Find the answers to common plant problems |

Find the answers to common plant problems

Tom Glass
Vail CO, Colorado
Tom Glass

It is possible to read a plant like a book. Granted, it takes a while to learn to read the writing on the foliage, and sometimes the message there is obscured by heavy-handed hieroglyphics unrelated to the real story problem at hand, but, all the same, plant foliage and roots are a living history of what has happened to a plant in their stationary lives.

The obvious reads are simple. A wilted plant needs water. An overall yellowed plant probably needs fertilizer. A dead plant most likely needed one or the other some time ago.

I once attended a water quality seminar where the featured plant guru, a horticulture professor from Iowa State University, asked each of the attending growers to bring a sample of their Easter lily crop to the seminar. The first day of the seminar there were around 30 Easter lilies displayed on a table in the mezzanine outside the hotel meeting rooms. We were greeted there by the renowned professor and formed a gathering around the table.

He proceeded to pick up each plant one at a time and tell the grower of the plant the parts per million of alkalinity in the water used to grow the plant. Then he went on to describe the type of nitrogen and the parts per million of nitrogen the plant received starting from the day it was planted until that moment. Stunned, each of the growers, some of them grizzled veterans of decades growing plants, agreed that the professor was on the mark. We then went in and more than willingly learned more about water quality. I don’t know. Maybe the professor pulled a Houdini, but I learned a lot about water in those three days. I also became a believer in closely reading plants from that moment on.

I don’t expect to teach people much about reading plants in this column. For one thing, quite frankly, I’ll never be able to read a plant as well as the good doctor from Iowa State.

Secondly, your livelihood isn’t dependent on the quality of your garden. But, I can tell you some simple things you can look for in your homes, yards and gardens that might solve a problem for you.

Typically, if the leaves, or needles, on your plants are small in comparison to plants you observe in similar locations, your plants need more fertilizer and maybe less light. If your plants have large leaves and tend to be floppy, or fall over, they probably need more light and maybe less fertilizer. Seems simple enough; almost stupid isn’t it? Well, it’s only agriculture. Anyone can do it.

If the lower interior leaves or needles on your plants are turning brown, then at some point in the recent past the plant has most likely become overly dry. Plants drop the least productive foliage in response to a drought. The lower interior foliage is the oldest foliage on the plant, and it receives the least amount of light for photosynthesis; therefore, off it goes.

Plants will also respond to root rots in the same manner. The interior leaves will begin to drop off. Root rots occur commonly when a plant is kept too wet. More often, though, if a plant’s roots become dried out and then receive more water than normal as way of saying sorry I forgot about you, then the root tissue damaged when the plant was dried out becomes a perfect spot for fungi to grow. It only needs to happen once. Heavier than normal watering is not a good apology after a plant’s roots have been dried out. Re-wetting the soil to damp, not soggy, is a better way.

Burned leaf tips on a plant indicate several things. It’s up to you to determine the most likely. A change in light can cause tip burn. Moving a plant outdoors or by a window can cause leaf burn due to the plant being exposed to higher light than it is prepared to receive. Move plants out gradually as the weather warms. Leave them in an area that is protected from the mid-day sun.

Wind burn will damage leaf tips accustomed to being inside surrounded by stagnant air. Too much fertilizer provided to plants not growing aggressively because of cloudy weather will cause tip burn as well. And frost causes tip burn. As you move plants out onto your decks and patios, be sure that you’re not caught when the sun goes behind the hill. A few moments below freezing will burn the edges of leaves.

These are all simple reads of the most common things that can go wrong this time of year. This is a transition period. It only takes a moment for a plant to be damaged, despite your best intentions. When things go wrong, think back to the simplest changes you’ve made in your plant care, and the answer is probably there, and you can also read it on the foliage.

Tom Glass writes a weekly garden column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments or questions about this column to

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