How to Give Your Garden a Wellness Checkup

Wellness Checkup pic

Spring is here, and everyone is getting seeds and seedlings in the ground – or watching them germinate and grow, as we are here in the South. The first couple of weeks after planting are always exciting, watching the seedlings come up, anticipating the first true leaves then the first flowers and fruit. Yet, every gardener knows there’s a bit of time between seed germination and fruit set. What should we be doing between planting and harvest? Sure, we keep the garden watered and fed. But what else should we do? I suggest we let our plants tell us that during a weekly “wellness checkup.”

WEEKLY WELLNESS EXAM

Every week, I do what I call a “walk through” of my garden. I literally take 30 minutes to an hour, looking at every tree and plant in my garden closeup. I think a weekly exam of your garden is a great way to stay on top of what’s happening with your plants. In the same way your doctor asks you questions at your annual physical, you can “ask” your plants what’s going on with them. Of course, plants can’t speak to us in verbal language, but they do have ways to communicate how they’re doing.

HOW TO EXAMINE PLANTS

When you walk through your garden, take a close look at your plants. First, look at the crop as a whole. Do any plants “stick out”? Are plants on one side of the bed growing differently than on the other? Are there plants in one section that are less vigorous than the rest of the plants? Environmental conditions can cause these types of differences. Maybe one side of the bed gets more sun than the other. Maybe your raised bed doesn’t drain evenly, so plants on one side have “wet feet.” Some things we can’t change – such as the weather; but sometimes we can adjust things to make the environment better for our plants.

Once you do the “overview,” look at plants individually and make note of what you see, good or bad. (This is where a garden journal or log comes in handy.) You don’t have to look at each and every plant in each bed, of course. Just look at a sampling of plants, paying special attention to ones that “don’t look right.”

Here’s what to note:

  • Overall plant growth compared to last exam – Is the growth normal for the conditions? (For example, cold weather can slow down growth, and that’s normal.) Or is the growth stunted?
  • Leaves – Are they normal size? Normal shape? Normal color? If not, note what isn’t normal. Those items will be your clues to determining if your plant has a nutrient deficiency or a disease. Also look for spots or other marks that are not supposed to be there.
  • Stems – Are they thick and sturdy for the variety of plant? Or are they weak and spindly?
  • Entire plant for signs of pests – Are there holes or “bite” marks? Is there “webbing” like material under the leaves? Are there tiny eggs under the leaves or around the base of the stem?
  • Soil around the plant – Does it need more mulch (to keep the soil healthy and the roots cool in the heat of the day)? Is the soil too dry or too wet? Are there any signs of pests?
  • Flowers – Are the plants flowering properly/sufficiently? Are they getting pollinated (tiny fruit growing)?
  • Fruit – Is the fruit growing normally? Is it the proper size and color? Are there spots or unusual markings on the fruit (signs of disease)? Are there signs of insect damage? Is the fruit nearing harvest stage?

Yes, I know…that’s a lot of data to gather! But it really doesn’t take that long to gather once you get your own system in place. Personally, I start in the front yard and look at my fruit trees, herbs, and flowers. Then I move to my backyard and examine each bed, one by one.

Well, now that you’ve examined your garden, what if you noted something wrong with your plants? What do you do then?

HOW TO KNOW WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR PLANTS

There are so many different things that can go wrong with our plants, but problems can be grouped into four categories:

  • Environmental stress (predominantly weather, which we can’t do much about)
  • Nutrient deficiencies (major and minor nutrients and/or trace minerals)
  • Disease (fungi, blight, mildew, bacteria, etc.)
  • Pests (insects, critters, birds)

So, how do you know what your plant is telling you? Pest attacks are pretty easy to recognize, but what kind of insect is it and what can you do about it? And how can you tell the difference between a disease and a nutritional deficiency? How can you even know WHAT nutrient the plant is deficient in?

Well, I am not a horticulturist or botanist. I’m sure most of you aren’t either. But thankfully, we live in the age of the Internet, and there is a plethora of gardening information on the web from other gardeners and from various college cooperative extensions (which can also offer you soil and plant tissue sampling for definitive diagnoses and treatments). Search the web for pictures that match your plant’s condition and learn what may be the cause as well as how to fix it. Gather information from others’ experiences until you obtain your own. And don’t forget that I will share with you what I learn as I go along in my gardening journey.

That said, let me share with you what I found during my garden’s wellness checkup this week. Here are some pictures from this week’s garden walk through, along with what I think MAY be wrong with my plants. (I’m still researching some things, and I’m also waiting for an email response from Clemson University’s extension on one question.) This will give you a better idea of what to look for/notice in your garden.

HARVEST STAGE:

I noticed that my onions are nearing harvest. The bulbs are poking out of the soil and the tips of the leaves are starting to brown. When the top of the plant browns and falls over, the onions are ready to harvest.

Onions nearing harvest

Onions nearing harvest

ENVIRONMENTAL STRESS:

My snap beans are looking very leggy or spindly. I’ve never see that before. Usually, leggy plants (long stems with leaves gathered at the top) are caused by insufficient light. The first week after planting my beans, we had rain almost every day – even if it was just a tenth of an inch. And it was cloudy for almost 10 days straight. I’m thinking that’s what caused this. They are on my “keep a watch on them” list.

