Fertility in the Organic Garden

Keeping Ahead of Powdery Mildew

Identifying Plant Symptoms Problems

Soil tests done in a lab are one way to check the health of your soil. However, the ultimate test is how well your plants are doing. By carefully observing your plants, you can tell which nutrient your plants are lacking. With this information, you can choose which amendments should be added to the soil to maximize the soil health.

When adding amendments to your soil, always start with very small amounts. Too much of a nutrient is can be worse than too little. If there is a serious nutrient imbalance, your plants may be unable to absorb the nutrients they need. Therefore, your plant may exhibit signs of a nutrient deficiency, but the problem is an excess of other nutrient. Therefore, observe your plants closely and if they don’t improve, go ahead and have a lab check your soil. Excess nutrients can also pollute our water and soil and waste energy during manufacturing and distribution. So use soil amendments carefully.

The chart below contains symptoms of major nutrient deficiencies, how these nutrients function in the plant, and what organic amendments contain the nutrient.

Major nutrients

Plant SymptomsDeficiencyPlant UsesSources
Slow growth Leaves are uniformly yellow-green Cucumbers are pointed at the tipsNitrogenChlorophyll, proteins, genetic material, hormones, and other chemicals Fish, alfalfa, or blood meal; green manures
Purplish leaves Yellow or streaked leaf margins Leaf tips die off Fruits late, poor or absentPhosphorusGenetic material, root growth, storage and use of energyManure, bonemeal, rock phosphates
Brown leaf margins on lower leaves Shriveled fruit Plants not as healthy Weak stemsPotassiumAids in nutrient movement, protein synthesis, and carbohydrate metabolismGreensand, granite dust, Kelp, compost, manure
Leaves curled upward

Leaves are scalloped Buds dried out or absent Buds drop off early while the stem is still stiff and erect Tomato blossom end rot Weak stems

CalciumCell wall manufacture and regulation, activates several enzymesLimestone, ground clam and oyster lime shell, gypsum, wood ashes
Leaves at branch tips turn down Stems are hard and brittleSulfurFound in amino acids, vitamins and co-enzymesManure, Sul-Po-Mag, gypsum, elemental sulfur
Leaves are thin and brittle; purplish red or brown to bronze; striped or yellow to brown between veins; curl upward; or don’t grow long Plants mature late and don’t thriveMagnesiumChlorophyll;

aids in carbohydrate metabolism, energy use, and genetic material manufacture

Kelp or fish extract, mulch dolomitic limestone, compost
Pale yellow color between leaf veinsIronPart of enzymes, aids in chlorophyll manufactureIron sulfate, chelated iron

In the trace element chart below, I’ve only included what the symptoms of the deficiencies. I haven’t included what nutrients you can use to fix the problem. Because trace elements are needed at such low levels, it is very easy to add too much and seriously harm your plants. If you suspect a trace element problem, use compost, rock powders, and kelp to improve the health of your soil. Your compost should contain ingredients from outside your immediate vicinity. Clearly, if your entire property is lacking in zinc, compost made from your grass and leaves will also be lacking in zinc. Import manure or compost from a safe source to supplement your regular compost.

Trace elements

Leaves are smaller and have mottled, stripped, or dead areas Buds have dead tips and margins Buds drop off the plant early while the stems are stiff and erectZinc
Symptoms appear first on new growth Leaves are misshapen or curled downward Buds are pale green Flowers drop off at higher than normal rate Decreased stem growth Beets and turnips have “corklike” areas Broccoli and cauliflower have a hollow stemBoron
Pale yellow color between leaf veins Brown or gray spots on leaves Leaves drop offManganese
Leaves are blanched

Fruit is sour

Imitates nitrogen deficiency Cauliflower has reduced or irregular leaves Citrus fruit has ‘yellow spot’Molybdenum

Adapted from

Bradley, F.M. (Ed). 1991. Rodale’s Chemical-Free Yard and Garden. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc.

Mikkelson, R. and J. Camberto. 1995. Potassium, Sulfur, Lime and Micronutrient Fertilizers. in Soil Amendments and Environmental Quality. J. E. Richcigel (ed) Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Inc.

Miller, C. and M.L. Facciola. 1995. Let’s get Growing: a Dirt-under-the-nails Primer on Raising Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers Organically. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc.

Schultz, W. 1989. The Chemical-Free Lawn. Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, PA.

Deborah Turton is an organic gardener and writer who’s worked with a variety of environmental groups.

Fusilli with Wilted Greens, Goat Cheese and Raisins

Since the garden is starting to produce lovely spring greens, we though this recipe from CooksRecipes.com would be ideal:

  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bunch red or green Swiss chard, stems trimmed, coarsely chopped
  • 1 bunch beet greens, stems trimmed, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons grated lemon peel
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 pound fusilli pasta, cooked according to package directions
  • 5 ounces soft fresh goat cheese (such as Montrachet)Combine raisins and lemon juice in small bowl. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large pot over medium-low heat. Add onion and sauté until softened. Add garlic and sauté about 30 seconds. Add Swiss chard, beet greens and raisin mixture. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until greens wilt, about 5 minutes.

One of the nutrients that we can get from these plants is protein. To know more about it, get the right information on this page.

Stir in ginger and lemon peel. Season greens to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss hot, fresh cooked pasta with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add greens mixture and goat cheese. Toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Serves 4 to 6.

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