Nevada Public Radio Listen Live

"Discover New Programs"
Facebook Twitter Follow Nevada Public Radio

Support Nevada Public Radio
September 13, 2005

DESERT BLOOM: Plant Problems


There can be times when you're looking at a plant, and it just looks wrong. You aren't quite sure what it might be, specifically, but you think that, maybe, it feels unhealthy. Now this can be any kind of plant - from that stately tree in the yard, to the lettuce in your veggie plots, to one of your favorite houseplants in the window.

Often, you want to call the master gardener help line for information, but what if you're not even sure what to ask.

Here's a few pointers to give you some direction, before you call for help.

It might be easiest to look first at the plant, and then at the environment where it's been living.

What is it about the plant that seems - wrong?

You should usually look at the leaves before any other part.

Are they the right shape? Can you see any deformity? If so, look closer. Curled leaves or twisted ones often mean that insects or mites have set up housekeeping. Little fluffy white masses on the underside of the leaf, or where the leaf is joined to the plant, indicate a particular problem insect that's a real problem on cactus.

Are there holes in the leaves? Are they small, with a yellowish halo around the edge? That frequently means there's a disease at work.

Are the leaves the right color? Are certain areas of them discolored? One widespread problem we have in the desert southwest is due to alkaline soil. The veins in the leaves stay green but the rest becomes pale, maybe even white. Or perhaps the perimeter of the leaves is yellow. Any of these can be due to nutrient deficiencies.

Is there are a difference in the leaf color at the top of the plant, that's the newer leaves, from the ones at the bottom, the older leaves? That can be due to a deficiency of some nutrient, but it can also mean something completely different, poor drainage.

After the leaves, look at the overall plant (which, remember, could be a tree, a shrub, the philodendron on your windowsill). Does it look like the problem is spread all over, or is just in one area? See if there's a broken limb. If you're lucky, the problem might be something you can just prune away.

Not only do you have to look at the plant, but you need to check out its surroundings. If you touch the soil, you should be able to tell if it's too dry or wet. How often do you irrigate? Have you watered this plant? How often? Is it sitting in water? Like I've said umpteen times, poor drainage is one of the most common causes of plant death in Southern Nevada landscapes. Or landscapes anywhere, for that matter.

How deep, and more important, how wide was the hole where you put that tree or bush? You've heard that the hole should be no deeper than the plant you're putting in it, but it should be three to five times as wide. It almost sounds counterintuitive, but shrubs and trees do so much better under those conditions.

Some plants get put in places that are just too hostile for them. Several plants that will survive if they're protected, say in a north facing situation, will fry under conditions of hot, western light.

Many of our favorite indoor plants originated in the tropics.

They thrive with lots of warmth, but they also need high humidity. Have you been providing that? - remember, it doesn't come naturally in the desert. Occasionally they'll get scorched if they're too close to a very sunny window.

Have you fertilized your plants? Soils in the desert southwest are notoriously infertile. Your fertilizer can be your own compost or something you pour from a can. A fertilizer that's listed as 'all-purpose' will frequently give plants a boost. It won't cure diseases or repel insects, but healthy plants are much better equipped to deal with them.

Have you used an herbicide anywhere? Worse yet, has one of your neighbors used one? This would have been a particular problem when our temperatures were up to a gazillion degrees for weeks on end. Many pesticides have an advisory that gives the upper temperature limit for use. Spray something when it's warmer, and you cause problems as it drifts away, off target and doing all kinds of damage. I've even heard of people using herbicides when they should have used an insecticide, with disastrous results.

There's a host of reasons for plants to look forlorn, but looking closely at them will give you a head start on solving the problems. At least it'll be a start if you search for help from a Master Gardener.

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

See discussion rules.


NormJan 21, 2015 | Prepare for Spring Now
Don't look at the calendar. Look at your plants to tell you what do to in the yard right now. Your plants think Spring is near, so use this time to transplant and prune. Desert Gardener Norm Schilling tells us what to look for.

