nutrient deficiency symptoms on hot pepper leaves
  • Crop management

Nutrient Deficiencies In Plants: How To Identify & Treat

Nutrient deficiency is the main cause of stunted plant growth often leading to complete crop losses. Nonetheless, crop starvation for micro or macronutrients can be diagnosed visually, and prompt identification will save the affected yields.

Frequent visual symptoms of nutrient deficiency in plants comprise malformation, discoloration, dotting, crinkling, and even necrosis. When a visual examination is not feasible, satellite monitoring is another convenient way of preliminary nutrient deficiency diagnostics. Manifestations of different elements’ undersupply can be similar, so it is critical to understand which one is lacking and provide it on time.

What Is A Nutrient Deficiency In Plants?

The term implies limited access to vital chemical elements causing deviations in crop development. It happens because vegetation needs certain chemical elements at different crop phenological stage in certain volumes. For proper vegetation development, the chemicals and their volumes should be balanced correctly.

What Nutrients Do Crops Need And Why?

There are primary (major) and secondary (minor) chemical elements vital for crops. We refer to a nutrient deficiency if vegetation is starving for any of them.

The primary chemical elements are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), alongside calcium (Ca). sulfur (S) or magnesium (Mg). These chemicals support ultimate vegetation needs. The biggest volumes are included in the fertilizers of the N-P-K group. Besides, vegetation requires minor volumes of copper (Cu), iron (Fe), molybdenum (Mo), zinc (Zn), boron (B), manganese (Mn), etc.

tomato leaf suffering from nutrient deficiency

What Causes A Nutrient Deficiency In Plants

Vegetation’s nutrient starvation frequently happens due to a lack of chemicals in poor soils. However, crops may be unable to absorb the required chemicals even when the soils are rich. In particular, it happens due to soil salinization, a serious cause of nutrient deficiency in plants.

Besides, the ability to uptake nutrients depends on the vegetation state and crop production environment. Thus, nutrient transportation will be impaired due to:

  • damaged or undeveloped roots;
  • insufficient or excessive irrigation;
  • poor drainage;
  • improper pH rates.

Another important issue to consider is the crop’s need for specific chemicals at certain phenological stages. Thus, crop producers must address nitrogen nutrient deficiency causing the plant to be pale-green during the phase of active growth. However, at the blooming and fruiting time, crops require K and P for seed and fruit formation. So, K and P deficiency control will be relevant.

How To Identify A Nutrient Deficiency In Plants?

Detection starts with field inspection for crop growth failures. Further, one needs to exclude abnormal conditions with similar signs and provide the crop with the corresponding element.

Plant nutrient deficiency identification comprises the following methods:

  • visual examination to exclude pest attacks and crop diseases due to biotic stresses;
  • consideration of a possible impact of unfavorable growth environment (abiotic stresses);
  • in-field and remote EOSDA Crop Monitoring for the signs of nutrient deficiency;
  • soil testing for chemical content, pH and electrical conductivity (EC), salinity, etc.
When identifying common plant nutrient deficiencies, analyze the affected parts (older or newer foliage, or the whole plant). This way, you will find out if the crops suffer from a deficiency of immobile or mobile chemical elements .
consequences of nutrient deficiency on winter wheat leaf

What Are The Symptoms Of A Nutrient Deficiency In Plants?

Visually, vegetation’s nutrient starvation is diagnosed through slow development and discolored or malformed foliage. Nitrogen starvation is the most common nutrient deficiency in plants, but they may lack several chemicals at a time.

Primary and secondary chemical elements are macro and micronutrients correspondingly. Their differentiating feature is the volumes that crops need. Each element plays a specific role in crop growth at a certain stage. Let’s consider what happens due to this or that element’s undersupplies.

Plant Symptoms Of A Nutrient Deficiency In Macroelements

If vegetation suffers from a poor supply of N, P, K, and Mg, it can be understood through visual symptoms in mature foliage. A lack of Ca or S manifests first on newer leaves.

Nitrogen (N)

Because N provides green vegetation color thanks to the chlorophyll pigment, the main signs of nutrient deficiency in plants are pale-green newer and yellowish mature leaves. Unchecked early signs develop into poor secondary shooting, purple stem striping, crop thinning, or stunting. A V-shaped yellowing or glossy kernels are specific signs of N deficiency in corn. Rice manifests poor canopy production and tillering.

Phosphorus (P)

Crops need phosphorus to build proteins, buds, seeds, and blooms. A typical signal of phosphorus nutrient deficiency in plants is bronzish, purplish, or reddish coloring in the lower parts of mature foliage. Sometimes, severe starvation results in brownish dotting and necrosis. P deficiency in grain crops (e.g., wheat) results in poor tillering.

Potassium (K)

Using K, crops resist diseases and make sugars to synthesize proteins, duplicate cells, or develop roots. Potassium nutrient deficiency in plants reveals irreparable leaf-margin yellowing, rotting, scorching, crinkling, curling, shrinking, and necrosis of midribs.

Sulfur (S)

Sulfuric nutrition promotes nitrogen use and the creation of chlorophyll and proteins. Pale-green to dark-yellow new foliage is a common plant nutrient deficiency symptom because of S undersupply. In some crops (e.g., canola), foliage may roll and turn purplish.

Plant nutrient deficiencies for N or S are diagnosed by similar signs of yellowing, so it is critical to notice if the problem starts on newer or mature leaves.

Calcium (Ca)

This chemical assists in forming new cells. For this reason, weak growth points are a distinguishing symptom of Ca nutrient deficiency in a plant:

  • tip burns;
  • malformation of newly-grown parts;
  • blossom-end rots;
  • flower drops;
  • small fruits.

