I've been gardening and writing about gardening for more than 20 years, yet I find I'm always learning new things about the plants, insects and other critters that call my backyard home. That's the great thing about gardening — it's never boring! I've worked as a landscaper, on an organic farm, as a research technician in a plant pathology lab and ran a small cut-flower business, all of which inform my garden writing. Someone once asked me when I'll be finished with my gardens, to which I replied, "Never!" For me, gardening is a process, not a goal.
Diagnosing plant problems is a little like playing Clue — but instead of uncovering a murderer you're trying to figure out who or what is bugging your plants. Sherlock Holmes was famous for his powers of observation and reasoning, and if you want to identify plant problems you'll need to hone these skills.
Ideally, you'll visit your garden daily and get to know what your plants look like when they're healthy — so you'll notice any problems right away. When you do see something out of the ordinary, stop for a closer look. What caught your eye? Off-color foliage? Holes in the leaves?
If you want to avoid using broad-spectrum poisons in your garden, the key to success is taking time to observe and try to understand what’s really going on. It’s the single most important action you can take. Here are a couple questions to get you started:
What kind of plant is it? Some types of plants are particularly susceptible to certain pests or disease problems.
Do the leaves appear to be eaten? The culprit might be an insect, slug or animal pest. Large holes in the middle of the leaf can indicate beetles, caterpillars and slugs. Shredded foliage or plants eaten right down to the ground might be the work of an animal, such as a deer or woodchuck.
Are the leaves discolored overall? If so, how? Silvery, bronzed or stippled foliage may indicate the presence of plant juice-sucking insects such as aphids and spider mites. Pale or mottled leaves can indicate an environmental or nutrition problem.
Are there spots on the leaves? Spots may be caused by a disease but they can also be the result of insect feeding or environmental factors. Some plants are notorious for their susceptibility to certain diseases.
Do you see insects, eggs or droppings? Some insects are difficult to see but they leave telltale signs. For example, some cabbageworms are so well camouflaged you may not see them, but you'll see their black droppings. Eggs may be clustered on the undersides of leaves or on new growth, so be sure to look there, too.
Keep in mind that the insects you see may not be causing the symptoms. Ants, for example, are sometimes found on damaged plants and are assumed to be the culprit. But they generally don’t harm plants — they're after the honeydew (a sugary secretion) left by the real pests, usually aphids. Other insects, such as lacewing or ladybug larvae are beneficial insects that may already be busy solving the problem by hunting down the pests.
Are there other signs of pest activity? Some pests are so tiny you're unlikely to see them, but on close inspection you'll see signs of their presence. For example, spider mites are smaller than a pinhead but reveal their presence with the silky webbing they produce. Though slugs feed at night and usually hide out during the day, the shiny slime trails they leave behind are telltale “footprints.”
Is it necessary to take action? Before you switch into action mode, consider whether it's necessary. If you see insect damage but no insects, it could be that they’ve already come and gone. If there are only a few pests, you may want to just track the situation for a day or two and see what happens. Giving the plant a fortifying drink of water, spiked with some liquid organic fertilizer may be all that’s required. If it's the end of the growing season, control may not be warranted. If, on the other hand, it's early in the season and the plant is at risk, you may need to act quickly. Diseases pose different challenges. Most products that control diseases are preventative — they won't cure a disease but can keep it from spreading. You may also be able to keep a disease problem in check by removing and destroying affected leaves or parts of the plant.
Remember that many pests and diseases can be kept in check with good gardening practices. Pesticides and fungicides — even organic ones — should always be a last resort.
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