back after the growing conditions change, all is well.
Annual flower and vegetable plants may not recover from a serious set-back, they just won’t have enough time. Perennials may produce a bumper crop of blooms and fruits one year and barely produce anything the following year.
Be patient and observant, it’s part of being a plant parent and becoming a great plant detective.