The Online Gardener's Handbook 2010
Chapter 1: Causes of Plant Injury
Getting to the Root of the Problem

Table of Contents

  1. Diagnosing Plant Problems
  2. Tolerance Levels
  3. Related Links

Diagnosing Plant Problems

The accurate and timely diagnosis of a plant problem is important if the most effective control measures are to be selected and implemented. This, in turn, will minimize the damage to the plant's yield and aesthetic value.

But before you can diagnose a plant problem, you must know the plant's normal appearance and growth pattern. This helps identify problems early on. It is equally important to be able to describe any abnormalities. For example, does the plant show wilt, dieback or discoloration; how are symptoms distributed on the plant, and on other plants in the area; which species are affected, and so on.

Inspect the plant(s) closely for webbing, cast skins, excrement, and other signs of insects, as well as for the pest themselves. Many insects, such as aphids, caterpillars and beetles can easily be seen on plants. Others such as maggots are not likely to be seen until damage is done. If these pests have been a problem in the past, preventive measures will be required. Look for moulds, mildews, mushrooms and other spore producing structures; these are the signs of fungi. Look for the presence of a cloudy fluid (bacterial ooze) which might indicate an infectious disease. Generally, damage to leaves cannot be repaired once the plant has been infected.

Don't forget that many pest problems occur out of sight, under the soil surface. You may need to dig up a plant to look for root damage or soil insects.

Bear in mind that weather conditions, site, soil conditions and cultural practices such as chemical use, fertilizer application, and watering practices will also affect plant growth. A greater discussion of such factors is found in the section on abiotic diseases. They must all be considered when making your diagnosis. Often, it is a combination of factors that create the problem. Plants under stress from poor environmental conditions, for example, are more susceptible to infectious diseases and pests.

To identify the problem, turn first to the appropriate commodity section in this manual. Read through the descriptions of pests and diseases for a particular host until one is found which fits the symptoms you have observed. Both the fruits and ornamentals sections have diagnostic keys to help you in this. For each problem listed in this manual, symptoms are described and management options suggested.

When diagnosing the problem, it is important that you not guess. Only the most common pest problems are listed in this publication. If pests or diseases are encountered which do not fit any listed in this publication, consult other references and specialists. If you are unsure of the diagnosis, consult nurseries or garden centres, professional landscapers or a Master Gardener in your area. It is also possible to submit samples of diseases or insects to a commercial laboratory, such as the University of Guelph's Pest Diagnostic Clinic for diagnosis, however there is a fee associated with this service.

Tolerance Levels

Once you know what is causing the problem, you can then decide whether controls are necessary, and if so, how to implement them. In making your decision, remember that some pest damage is normal on garden plants and that minor damage usually will not have a lasting impact on them.

Consider the health of your plant, as a plant that is stressed by other factors will be less able to withstand pest damage than a healthy plant. The timing of the damage will also be important, as plants are often more susceptible to pest damage at certain stages of their development. For example, vegetables are extremely vulnerable to insects, diseases and weed competition as seedlings, but can tolerate some damage later in development, particularly if it is a non-harvestable part. Consider also the location and degree of damage. For example, damage to the outer leaves of a cabbage can be removed, and it may be possible to cut off minor blemishes on tree fruits.

Finally, your available control methods should fit into your decision making. If the method you want to use takes a long time to take effect (for instance some natural enemies) or will only provide partial control, you may want to implement it when pest populations are lower.

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For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: 04 July 2005
Last Reviewed: 01 June 2010