Leggy snap beans

Leggy snap beans

NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY:

Sometimes this is a difficult thing to diagnose properly. Other times, it’s a little easier.

My raspberries are starting to get a purplish tint to some of their leaves. According to what I’ve researched, this is a sign of potassium deficiency. I was planning to give my entire garden an organic feed this weekend, so that should help with this.

Raspberry leaves with potassium deficiency

Raspberry leaves with potassium deficiency

A couple of my pumpkin leaves are showing interveinal chlorosis (yellowing between the veins). This might be magnesium deficiency, but I’m not sure. As only a couple of leaves are affected, I’m reserving judgment…for now.

Pumpkin leaf - nutritional deficiency?

Pumpkin leaf – nutritional deficiency?

My concord grape vine is showing a definite sign of deficiency. However, I am having a difficult time determining if this is a zinc or an iron deficiency. I may have to send this photo to Clemson for advice.

Concord grape leaves - zinc or iron deficiency??

Concord grape leaves – zinc or iron deficiency??

DISEASE:

Some of my grape leaves are showing what appears to be downy mildew. There are little yellow spots on the leaves. It’s very early in the season for downy mildew (common here in humid South Carolina), but we did have ten days of cloudy skies with rain. So, this weekend, I’ll be applying my baking soda foliar spray.

Reliance grape leaves with downy mildew

Downy mildew on Reliance grape leaves

Something is going on with my Dixie Speckled butter peas. Some of the leaves have white spots on them. We did have a week without rain; and the seedlings were so young, I watered every day to be sure they didn’t dry out. I’m wondering if the water on the leaves plus the cool, cloudy weather we’ve had caused them to get a fungus. I’m not sure, so I’ll be examining my butter peas regularly over the next few days.

Dixie Speckled butter pea leaves with white spots

Dixie Speckled butter pea leaves with white spots

PESTS:

The flea beetles have already found my eggplant…as usual. This year, I’m going to try spraying them with kaolin clay. I read that kaolin helps. (I’ll let you know.) You can see the “buck shot” holes in the leaf, a classic sign of flea beetles.

Flea beetle damage on eggplant leaves

Flea beetle damage on eggplant leaves

I’m not sure what’s eating my okra. They don’t even have their first true leaves yet! Maybe some kind of worm or caterpillar? It’s my first time growing okra, so I don’t know yet.

Okra leaves - eaten by something

Okra leaves – eaten by something

Here’s my saddest one. One of my key lime trees may have a terminal illness. I saw this problem on it last year, but it wasn’t all over the plant, so I didn’t worry about it. Well, I pruned back the dead limbs on this tree (killed by the cold), and this brand new growth is showing the problem, badly. Deformed, curled leaves with burnt edges. I looked for signs of leaf miners (squiggly lines on the leaves), as they can cause this, but alas…no sign of leaf miners. I’m wondering if this could be “greening disease” caused by the Asian Citrus Psyllid, for which there is no cure. And it’s highly contagious. I emailed Clemson University on this one. If they confirm my diagnosis, I will have to get rid of both my key lime trees, as well as the pots they’re in, and start again.

Disease on my key lime tree?

Disease on my key lime tree?

Well, now that you’ve had a peek at the results of my garden’s wellness exam, why not take the time to give your garden a checkup? The earlier you discover what’s wrong, the more quickly you can give the plants what they need to thrive. Our plants are speaking all the time. We just have to listen.

Share with us the results of your garden checkup. And if you have any experience with my garden issues as shown above, please share that, too. The best way to learn is together.

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4 comments on “How to Give Your Garden a Wellness Checkup

  1. Thanks for this great post! It really gets me thinking since I’m new to gardening. My problem is that I have holes forming in the leaves of my Brandywine tomato plant, but none of my others. I can’t figure out what’s causing it either.

    • Glad it got you thinking! I’ve got several issues going on in my garden – a new one I just found yesterday, on my elderberries – and I’ve had to contact Clemson University for help on a couple of things. OY!

      As for your tomato plant with holes….are the holes very tiny (like the ones on my eggplant in the picture)? Do you see any insects or webbing (like a mini cocoon)? Are the holes sufficient to be causing major damage to the plant?

      We’re never going to get rid of all insects, nor should that be our goal. We just need to help our plants survive attacks. The best preventive, of course, is healthy soil for a healthy plant. After that, we have to assess whether or not the “attack” is sufficient to battle. I think the phrase “it depends” can’t be overused when gardening. 🙂

      Learning never stops when you’re gardening, that’s for sure!

      • Thanks for your response, Rosemarie. You’re right, it seems I can’t ever learn enough and I love it! As for the tomatoes, is it possible I could have burned holes in leaves with compost? In hoping that’s the case and not the myriad diseases I’ve imagined in my mind. (No signs of caterpillars or insects.) Good luck with your garden and elderberries!

      • Compost shouldn’t burn holes in the leaves. Email me a picture (sanctuarygardener@gmail.com), and I’ll see if it looks familiar. Tell me what state you live in, too; it’ll help me know what your climate is like.

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