How to Fix Stunted Growth in Plants – Step-By-Step Tutorial

Taking care of plants is both rewarding and challenging. It’s great to see the fruits of your labor, but it can be downright frustrating when your plants get stunted or diseased.

Stunted plant growth is every plant grower’s pet peeve. Despite nurturing your plants,
There’s still a myriad of factors that can cause their growth impairment.

As a plant grower myself, I have practically done all sorts of remedies to grow my plants faster, but there are times when the plants would simply stop growing.

Pests and crawling creatures tend to eat the leaves and roots away. Cankers and crown galls can weaken the twigs or branches. Waterlogging due to heavy rains or clay-laden soil can choke the plants causing them to get stunted.

And what could be worse than environmental factors like drought and frost? These are factors beyond human control and we can only do so much about it.

There’s a whole bunch of reasons for stunted growth in plants, but the question is: will they ever grow again?

My answer is, yes! But it depends on the severity of the damage.

Some symptoms of stunted growth in plants are treatable, while others are not. The key is to detect early on the causes of growth defects so you can fix or reverse the process before it gets even worse.

In this tutorial, you will learn about the most common causes of plant stunting as well as some proven tips to handle the common growth abnormalities in plants to avoid any further damage.

So, let’s dive right in.

What causes stunted growth in plants

Causes of Stunted Growth

There are many reasons why plants don’t grow the way they should be. These include:

  • Nutritional deficiencies in soil
  • Nutrient burn or over-fertilization
  • Plant diseases caused by fungal, viral, and bacterial organisms.
  • Unbalanced PH in the soil
  • Insects and pests
  • Waterlogged soil
  • Soil high in clay content
  • Weed infestation
  • Environmental stressors

Nutritional Deficiencies in Soil

Poor soil nutrition is one of the major drawbacks that cause stunted plant growth. Plants need a balanced dosage of mineral nutrients to grow effectively.

The University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences enumerated the 17 essential mineral nutrients for plant growth, which are divided into two groups:

  • the macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sulfur, magnesium, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen; and
  • the micronutrients, such as iron, boron, chlorine, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and nickel.

The soil where you intend to grow your plant should contain all these essential nutrients.

Nutrient burn

In contrast, over-fertilization can impede rather than facilitate the growth of your plants. Often an overdose of fertilizer can lead to nutrient burn due to high salt concentrations that are found in most fertilizers.

Nutrient burn is often characterized by yellowing or browning of leaves, curled leaves, and root damage. In this case, your plants may look burnt and withered and watering can no longer revive them

Plant Diseases

The presence of pathogens around your garden can also cause plants to be stunted.  According to Michigan State University, around 85% of plant diseases are caused by fungi or fungi-like organisms. The fungal infection creates powdery mildew, grimy mold, leaf wilting, or root rot in your plants. Other than fungi, viral and bacterial organisms can also destroy your plants.

Brown spots with a yellow halo on the leaves, cankers or crown gall on roots, or twigs are some of the symptoms of bacterial diseases. On the other hand, crinkled or yellow leaves and mosaic leaf patterns are some of the symptoms of viral diseases in plants.

Unbalanced Soil pH

Soil pH is a vital factor in optimum plant growth. It determines the acidity or alkalinity (basicity) of the soil. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14 with pH 7 as the neutral/ normal point.

According to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the soil pH for optimum plant growth varies among plants, but generally, it is within the range of 6.0 to 7.0. Lower than the normal range and the soil tends to be acidic; higher than that and the soil becomes alkaline or basic.

In either case, if the soil pH is too acidic or too basic, plants can’t take the nutrients properly, causing stunted growth. Highly acidic or highly basic pH may also weaken the ability or effectiveness of pesticides to kill undesirable insects that eat your plants away.

Insects and Pests

Some bugs are beneficial for plant health, but a majority of them attack and cause slow growth. Caterpillars and locusts are just popular examples.

Some pests can also kill plants as they feed off the nutrients of the plant, like nematodes, or small threadlike roundworms, which normally feed on plant roots.

Water-logged soil

Waterlogging is a common problem in flood-stricken areas and lands with high clay content. Low levels of oxygen in the roots as a result of waterlogging can hamper plant growth.

When the soil is water-logged, plants drown and lose the capacity to breathe. This mostly affects sprouting seeds and young seedlings.

Soil high in clay content; sandy soil

Clay soils and sandy soils are both frustrating to work with. Compacted clay soil doesn’t fully absorb water during times of heavy rains and can drown and rot your plants. During dry seasons, the soil is unable to retain enough moisture causing your plants to wilt and die.

Sandy soils, on the other hand, can’t store water, leaving plants dry even after a rainfall. Also, they can’t store nutrients that are essential for healthy plant growth and lack microorganisms that protect plants from certain diseases.

