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What's wrong with my plant?

Nanette Londeree
Marin Independent Journal


"What's wrong with my plant?" I can't say how many times I've asked myself that question. Sometimes the answer is simple, like the shade-loving plant that was a deep, dark green when I brought it home and now wears bleached, lima bean green leaves because it got too much sun. Or the big bushy ficus tree that looked great in the dining room for a while until the leaves began to fall like raindrops. The pot I used didn't have a good drainage hole and the overwatering caused the soil to look like lumpy espresso.

Those were the obvious ones.

More often, figuring out what's ailing your plant is not that straightforward. Like a vet determining what's wrong with your cat, it takes some detective work to diagnose plant problems. And in order to heal a sick plant, it's important to correctly identify it so you can diagnose and treat it appropriately.

Diagnosing plant problems is often a difficult task since there can be many different causes. While pests and diseases are often the first thing a gardener may look for, the problem could be something physical such as soil quality, weather conditions or other environmental conditions, a mechanical injury or a combination of problems. The diagnostic process is like detective work - you need to ask a lot of questions, collect and analyze information and identify a potential suspect.

The first thing you need to do is not panic, especially if the suffering plant is a prized one. Rather than methodically trying to determine the cause of the problem, many gardeners follow their knee-jerk reaction and treat symptoms without understanding the cause.

Have you ever responded to droopy leaves on a plant by dumping a bucket of water on it, or tossed a handful of fertilizer on the plant whose leaves are turning yellow, whether it needs it or not? Don't do it! Before treating any malady, it's important to know what the problem is.

If you're not able to find the source of what's ailing your plant, free help is available from the Marin Master Gardener Desk in the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Novato. The Desk, staffed by volunteer Master Gardeners, is at 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, and is open 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Volunteers can help diagnose problems with your lawn, fruit and vegetables, trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals or other landscape plants, even house plants; identify weeds, "mystery plants" or suspect insects; or provide information on Integrated Pest Management. You also can bring your problem plant to one of the upcoming Master Gardener Bilingual Clinics for Sick Plants, offered on July 14, Aug, 11 and Sept. 8 in front of Quezada Market at South Novato Blvd. and Rowland Way in Novato. Master Gardeners and UC staff will be available to answer questions and help diagnose plant problems from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., in English and Spanish.

If you want to ask your questions by phone or e-mail, call 499-4204 or e-mail sickplantclinic@marinmg.org or helpdesk@marinmg.org.

If possible, attach photos to your e-mail relative to your question. You'll get a response either by phone or e-mail, whichever you prefer.

To help the diagnosis, bring a good-sized representative sample that exhibits typical symptoms of the problem. For trees and shrubs, bring a branch sample as long as your forearm or, if you can, bring a couple of samples that are at different stages of symptom expression (early and more advanced stage). Dead specimens are usually not informative.

Turf grass samples should be collected from an area of transition from "good" to "bad" grass. A 6-inch, 2-inch deep square is usually adequate. When practical, houseplants or hanging plants should be brought in their containers.

Plants that you'd like to identify should likewise be as representative as possible. If you suspect poison oak, collect the sample with disposable gloves, place in a sealed plastic bag, and tell us your concerns before we go tearing into the bag to inspect it. A weed or grass sample for identification is best with a flower or seed head present. Insects that are feeding on plants can be left on a piece of their host plant and placed in a plastic bag.

The samples should be as fresh as possible. Collect them soon before leaving for the clinic or store them in a refrigerator until you can bring them in. If there is a delay getting to the clinic, fleshy insects can be preserved in rubbing alcohol while beetles, bugs and butterflies can be placed in a plastic bag and frozen.

Still need help? The Marin Master Gardeners answer public inquiries and provide information on all areas of plant health and gardening practices. If you bring a sample of your ailing plant to the next Clinic for Sick Plants, you'll get some good advice.

The Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension. The group's two books, "Bay Area Gardening" and "Gardening Among Friends," are in local bookstores. For help with sick plants, weeds, bugs, or home and garden pests, the Sick Plant Clinic/Master Gardener Desk is in the UCCE office at 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato 94947. Bring specimens and gardening questions to the office, call the Master Gardener Desk at 499-4204 or e-mail sickplantclinic@marinMG.org or HelpDesk@marinMG.org.