12 Plant Nutrient Deficiency Symptoms and How to Fix Them

Explore the most common plant nutrient deficiency symptoms for each macro and micro nutrient and how to fix or prevent them

Deficiency

When a primary macronutrient (element) – Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) – or a secondary macronutrient – Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), Sulphur (S) – is in low concentration in the nutrient solution or is not absorbed efficiently, plants show symptoms of nutrient deficiency.

Efficient absorption by the plants is dependent primarily on the pH level of the solution but also on the availability and concentration of the micronutrients (trace elements) – Boron (B), Chlorine (Cl), Copper (Cu), Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Molybdenum (Mo), Zinc (Zn) – which are used by the plants to absorb other macronutrients.

So a balanced nutrient solution is key to avoid deficiency.

Nutrient mobility

Some elements are “mobile”, i.e they easily move within the plant: they will move from the older parts of the plant to the new growth. So a deficiency in eg one of the following in the list will show in the older leaves rather than in the new ones. These elements are:

  • Nitrogen (N)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Sulphur (or sulfur) (S)

The “immobile” elements are those which do not move within the plants and any deficiency will show in the new growth (as they will not move from the older parts of the plant to the new ones). These elements are:

  • Iron (Fe)
  • Zinc (Zn)
  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Boron (B)

Manganese (Mn) is not classified in any of the mobile or immobile elements as the mobility is more complex and depends on the plant species and its age. So the manganese deficiency can appear in both the older and newer leaves.

It needs to be said that usually deficiency symptoms of the same element may differ between different plant species. The table below is only indicative and you need to be researching the symptoms for the specific plant species you have.

Also other parameters such as low oxygen in the water solution or limited air circulation or diseases may cause deficiency symptoms that may differ from the usual or expected ones. So you need to ensure that parameters not relevant to nutrients are checked first before you resolve the nutrient imbalances.

Nutrient Deficiency Symptoms

MACRO-NUTRIENTNUTRIENT MOBILITYWHAT IS IT USED FOR?SYMPTOMS
Nitrogen (N)Mobile element; moves to newer tissues.Stem and leaf growth and new formation. Forms part of the chlorophyll, important in photosynthesis.Older leaves at the bottom of the plant will turn yellow while the new ones will be healthy and green. However progressively if the deficiency is not corrected, all leaves will turn yellow (starting from the tips to the base).
Generally the plant will show poor and weak growth.
Phosphorus (P)Mobile element; moves to newer tissues.Important for the formation of flowers, fruit and roots.All leaf tips dry off. Older leaves are darker green and then get a reddish or purplish tint starting from the leaf margins and underneath (pigment anthocyanin accumulates). At plants which form fruits, flowering and fruit formation will be affected. Low temperature and wet conditions may make the symptoms worse.
Generally the growth is slow.
Potassium (K)Mobile element; moves to newer tissues.Important for the formation of flowers, fruit and roots. Helps in forming strong structure of cell walls and lengthening of stems.Older leaves at lower parts of the plant will appear brown and dry on the upper surface (like scorching) and will wilt on the margins. In some cases leaves between the veins will appear darker; BUT this symptom may differ between plant species and it may present interveinal chlorosis and then necrosis.
Sometimes purple spots may appear in the underside of the leaves.
The leaf stalks will be shorter than normal. The fruits will not be as firm as expected and their colour will not be adequately developed.
Magnesium (Mg)Mobile element; moves to newer tissues.Important in the protein structure, chlorophyll and photosynthesis.Older leaves at lower parts of the plant will start by yellowing (chlorosis) from the tip to the base and from margins to inner parts, but the veins remain darker green. Spots of necrosis (dead spots) may appear as well.
Calcium (Ca)Immobile element; stays in older parts of the plant.Used in cell wall structure. Also used to form new growing points and root tips.New leaves (top of plant) are weak and lean downwards an appear pale. The leaf margins and tips appear to be burnt (tip burn) distorted or irregularly shaped. The roots do not grow to full length.
Sulphur or Sulfur (S)Mobile element; moves to newer tissues.Forms part of the chlorophyll.Younger leaves turn yellow first, sometimes followed by older leaves.
MICRO-NUTRIENTNUTRIENT MOBILITYWHAT IS IT USED FOR?SYMPTOMS
Boron (B)Immobile element; stays in older parts of the plant.Used for the differentiation of cells, i.e in new growth.Terminal buds deform and eventually die and fall off. Because the dominant growth is dead, lateral new stems emerge (witches’ brooms form) as the main stems fails to keep the lateral shoots dormant.
Copper (Cu)Immobile element; stays in older parts of the plant.Takes part in many functions such as photosynthesis, respiration, metabolism. It also enhances flavour in fruit and colour in flowers.In new young leaves yellowing (chlorosis) appears between the veins Small spots may appear in the yellow parts, more likely at the leaf margins. If symptoms progress, leaves may wilt and the apical meristems can die.
Iron (Fe)Immobile element; stays in older parts of the plant.Important for the synthesis of chloroplast proteins and enzymes.In young leaves, yellowing occurs between the veins; all the area between the veins turns yellow.
Difference with Magnesium deficiency is that Magnesium deficiency happens in older leaves; otherwise they look similar.
Shoots can start dying starting from the tip.
Manganese (Mn)Immobile element; stays in older parts of the plant.Acts like an enabler of nitrogen assimilation in plants. It is needed in functions such as photosynthesis.In young leaves, yellowing occurs between the veins but yellowing may not cover the whole area between the veins as it does with Iron deficiency. Dead spots or patches can appear in the yellow parts. If untreated, new stems, leaves and even fruit are smaller.
Molybdenum (Mo)Immobile element; stays in older parts of the plant.Without it plants cannot use nitrates to make proteins.Plants show nitrogen deficiency symptoms because the nitrates in the plant cannot be used without Molybdenum.
So the older leaves (bottom of plant) turn yellow. The rest of the plant is often greener.
Zinc (Zn)Immobile element; stays in older parts of the plant.Important in activating growth regulators.In young leaves yellowing with bronze spots appears between the veins. It is followed by reduced shoot growth with smaller distances between nodes.

 

How to Fix Nutrient Deficiency Symptoms

The solution to nutrient deficiency is not simply “add more nutrients”. First, preventing deficiency is key. You don’t want to reach a point where your plants are stressed and starved. It may be that even if you manage to fix a deficiency, especially when it is severe, the plant growth and more importantly the produce yield will be compromised.

So it will be a decision point of whether it is worth fixing the problem after all or do a new plantation.

But in order not to reach that point and know what you should do, have a read at my Post 12 Hydroponic Problems and Solutions to Avoid Disaster to guide you through steps of how to prevent and how to fix problems associated with plant nutrient deficiency and availability.

Resources

If you want to explore more on nutrient deficiency symptoms see some sources of information I have listed below. But be careful, as not all of them, in fact very few of them, are specific to hydroponics. You need to be picking up the relevant information that applies to hydroponics.

For instance, some sources may refer to a nutrient deficiency symptom and what to do about it in relation to a soil cultivation where chemistry is completely different to hydroponics. Regardless, the deficiency symptom itself is likely to be valid and relevant to hydroponics.

But don’t worry, my Post here you’ve just read has all the information you need, specific to hydroponics.

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