3 Potted Plant Problems – How to Recognize & Fix Them

by Fern on February 5, 2010

in How To,Pests & Problems

Post image for 3 Potted Plant Problems – How to Recognize & Fix Them

I don’t know if you’ve noticed a pattern lately, but on Thursday mornings I have my Master Gardener training class, and I learn such great things that I can’t wait to share them with you all on Friday. Yesterday’s class was about soil, amendments, and fertilizers. The professor teaching the class discussed, among other things, three common signs that there is something off-balance in the potting soil the plant is growing in. The three leaves depicted above show chlorosis, leaf tip burn, and pallor.


You know your plant is suffering from chlorosis when the leaves turn yellow but the veins are still green. It is a serious problem, because it means the plant isn’t producing enough chlorophyll. Without chlorophyll the plant can’t produce food and will eventually die.

Chlorosis can be caused by a number of things:

  • An iron deficiency in the soil
  • Soil that’s pH is so alkaline it is interfering with the roots’ ability to absorb iron
  • Poor drainage
  • Damaged roots

Unless you have been adding lime to your potting soil for some reason (like to change a hydrangea’s flower color), you can probably easily rule out soil pH. And unless you’ve recently ripped off all the plant’s roots, you can probably cross that possibility off the list too.

Poor drainage is easy to diagnose and the most common cause of chlorosis in potted plants. If the soil looks more like sludge than earth, you have a drainage problem or you’re watering too frequently. Let the soil dry out between waterings, or add another drainage hole.

If you’ve ruled out all the other possibilities, then the soil is probably iron deficient. Pick up some chelated iron at your garden center and follow the instructions on the packaging.

Leaf Tip Burn

Especially common in indoor plants, but also occurs on plants growing outdoors is leaf tip burn. It’s when the very tip of the plant starts to die back, or when the edges all the way around the leaves look as if they have been “burned.”

The most common culprit is salt. Salts are used in fertilizers, so if you’re fertilizing too frequently or applying too much at once, salt will build up in the potting soil and show up as burned leaves. You’ll often see white deposits on the soil if you have had a heavy hand with the fertilizer. To remedy the situation, flush the salts out of your potting soil by watering the pot deeply until water flows quickly out of the pot. Allow the soil to dry out and repeat if necessary.

Many cities (and some homeowners) have water softening programs that use salt to soften hard water. Some areas also have naturally high amounts of salt in their water. This salty water is then used on your plants, and voila, too much salt in the soil. If this is the case, by cheap bottled water in a gallon jug and use it to water your plants.

Another thing that I have seen sometimes cause leaves to burn is close proximity to an airconditioning vent. Especially in the winter when the heater is turned on, the constantly blowing air dries out the leaves. The next time you go out to eat, check out their plants near the air vents. I see this problem in restaurants a lot.


Pallor is when leaves lose their color. The difference between pallor and chlorosis is that when a plant is suffering from chlorosis, the veins remain green, with pallor the entire leaf loses it’s green coloring. However, it is equally as problematic as chlorosis, because as was mentioned before, no chlorophyl means no food for the plant.

Assuming that it is not Autumn, and/or your plant is not supposed to drop all of it’s leaves, completely yellow or pale colored leaves means one of two things: the plant is not getting enough light, or it is not getting a nutrient it needs.

  • If all of the leaves are universally pale or yellow (or all of them on one side of the plant), the plant is not getting enough light.
  • If the oldest leaves have become yellow, and it appears that the pallor is moving up the plant, the soil is nitrogen deficient. Look for a fertilizer where the first number is larger than the others.
  • If the youngest leaves are yellow, then the soil is most likely deficient in sulphur, although I have never seen this or heard of it in the context of potted plants.
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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Plant Avenue February 5, 2010 at 6:38 am

Great post – awesome photos too :) Leaf tip burn has been a real problem for me in the past, so I was relieved to learn recently about the soluble salts issue.


Susan February 5, 2010 at 8:35 am

Informative post – I will be starting Master Gardener training in Hawaii County Feb 18th. I am excited and can see from your post that it will be very valuable training!

I live oceanfront and have noticed that my ginger plants are showing leaf burn all around the leaf. They are located on the street side of the house and somewhat protected from the salt spray. Is there anything to counteract the salt other then leaching it from the soils? Mahalo – Susan


Fern February 5, 2010 at 9:56 am

Susan–You can move the salts in your soil down farther to a place where they won’t bother your plant by doing the same thing (watering deeply). I also found these suggestions for seaside gardening, and this PDF with plants suitable for salty soils.

Mary C. February 5, 2010 at 9:34 am

Well I recently figured out pallor with a new houseplant gift. Darn north facing window in my bedroom! Anyway I moved that plant into the bathroom with the skylight and it’s happy now.
Thanks for the info on chlorosis and leaf burn!


Chani February 5, 2010 at 3:00 pm

“Pallor” sounds like something that Victorian ladies would be diagnosed with. :) I have to rig up some plant hangers so that I can put houseplants in my windows. The dining room table (brightest place in the house) is getting too cluttered for any more plants!


melanie watts February 6, 2010 at 11:03 am

Great post very informative.


shari February 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Great post, Fern! Thanks for diagnosing a problem I’ve been having with one of my plants (pallor…I was referring to it as plant malaise). Already this beleaguered plant, which was on the north patio, is looking better since being moved to the south patio despite its plant tag saying it would do well in partial shade. Two days! Amazing.


Evangeline February 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Thanks for this very informative post Fern! I’m doing my research report for Intro to Horticulture on container gardening and will be sure to incorporate some of this knowledge!


AmieD June 2, 2011 at 7:39 am

I’m glad I came across this post. I’m trying to learn to garden and your blog is definitely one of the best resources I’ve found! One of my plants seems to be suffering from leaf tip burn. I haven’t fertilized it, yet; it was just purchased recently and planted in potting mix. I know, however, that water in this region is high in calcium and magnesium.


Fern June 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Thanks Amie, that’s very nice of you to say!

Tasha June 6, 2012 at 10:33 am

I must say: I am a plant killer: not by choice, just by the blessing of a “brown” thumb, if you will. This quick and easy website page offered ALL the information I needed. The pictures are great and the 3 leave situations are exactly what I was seeking answers for…thank you so much. Well written and easy to understand. =)


Ellen July 17, 2012 at 7:41 am

I have a sail plant it was doing great then all of a sudden the leafs started turning black,I haven’t moved or done anything different, it is a big plant really hate to loose it. I have many plants indoor and out never had this problem.


GEORGE PARKER July 21, 2012 at 9:57 am

I’ve got excessive LEAF TIP BURN on my Geraniums, Petunias and Begonias in my hanging baskets following endless salt-FREE rain and now on some of my roses in the border, since I stopped spraying with Rose Clear every other day so I guess salt is NOT the cause but some evil fungus.


Keith Taylor September 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm


With regards to salt based problems in plants, you mentioned something having the plant too close to an AC vent. Could the same hold true if a fan (non-oscillating) is blowing into a plant for 18 hours per day? Moreover, where would the “burning” be most noticeable?

Thanks for the help!!


Laura November 9, 2012 at 10:41 am

I need help, my peace lily looks terrible! This is supposed to be an easy to care for plant and I feel like I’m killing it. The leaves area always not very healthy looking, I don’t know what to do please help!


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