Weed infestation

Weeds compete with plants for nutrients, water, and light. Not only do they congest your garden, but they also attract insect pests, thus causing more damage to your plants or crops.

Other environmental stressors

Growth defects in plants can also be attributed to natural environmental factors like temperature extremes, sustained winds, drought, or frost. Plants are vulnerable to any type of extreme weather, so the least we can do is to protect them from such threats. I will elaborate on this one later. 

Bad gardening habits and practices

I bet most of us, at some point, are guilty of some bad gardening practices. Overwatering, insufficient light, excessive fertilization, and practically, not knowing how to grow and sustain your plants contribute a lot to their stunted growth. But we can correct all these things by unlearning our old habits and taking proper action to grow our plants successfully.

Can stunted growth in plants be reversed?

Unless your plants have already sustained irreparable damage, you can still reverse the process. To do so, you must first identify the problem and take the necessary steps to fix it and prevent further damage.

Let’s find out more about these steps.

Steps to Fix Stunted Plant Growth

Steps to Fix Stunted Plant Growth

Now let’s talk more about how you can increase plant growth.

1. Evaluate the Soil

When you observe that your plants are not getting any bigger, you should evaluate the soil you’re using. This means conducting a soil test.

A soil test will determine the health and fertility of the soil. Specifically, this test will examine the soil’s composition: the pH level, the presence (or absence) of the three most essential nutrients, namely nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK), as well as toxic elements that may impact the growth of your plants.

The results from this test will help you correct and improve the physical properties of the soil to make it more favorable for plant growth

Evaluate the Soil
Photo Courtesy: normanack, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What to do:

  • Buy a soil test kit at the nearest garden center in your area. You can use any brand of your choice, as long as it can do the job for you and the results are accurate.
  • You may also consider sending a soil sample to a lab or your local Department of Agriculture if you want more thorough results.

2. Test the soil pH.

With the soil test, you’ll be able to determine the pH level of the soil. As I mentioned earlier, the ideal level of soil pH for plants is generally from 6 to 7, although it differs among plants.

When the results show that soil pH is too low on the pH scale, the soil is too acidic. In this case, nutrients like aluminum and manganese are more available and can be poisonous to your plants while calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium are less available.

On the other hand, if the soil pH level is too high, the soil is too basic. This means the soil lacks phosphorus, a vital macronutrient, and other micronutrients needed for plants to grow healthy.

Either way, too much acidity or alkalinity can be harmful to plants and can also render the soil unproductive.

What to do:

  • For acidic soils: You can correct acidic soils by liming the soil. You can use either powdered or granulated limestone.
  • Add lime according to the recommendations of the pH test.
  • The best season to apply lime is in the fall. This gives the soil a chance to process it before spring planting begins.
  • Spread the lime evenly over the surface of the soil or lawn with a garden spreader.
  • For alkaline soils, you can add gypsum, sulfur, iron sulfate, or aluminum sulfate to neutralize the soil.

3. Apply the correct fertilizer

Plants need fertilizers because most soil doesn’t have the vital nutrients required for optimal growth. While 17 mineral nutrients are essential for plant growth, the three most important are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK).

What to Do:

  • The results from the soil test will show the NPK ratio in pounds. The recommended ratio will be your basis for selecting the right fertilizer. For example, the results recommend 15 lbs N + 5 lbs P + 10 lbs K.
  • Look for a fertilizer with the same ratio of those numbers.
  • Choose from a wide variety of organic and chemical fertilizers, depending on the type of soil you use and the plant you intend to grow
    • Organic fertilizers are more suitable for sandy and clay soils because they are made of natural materials like animal waste and plant-based compost or their by-products. These type of fertilizers  make the soil richer over time, allowing plants to retain the needed moisture (for sandy soil) or absorb nutrients more efficiently (for clay soil)
    • Inorganic or chemically processed fertilizers are more practical to use for certain crops, especially fruit-bearing trees, agricultural or root crops if you want to increase yields in a relatively short period.
  • When applying fertilizer, make sure to read the instructions carefully.
  • Do not over-fertilize your plant to avoid salt injury. How often should fertilizers be applied depends on the type of fertilizers you use and the type of plants you will use them for. For example, houseplants may need fertilizers once a week, while gardening plants, every two to three weeks.

4. Keep soil moist

Each soil type needs different moisture levels.

Sandy soil needs moisture the most because water drains quickly into it. Heavy, compacted clay soil does not need more moisture because it poorly absorbs water and can lead to waterlogging. Loam soil retains moisture best, that’s why it is ideal for most garden plants.

If you live in an area with sandy or clay-laden soils, you’ll need to improve the fertility of the soil to provide a better environment for growing plants.

