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How to ID your Plant’s Ailment

August 9, 2010

If you enjoy crossword puzzles, like to dabble in a little detective work, and establish a solution, then determining your plant’s problem will give you the same self-satisfaction. Here are four steps that will help you detect what is wrong with any plant in your perennial or vegetable bed.

Note:  You can find many research answers online, or in reference books at the library or local bookstore.

1.  ID your problematic plant. This is important because all species have its own set of disease and pest tendencies. What one species is prone to another may not be. Therefore, identifying the name of your plant’s species will narrow down the otherwise one-trillion possibilities.

2.  Research growing habits. As with disease and pest tendencies, different species have different growing habits and needs. For example, I once gave a Japanese maple tree as a wedding gift. When I visited the honeymooners later that fall, they had put the potted tree out of my view because its leaves were drying up and they thought it was dying. Of course, I asked about the maple tree, and they sheepishly took me to it. After asking a few questions about care and the tree’s normal location, I reassured them that this is normal and new leaves would return come springtime.

Other aspects you should know about your plant in question is its zone, exposure, and water requirements. If you live in the desert, and purchased a plant from the bay-area, it’s probably going to die, as it’s not suited for your zone. If you plant a sun-loving plant in the shade, a drought resistant plant where the soil has poor drainage, or a summer annual in the fall (yes nurseries do sell these at the end of each season) the plant will become stressed. This will make it weak and susceptible to pests and disease.

To recap:  write down your plant’s zone, growth habits, required location, and care.

3.  Determine common problems. For example, is the plant species prone to powdery mildew, sensitive to acidic soil, or apt to get caterpillars? Make a list of the common problems and then determine the cause affecting your plant (disease, pest invasion, inadequate care, or poor location). Oftentimes, the easiest way to do this is by elimination.

4.  The solution.  Once you’ve identified your plant, understood its growing habits, studied its required environment and care, and narrowed down the problem, you are ready to apply a solution. In some cases, when the problem has an insect like with leafhoppers, you just have to wait it out.

If it turns out you have a stressed plant because it’s in the wrong location, if possible, transplant it in the fall when the temperature is cool.

If you use a pesticide or insecticide, oftentimes both organic and commercial methods are available. When choosing between the two, consider exposure to children and pets, and environmental impact. Always (always), when working with chemicals, follow package directions to the letter, and protect yourself with proper attire. This would include enclosed shoes or boots, long sleeves and pants, gloves, mask, goggles, and hat.

If you don’t have the time or simply don’t enjoy plant detective work, take a leaf or branch sample to a reputable nursery or master gardeners’ office. Make sure you place the sample in a sealed zip lock bag or capped jar. If you don’t know the name of your plant, print a color photo of it, large enough to see the details and growing habit. Some plant parts look similar and this will make the professional’s job easier.  Copyright © 2010 Dianne Marie Andre 

Helpful resources:

The following books are available through the Amador County Master Gardeners’ office. Contact information:  phone 209-223-6838 | email mgamador@ucdavis.edu | on the web at ceamador.ucdavis.edu 

  • Pests of the Garden and Small Farm, a grower’s guide to using less pesticide
  • Pests of Landscape Trees and Shrubs, an integrated pest management guide  
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