5 Common Nutrient Deficiencies in Plants

My Garden Life
July 20, 2020
Table of Contents
Nutrient deficiency in plants is often overlooked by beginner and seasoned gardeners alike. Growing plants successfully takes more than green fingers, sunshine and water. Healthy soil provides the vital nutrients a plant needs to grow strong, but this is an aspect that many gardeners underestimate.

Over years of growing, the soil in your yard can become depleted of the essential minerals that all plants need, and trying to grow anything in these conditions is likely to be a losing battle. Spotting a nutrient deficiency problem in your soil before it gets too far will give your plants the best chance of recovery, and here’s what to look for:

Nutrient Deficiencies in Plants Infographic
Let’s take a closer look at how to spot nutrient deficiencies in plants:

How to spot a nitrogen deficiency in plants

You may notice that the old leaves on your plant have turned yellow or pale green. This is often an indication of nitrogen deficiency which means your plant doesn’t produce enough chlorophyll for effective photosynthesis, resulting in dull and stunted growth.

How to spot an iron deficiency in plants

If your plants’ leaves are turning pale or see-through, there might be a lack of iron in the soil. This can happen when plants need more iron than the soil has to offer. As iron deficiency continues the leaf colors will fade until their green hue is completely gone.

How to spot a potassium deficiency in plants

The first sign of a potassium deficiency is yellowing leaves. The difference here, however, may be that new growth is affected as well as mature leaves and there will often also be small brown spots around the leaf edges on the youngest foliage.

How to spot a phosphorus deficiency in plants

If your plants are turning yellow, it could be a sign of phosphorus deficiency. A lack of this nutrient often causes dark brown spots to form on the edges and leaves will start to fall off if not treated soon enough.

How to spot a magnesium deficiency in plants

A magnesium deficiency, like a lack of iron in the soil, will cause leaves to appear pale. However, unlike an iron-deficient plant where veins are lighter than leaf tissue on both sides of the vein, a magnesium-deficient plant is greener around the leaf veins making them stand out more starkly.

If you catch these nutrient deficiencies early enough, applying a good fertilizer will usually reverse the symptoms before too much damage is done. Although any general-purpose plant feed will work in an emergency, try to use a product that’s enriched with the missing mineral you’ve identified.

However, the best long-term solution is to incorporate plenty of organic matter into your soil, using home-made compost or well-rotted manure. Over time, this will balance the soil’s nutrients to provide ideal conditions for every type of plant and make mineral deficiencies a thing of the past.

nutrient deficiency in plants

Compost is a great way to return organic nutrients to the soil. Check out this quick and easy alternative to the traditional compost pile with our Guide to Direct Composting.


  1. Josephine Christmas

    What is the best Ph. reading for a hibiscus. I do have a ph. meter but not sure whether hibiscus like an acid or an alkaline soil.

    • My Garden Life

      Hi Josephine,
      Hibiscus prefer a slightly acidic soil in the range of 6-7. It’s great that you have a soil pH meter so you can get a good read. If you need to make any adjustments and need tips, see our article How to Change Soil pH.

  2. Valerie Jensen

    I LOVE YOUR CHART. Am wondering if it is available to download. I head up a mentoring program in a community garden – we have lots of beginner gardeners. I post informational charts acc to relevance during our growing season. I would love to post your chart on our bulletin board. And it would be a good way to advertize your site as a valuable resource !!

    • My Garden Life

      Hi Valerie,
      Thanks, we love hearing this! Please contact us using our “contact us” form and we’ll get you set up to use the chart for your gardening group.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts

Common Houseplant Pests

Common Houseplant Pests

A look at the most common insect pests that feed on houseplants. How to identify and control houseplant pests before they do serious damage your plants.
How to Amend Clay Soil

How to Amend Clay Soil

Clay soil can be hard to work, have poor drainage and lack nutrients plants need to survive. Learn how to amend clay soil into workable, healthier soil.
Cat Palm Troubleshooting Guide

Cat Palm Troubleshooting Guide

Find the cause and fix it! Here’s how to correct common problems with your cat palm, such as yellow leaves, brown leaf tips, and how to know when it’s time to repot your plant.

Related Posts

Pests and Diseases of Cucumbers

Pests and Diseases of Cucumbers

How to Test Soil pH

How to Test Soil pH

Sunburned Houseplants

Sunburned Houseplants

frost map with dates

Frost Map with Dates

USDA zone finder with zip code search and maps

USDA Zone Finder

plant library

Plant Library

Save plants to your personal library

Join My Garden Club to access more features

Already a member?
Log in now

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!