Kari's thoughts on growing food, urban farming, permaculture, canning, food preservation and all things gardening.

Diagnosing and Solving Garden Problems [To Treat, or Not to Treat? That is the Question.]

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The most enjoyable aspect of my job is encouraging people in their efforts to grow food, and there are many opportunities to say, Wow, great job, or You’re on fire!  One phrase that I don’t use is, You’re killin’ it. I suspect the expression may send a mixed signal.

Speaking of mixed signals, plant problems with differing causes can often show very similar symptoms. In my experience, when I have a sad-looking plant and fear that I am literally killing it, it is not always easy to come up with a plan of action to save it. The first challenge is to identify the problem.  Is it a pest? A disease?  A nutrient deficiency? Sometimes gardeners must be sleuths, tracking down causes and trying different solutions until one works.  It makes me feel like this:

Sometimes, diagnosing plant problems makes me feel like this:

The good news is that home gardeners are not expected to be plant pathologists, any more than parents are expected to be pediatricians

When something goes wrong, there are experts available to help.  Master Gardeners are great at identifying problems and offering solutions.  And if they don’t know the answer to a question, they have contacts in the University Agricultural Extension System who do. 

Great advice can often be gathered from other gardeners.  The internet makes this possible to do from the comfort of your own home; visit any gardener’s Facebook group and you will see questions concerning plant problems followed by suggestions from seasoned growers.  Many issues are common and readily identifiable by those who have experience.

To help you out, I put together a list of plant problem diagnostic resources with clickable links.  Click the button below to get the list, "What's Wrong with My Plant?"

Once the problem is (reasonably) identified, the second challenge is deciding how, or if, it will be treated

Just because an issue arises in the garden does not mean that a remedy must be pursued.  Here are some ways to NOT treat plants and still have a healthy garden:

Build your soil.  The first line of defense for plants is healthy soil.  As a healthy immune system helps humans to ward off ever-present germs in our environment, healthy soil can halt plant problems from emerging or curb their severity.

Give the plant a proper home.  Learn about your plant to discover the conditions in which it will thrive.  How much light does it need; how much water?  Is it sensitive to salts; is it susceptible to a pest?  Does it require acidic or neutral soil? What nutrients does it need? Often, issues that appear to be disease or pest-related can be traced to cultivation issues. Starting out strong from the beginning will avoid problems later.

Learn what is typical for your plant. Some varieties develop funny-looking spots or growths that are perfectly normal and not harmful.  Others have a limited lifespan and are not expected to survive more than a season or two.  Knowing what is normal will prevent you from spending time and energy on a condition that doesn’t need to be treated.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.  If the cost is greater to cure a plant than to replace it, if the plant is near the end of its natural lifecycle, or if the cure is toxic, it may be wise to discard and start over.   One mark of an experienced garden is learning when it is best to let a plant go.

After thinking through the previous considerations, if a decision is made to treat, the next challenge is deciding on a solution.  There is generally more than one way to attack a problem.  These are some of the options.

Apply manual controls.  Isolate the problem and cut if off, pick it off or spray it off.  Apply a row cover, build a fence, or plant pest-resistant herb or flower varieties around tender plants.

Use gentle chemical treatments.  If manual controls are not sufficient and the plant is worth saving, use homemade and organic treatments. These tend to be both non-toxic and inexpensive (or free!) Start with the gentlest, such as a soap spray.  If that is not effective, move to stronger natural controls and organic commercial preparations.

Rethink Your System.  If none of the above are effective, perhaps there is a design flaw.  Maybe the plant is not well adapted to the climate, and a different variety would fare better. Maybe it was planted at the wrong time of year, was not spaced appropriately, was watered improperly, or was planted in soil that needs improvement.  

Use these control options in progression, starting with manual controls, if possible. 

Then try chemical treatments, moving from the gentlest to the strongest, as necessary.  If all else fails, rethink and possibly overhaul the system.

Most of all, don’t pull your hair out over a plant. 

Dead plants happen to the best of us.  Though following good garden practices results in more successes than failures, plant mortality is the price of admission to becoming a seasoned gardener.  So, let me encourage you by saying, Get out there and kill a few plants!  Just kidding.  Practice makes perfect, and you’re gonna’ grow great.