Keep soil moist

What to Do:

  • For sandy soils: Sandy soil needs frequent irrigation. But if irrigation is not readily available around your area, amending the soil is the next best thing to do to increase its ability to hold water and nutrients.
  • For clay soils: clay soils retain water for a long time, so there’s no need to water them regularly. If the clay soil is too compact, you can use gypsum to loosen it.
  • To amend the soil, use organic materials like well-rotted manure or compost. The common soil amendments generally used for either clay or sandy soils are animal manure, leaf molds, wood chips, grass clippings, or worm casting.
  • You can either spread them on the soil surface or dig these materials into the top six or seven inches of your garden beds.
  • Plant a cover crop. Cover crops act as “green manures” that add organic matter, helping sandy soil retain moisture and clay soil improve drainage
  • Avoid walking on the garden beds as it may harden the soil all over again.
  • Regularly check the soil with a soil moisture meter or by feeling with your fingers.
  • Water the soil only when the top 6-8 inches of soil has begun to feel dry.

5. Protect Plants from environmental destruction

After identifying and sorting out common soil problems, it’s time to treat your plants with much-needed protection from all kinds of threats or destruction, including extreme weather conditions, weed infestation, pest problems, and plant diseases.

What to Do:

In case of severe weather:

  • Cover plants using upturned pots, buckets, or other containers to protect plants from strong winds and heavy rains.
  • Use a heavy row cover like an empty gallon of a plastic jug, or frost blanket to protect rows and beds of smaller plants from storm damage,
  • For bigger plants, like vines and shrubs, wrap them in burlap or any strong fabric and tie with heavy twine. You may also anchor these plants using 2 to 3-foot stakes pounded about 20 inches into the ground.
  • Check the plant’s hardiness to see if it’s compatible with your growing zone.

In case of weed infestation:

  • Manually chop off or pull the weeds out.
  • Because weeds tend to regrow, dig them up by the roots.
  • Plant wheat, clover, and barley, or any such plants that spread quickly to block weeds.
  • Use mulch to cover the soil between your plants and along rows to prevent weeds from growing. Because mulch can be a convenient hiding place for pests and can rot or suffocate plants, keep it about 2 to 4 inches from the base of your plants.

In case of pest problems and plant diseases:

  • Build and maintain healthy soil. Healthy soil produces disease-free plants and provides a home to friendly insects
  • Spray plants with natural pesticides. An example is salt spray or onion and garlic spray. They cause less harm to humans and the environment and cost less than chemicals.
  • Sow a variety of plants in the same area. A garden with only one kind of plant will attract pests that eat on such a plant.
  • Find out the best time to plant. Some plants are best sown in the early morning when the weather is not hot, or in the evening when the pests and diseases die out due to lack of food.
  • Space your plants properly. Diseases tend to spread quickly if plants are sown too close to one another. Correct plant spacing not only reduces the risk of diseases but also encourages larger and healthier plants.

Plant conservation and other gardening tips

Now that you have pretty much learned how to fix stunted growth in plants, you’ll have to keep doing what is necessary to ensure and sustain the healthy growth of your plants.  Here are some more gardening tips to follow:

  • Protecting plant roots: Avoid hurting plant roots through plowing, tilling, or walking on the soil
  • Seeds and transplants: Use high-quality seed and transplants. Before buying seedlings or transplants, make sure to inspect them thoroughly, especially the roots. Plants with gray or brown roots are dying and can’t be revived anymore.
  • Watering tips: Water plants only when necessary. Focus on the root zone. Use a soaker hose or a drip irrigation system instead of a sprinkler for efficient watering on the root zone. Early morning is the best time of the day to water your plants.
  • Lighting: Determine the type of light your plant needs. Some plants thrive under ”bright light” or direct sunlight, while others can survive under low light by placing them indoors.
  • Light distance: Provide adequate distance between the plant and the lights. When using grow lights for your indoor garden, make sure that your plants receive enough energy to grow quickly under such conditions.
  • Soil temperature: Because different plants germinate at different temperatures, it is important to check soil temperature before planting. Bury a soil thermometer into the ground and take your measurement at the recommended planting depth, usually within 5-6 inches deep, in case of a mixed garden.
  • Raised garden beds: One way to improve the soil drainage is to raise the planting bed. To do this, you first remove the existing plants and then add compost underneath the planting bed. Alternatively, you can buy at your local garden shop a well-drained topsoil mix to help improve the soil properties.

Conclusion

Fixing the stunted growth in your plants can be overwhelming, especially because each plant has different responses to various environmental changes and other conditions affecting its growth. That’s why it is important to arm yourself with the right knowledge to help you detect as early as possible the reasons for stunted plant growth and to take prompt action to reverse the symptoms and avoid causing any more damage to your plants.

Nicolas Wayne

Gardening and lawn care enthusiast

Nicolaslawn
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