Lack of Nutrients in Plants: What to Do About It

Lack of nutrients in plants is a major issue that needs to be addressed.
Maryna Kuzmenko, Co-Founder at Petiole
by Maryna Kuzmenko | 13th April 2021 | 5 mins read
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Lack of nutrients in plants is a major issue that needs to be addressed. Plants are not able to grow as well when they lack certain key nutrients. This can lead to poor growth, or even death of the plant if left untreated. Symptoms of a Lack of Nutrients

Lack of nutrients in plants is a common problem that manifests as stunted growth, yellow leaves, pale green coloration on undersides of leaves and stems and sudden wilting without evidence of water loss.

Plants with a nutrient deficiency may show some of the following symptoms: stunted growth, yellowing leaves, pale green leaves and/or foliage. Also, they may have small or deformed root systems, leaf margins fraying and becoming ragged-looking.

If plants fail to thrive, despite adequate soil preparation, watering and mulching, it may be a sign of a nutrient deficiency. Fruit and vegetables are particularly vulnerable, as are containerised plants and those growing in very acid or alkaline soils. Yellow or reddish coloured leaves, stunted growth and poor flowering are all common symptoms of nitrogen, magnesium or potassium deficiency.

The symptoms of lack of nutrients in plants may include:

  • leaf tips turning brown or yellow;
  • stunted growth, especially among younger leaves;
  • pale green coloration on the undersides of leaves and stems;
  • sudden wilting without evidence of water loss.

Causes of a Lack of Nutrients in Plants

The causes of a lack of nutrients are always individual and depend on crop, stage of growth, soil, weather, geography of location, etc.

Certain plants are more vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies than others. For example, fruits and vegetables are particularly sensitive to nitrogen deficiency, whereas those in containers may suffer from a lack of potassium or magnesium.

The most common cause of a plant’s failure to thrive is the incorrect balance between nutrients. This occurs when there is too much or too little of one type for another – for instance, if an overabundance of nitrogen causes potassium levels to fall.

Soil pH has indirect yet far-reaching effects on plants.

If soil acidity, the availability of the major plant nutrients nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, calcium, magnesium and also the trace element molybdenum is reduced and may be insufficient. There is one more problem for this type of soils. If your soil is too acidic, it is a negative factor for microorganisms. Hence, you will have poor bacterial growth. This is because bacteria and its lifecycle helps to make the soil more alkaline. As a result, if there isn’t enough of the good bacteria, the soil will not be fertile enough to support life and growth of plants.

Otherwise, in highly alkaline soil, phosphorus and most micronutrients become less available. This type of soil has a poor soil structure and a low infiltration capacity. For example, iron, manganese and zinc deficiencies, which also won’t support life, are the most widespread on alkaline soils.

The “ideal” soil pH is close to neutral. And neutral soils have their own range. They are considered to fall within a range from a slightly acidic pH of 6.5 to slightly alkaline pH of 7.5.

Basics about how to test soil pH

If you consider more strategic way how to prevent lack of nutrients in plants in future, then you must do a soil test. It will help you to see how acidic the soil actually is (or how much alkaline it contains alternatively). As a result, you will have a report about the soil pH. Ideally, the number must be around 7.0, or neutral. With any domination of acidic or alkaline you will have a meaning which is significantly lower or higher than 7.0.

For example, if your soil pH test report shows 3.6 this means you have an acid soil. On the other hand, if after checking pH of soil you got 8.9, this says that the soil is alkaline.

Once you have run the soil test and have the results, you will know which kind of pulverized limestone to add as a soil acid neutralizer.

How to check a lack of nutrients in plants?

To identify a nutrients deficiency in plants, you need to visually assess your plants. For more data-driven decisions, it is recommended to measure plant traits to understand the growth pattern.

For example, if your plants have a lack of nutrients then new foliage, buds and roots have stunted growth. You can measure them and check the level of chlorophyll. For instance, in a case of iron deficiency, plants will have light green to yellow interveinal chlorosis. This symptom will appear on newly emerging leaves and young shoots. Also, it is quite common to see shoots dying from the tip inwards.

Also, younger leaves curl downwards with browning of leaf edges and leaf tips, also known as tip burn.

Some plants, they may also show abnormally green foliage.

Finally, roots become short and stubby. You can measure the root system of a sample plants and then suggest the same problem for other plants on the plot.

What to Do About A Lack of Nutrients in Plants?

There are also many ways to deal with a lack of nutrients in plants.

First of all, you need to act as quickly as you can. For example, you can try to fertilize your plants with synthetic fertilizer. You should also act on prevention of the lack of nutrients in plants by trying to provide enough nutrition for the plant from its root system by improving soil quality and drainage.

Good news, you can correct soil acidity easily by liming the soil. Or you can add basic materials to neutralize the acid present. The most commonly used liming material is agricultural limestone, the most economical and relatively easy to manage source. In other words, limestone acts as a soil acid neutralizer and consists of either calcium and magnesium carbonate or calcium carbonate. These are called dolomitic limestone and calcitic limestone respectively. The limestone is not very water-soluble, making it easy to handle.

Alkaline soil tie up soil nutrients key to a plant’s growth. Hence, treatment of high pH soil is quite easy. You can add fertilizers and chelates to soil to increase concentrations of plant nutrients. However, it is important to remember the proportion. In fact, addition of phosphate fertilizer alone will further reduce the availability of other nutrients.

Organic method to improve soil

Also, additionally to the methods listed above, try to increase the amount of humus in your soil. This is dark, organic material, which serves an important nutrient source for plants. It forms in soil when plant and animal matter decays. In fact, it is rich in carbon and is generally acidic as a result of its humic acid content.

Humus gives soil a much desired crumbly texture; and also it improves soil structure by making the soil looser. This allows for easier flow of air and water. Humus is also known as one of the best ways to improve soil fertility.


In this article we have used photo materials of:

  • A book “Pacific Northwest Plant Disease Management Handbook”
  • Online material, published on Extension Foundation website.

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