NormDec 30, 2014 | Winter and Citrus
Citrus can thrive in Southern Nevada - even in our cold - when you choose the right varieties. Norm Schilling tells us how.

AngelaDec 13, 2014 | To Prune or Not to Prune
As winter draws near, leaves begin to fall. And the bare view may prompt some excessive pruning. It's tempting, but your plants may appreciate a little restraint. Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

NormDec 6, 2014 | Prepare Your Plants for Cold Weather
It's not cold . . . yet, but Norm says be ready and your yard will appreciate it. Don't let a cold snap cost you your investment in plants in your yard. Norm Schilling has some ideas to get ready.

AngelaNov 25, 2014 | Evergreens
As we head into the holiday season, more attention is given to 'evergreens.' Too many cones on a pine tree might be a sign of weakness. Angela O'Callaghan tells us all about evergreens on Desert Bloom.

NormNov 14, 2014 | Fall Colors
Even in the desert, Fall colors can brighten your landscape. Here's Norm Schilling with Desert Bloom.

NormOct 28, 2014 | Fall Colors - Web Only Edition
With glorious weather for our yards to fall back into bloom, Norm has some additional suggestions for color to add to the profusion of blooms for this time of year. (Web-only content)

NormOct 7, 2014 | Second Spring
The call it a "second spring" Norm Schilling has some plan ideas to make Fall colorful in your yard. He has a checklist of plants looking their best, because now is the time to plant in Southern Nevada.

AngelaSep 30, 2014 | Fountain Grass
A weed by any other name is still a weed even if it doesn't look like one. If only everything in our gardens thrived as well as weeds. Here is Angela O'Callaghan.

NormSep 15, 2014 | Desert Heat
Norm describes a significant casualty of the desert heat. There's going to be a big gap in Norm's Yard and a lesson on the reality of our desert landscape.

AngelaAug 12, 2014 | Organic Pesticides
Choosing a method for ridding your garden of an unwanted guest, be it bug or weed, is not always a simple choice. But the more you know, the better it goes. Here's Angela O'Callaghan

NormJul 28, 2014 | Lose that Lawn
We know, it's a desert out there including every place there's a lawn. Norm Schilling reminds us all the ways he wants you to consider losing the lawn... permanently.

AngelaJul 14, 2014 | Protect Fruit Trees from Birds
If you put a good deal of care into growing fruit trees, there are likely some birds who will take advantage of your effort. Here's Angela O'Callaghan.

NormJul 10, 2014 | Palm Care, Part 2
To keep, or not to keep. Norm Schilling ponders his palm trees, on this edition of Desert Bloom.

NormJun 10, 2014 | Palm Care
Norm Schilling has mixed feelings about how we use Palms in our yards. Full grown palm trees transplanted into the entry way of a mall is a common sight that tells Southern Nevadan's "something" is nearly open for business. He reminds us that those palms come with challenges.

AngelaJun 3, 2014 | Hot Weather Plants
As temperatures across the Valley begin to climb, you might be wondering what will survive in your garden in the months ahead and what probably won't. There are some 'sweet' options. Here's Angela O'Callaghan

NormMay 20, 2014 | Desert Color
Norm Schilling just got back from Belize and has some ideas for lush leaves in your desert yard. He reflects on some well suited plants to provide color and variety in this edition of Desert Bloom.

AngelaMay 6, 2014 | Emerald Ash Borer
Raising a healthy shade tree in the Mojave is not always easy. And if one particular insect makes its way here, it could get even harder. Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

NormApr 22, 2014 | The Right Plants
Our current warm spell gives the impression that some plants can thrive when they aren't really suited to our desert. Norm Schilling has some examples.

NormMar 24, 2014 | Spring Garden Party
Spring is here and the garden is blooming . . . so invite some friends to enjoy the rewards of gardening!

Web hosting facilities provided by Switch.