Nutrient deficiency

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In addition to location and environmental conditions, nutrients also play a significant role in the growth of plants. If they are absent or are only slightly present, this nutrient deficiency usually quickly manifests itself in a meager growth or discolorations. Although many plants are able to survive for a longer period in worse conditions, but the plants lack long-term important soil nutrients, form deficiency diseases. Especially on the external appearance, a lack of nutrients in most plants after a short time noticeable. Plant nutrition is thus an important part of obtaining a full crop and healthy plants.

The most important nutrients at a glance

The main nutrients include nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), sulfur (S) and calcium (Ca). There are also a number of so-called trace nutrients. As the name suggests, the plant only needs small amounts of them. Nevertheless, they are essential for metabolism and good growth. This group includes iron (Fe), copper (Cu), boron (B), zinc (Zn), molybdenum (Mo), silicon (Si) and manganese (Mn).

How does a nutritional deficiency develop?

A lack of nutrients can not only be caused by a lack of fertilization. A deficiency often occurs even with a one-sided nutrient supply. In addition, excessive fertilizer additions can lead to a lack of nutrients. Therefore, it is important to know in advance which and how many nutrients your plants need for good growth.
Individual nutrients can interact with each other. Targeted addition of nitrogen, whether mineral or, for example, in the form of horn shavings, promotes the growth of your plants. However, it should be remembered that in addition, potassium is needed to supply the crops with such an addition. Well-meaning potassium re-fertilization can in turn degrade magnesium uptake from the soil - even if this element is available in sufficient quantities.

Horn chips

Horn shavings contain a lot of nitrogen and promote the growth of plants

The pH of the soil also plays a crucial role in the availability of nutrients. For most plants, the nutrients are best available on weakly acidic to neutral soils, ie at a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. On light sandy soils, the value may be slightly lower, on heavy loam and clay soils slightly higher. Some plants, such as potatoes and strawberries, on the other hand, prefer acidic or alkaline conditions.

Detect nutrient deficiency in good time

A nutrient deficiency can lead to considerable damage to the affected plants. Younger leaves and shoot tips as well as old leaves often show the first symptoms of a deficiency syndrome.
A typical indicator of nutrient deficiency is so-called chlorosis. This is a disease symptom, which is characterized by a characteristic yellowing of individual leaf parts or whole leaves. Often, these discolorations go into so-called necrosis (death of the leaf tissue), the leaves turn brown here.

yellow leaves by chlorosis

In chlorosis, at first individual leaf parts turn yellow, later the leaves can die off

In addition to leaf discoloration, severe growth disorders can also occur. Just as common are symptoms of fruits - such as the bursting of tomatoes in, for example, a potassium deficiency.
Even with sunburn and frost damage, leaf changes can occur. These symptoms are to be distinguished from a nutrient deficiency. For example, the affected parts of the plant show light beige to dark brown spots on sunburn. Above all, newly trained shoots are affected and dry up quickly. In vegetables, between the leaf veins form whitish, sharply defined spots.

The most important nutrient deficiencies at a glance


Calcium is responsible for the regulation of pH in the soil. The element promotes soil life and ensures a stable soil crumb structure, compact plant cells and a well-developed root system. In case of deficiency, brown spots appear on fruits - for example, apple stipple, late blight on tomatoes and peppers. An excess of calcium inhibits the absorption of magnesium, potassium and iron.


Magnesium is part of the leaf green (chlorophyll) and thus important for the formation of substances by photosynthesis. In case of an undersupply the leaves turn yellow - especially older leaves are affected.The leaf veins remain green, needles turn brown. An excess of magnesium can cause a calcium deficiency.

Magnesium deficiency hydrangea leaf

You can recognize magnesium deficiency in deciduous trees such as this hydrangea on the clearly discolored leaves


Phosphorus is an important energy transmitter and essential for flowers, fruits and seeds. A lack of phosphor causes a stunted growth and rigid, reddish discolored leaves. The flower and fruit formation is impaired. An excess of this chemical element blocks the uptake of iron.


Nitrogen promotes the growth of shoots and leaves and is considered the engine of vegetative and generative growth. It is also an important protein and chlorophyll component in plants. In the case of an undersupply, the entire plants take care of and the metabolism is disturbed. If nitrogen is lacking, the photosynthetic power of the plant decreases, new leaves remain small, narrow and pale green. Older leaves, on the other hand, turn red-purple from the tip, causing chlorosis and necrosis. If the deficiency is very large, the leaves can simply fall off. The flower buds form partially earlier than the leaf buds and the flowers themselves are difficult to fertilize. This can result in harvest losses.

Nitrogen deficiency in bougainvillea

In a nitrogen deficiency, the leaves, here a bougainvillea, show a clear yellowing


Potassium causes a good water balance in the plant as well as a stable tissue and frost resistance. In the case of a deficiency, the plant is limp despite sufficient water supply, the leaves start to dry up from the edge. An excess of potassium causes a magnesium deficiency.


Boron ensures stable cell walls. A deficiency leads to stunted growth, a disturbed flower formation and burst skin, for example radishes, radish and apple. Pears are prone to hard spots when deficient.


Iron is important for leaf greens. A deficiency is noticeable through young, yellow leaves with green veins. Rhododendron is particularly affected by iron deficiency. Too high pH levels in the soil determine the micronutrient and make it unusable for plants.

Iron deficiency apple tree

This apple tree suffers from iron deficiency, recognizable by the yellow leaves


In the plant sulfur is a component of protein, enzymes, vitamins and flavors and important for the utilization of nitrogen. Pitchering and yellowing of the young leaves are signs of sulfur deficiency.


Copper is an important component of enzymes that cure, for example, damaged plant tissue and regulate nitrogen utilization. With a shortage, the affected plants are more susceptible to stress and disease.


Zinc contributes to the regulation of the plant hormone auxin, which is responsible for the growth of plants. Especially with fruit trees, a shortage leads to crippled shoot tips. Young leaves are yellowish green and curved when undersupplied.


A lack of molybdenum leads to crippled and overgrown leaves, especially in cabbages such as cauliflower. At too low a pH in the soil, molybdenum is poorly available to the plants.


Silicon is responsible for a stable soil structure, rooting and a firm plant tissue, which is less prone to harmful fungi. A deficiency can be prevented by rock flour or a horsetail extract.


Manganese is a component of enzymes for growth, photosynthesis and protein formation. A shortage shows up on young leaves. They turn yellow from the edge, the veins remain green.

Tips for eliminating a nutrient deficiency

The hobby gardener has some resources in advance to prevent nutrient deficiency in his plants. In heavy, clayey soils, nutrients are often very tightly bound, and wetness and lack of air reduce the mineralization (degradation) of the organic matter. By sustainably improving the soil and thoroughly loosening the substrate, you can permanently improve the nutrient availability of your plants. A soil analysis can provide advance information about the respective nutrient reserves as well as about the pH-value of the soil.

Soil sample for soil analysis

With the help of a soil analysis you get information about the nutrient content of your soil

It also makes sense to be thoroughly informed in advance about suitable fertilizer quantities in order to avoid fertilizer errors and an associated undersupply. A fertilizer with organic ingredients supports the soil life and the plant. Mineral fertilizers have the advantage that the nutrients are immediately available to the plants and can quickly compensate for a deficiency. A disadvantage, however, is that such fertilizers are easily washed out of the ground and thus remain unused - this is the case especially with nitrogen. New special mineral fertilizers avoid leaching and have a so-called long-term effect.
A complete fertilizer is also referred to as N-P-K fertilizer; the three parts of the main nutrients are given as a percentage. If it contains less phosphorus and more potassium than nitrogen, it can be used for almost all plant groups.
The exception is, for example, roses or rhododendrons. These plants should receive a special fertilizer, which is adapted to the special nutrient needs of the plants and thus facilitates the home gardener needs-based fertilization.

Video Board: A Beginners Guide: Nutrient Deficiency.

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