Magnesium (Mg)

Alongside other elements, crops require Mg for chlorophyll. Thus, Mg undersupply also affects crop coloration. Frequent signs of Mg nutrient deficiency are deep-green leaf veins, yellowish sections (later necrotic), small and dropping lower leaves.

How long does it take for the plant to start recovering from a nutrient deficiency?

Recovery is supposed to start in nearly a week. Vegetation’s ability to recover depends on its techniques to survive under nutrient deficiency and starvation persistence – the damage is irrevocable at times.

yellowing of soybean leaves

Signs Of Nutrient Deficiencies In Plants For Microelements

Vegetation utilizes microelements in minor doses, yet even such amounts still matter for healthy growth. Their lack can be understood through visual symptoms starting on new or mature leaves. Suffering new foliage is typical for Fe, Zn, B, Mn, or Cu undersupplies. Signs of insufficient amounts of Mo begin on mature leaves.

Copper (Cu)

This element boosts multiple vegetation activities, from photosynthesis to breathing. Cu starvation is clear through yellowing and necrosis, foliage wilting, poor flowering, impaired development, etc. A recognizable sign is blue-greenish foliage in some types of crops (e.g., vegetables and corn).

Cu is responsible for seed production, so its lack will result in small grains  leading to yield loss.

Iron (Fe)

Vegetation uses Fe to make enzymes and proteins, so its lack will impact growth. Pale-green, yellowish or whitish leaves with necrotic dots signal Fe nutrient deficiency in plants. Upper foliage whitening because of Fe undersupply is typical for cotton.

Molybdenum (Mo)

Mo participates in converting nitrogen to ammonia (nitrogen fixation), so small doses of this chemical in fields are vital. Mo nutrient deficiency in crops is diagnosed through yellowish margins and pale-green centers of mature leaves. Molybdenum-starving soybeans are pale-green. Uncorrected damage progresses to necrosis.

Because Mo is critical for nitrogen fixation, its undersupply causes N deficiency in crops.

Zinc (Zn)

Alongside other elements, zinc boosts vegetation growth. Crops signal Zn deficiency through:

  • small, chlorotic, bronze, or spotty newer foliage;
  • impaired shooting;
  • yellowing.

White buds are peculiar signs of Zn deficiency in corn.

Manganese (Mn)

Vegetation requires Mn supplies for multiple purposes, e.g., cell duplication, building chlorophyll, or breathing. Effects of a nutrient deficiency in plants for Mn comprise a tiny size, poor rooting and shooting, yellowish fragments in-between veins, and dark or necrotic dots.

Boron (B)

Supplied as borate, B is utilized for cell duplication, proper water use, and movement of sugars. A recognizable sign of boron starvation is the so-called “witches’ broom” due to abnormal side shooting. Such a bushy or “rosette” appearance is common for alfalfa or carinata. Other signs are deformed, tiny, fragile, and sometimes rusty newer leaves. Mature foliage turns shiny and deep-green.

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How To Prevent And Treat Nutrient Deficiency In Plants

Leaf spraying or adding the lacking chemical to the rhizome are typical options. If absorption of the required nutrient is impossible due to certain field conditions, the issue should be diagnosed via soil testing and accordingly addressed.

Applying fertilizer mixers may lead to undesirably high concentrations of other components. To avoid nutrient imbalance and toxicity, it is preferable to practice one-element (mono-nutrient) supplies.
Prevention and treatment for nutrient deficiency in crops depending on element
Nutrient Prevention & treatment measures
Nitrogen (N) Application of N-containing chemicals is a short-term industrial method of nitrogen fixation. Use organic matter, semi-liquid animal and green manure, blood meal, N-fixing crops in plant nutrient deficiency long-term solutions.
Phosphorus (P) Replenish phosphorus undersupply with bone meal, superphosphate, or phosphoric acid.
Potassium (K) Compensate for K deficiency with sulfate/muriate of potash, potassium nitrate, or potassium hydroxide. Take wood ash, seaweed, kelp, or chicken manure in organic farming.
Calcium (Ca) Use calcium nitrate, lime, gypsum, or crushed eggshells as sources of Ca for crops.
Magnesium (Mg) Spray crop leaves with Epsom salts  for a plant nutrient deficiency short-term solution. Add dolomite (dolomitic limestone) to enrich the earth with Mg in the long run. Organic additives are composted turkey or cow manure.
Sulfur (S) Choose sulfate of potash, kieserite, or magnesium/ammonium sulfate. Mind the presence of other elements in the compounds. Composted mushrooms are a popular method to address an S deficiency in organic farming.
Iron (Fe) Correct Fe nutrient deficiency in plants by spraying damaged leaves with diluted ferrous sulfate for quick results. Iron chelate compounds (EDDHSA or EDTA) help solve the problem for a longer time.
Zinc (Zn) Treat the damaged leaves with zinc sulfate/chelate.
Boron (B) Fix B nutrient deficiency with diluted borax or boric acid.
Copper (Cu) Opt for copper sulfate dilution as a leaf spray.
Manganese (Mn) Get manganese sulfate/chelate for plant leaves treatment.
Molybdenum (Mo) Feed your crops’ leaves with molybdenum-containing additives.
Opting for ways to fix nutrient deficiencies, consider the correct proportions and chemical combinations to avoid fertilizer burns in your crops.

Satellite Technologies For Plant Nutrient Deficiency Identification And Treatment

Despite satellite technologies cannot detect the exact type of nutrient deficiency, they can definitely tell if the crop is experiencing stress. Using various vegetation indices on our platform, you will easily spot that stress and start analyzing the cause. As timely identification of crop nutrient deficiency is critical, especially in the case of macronutrient starvation, EOSDA Crop Monitoring acts as a preventive alarm.

ReCl index map on EOSDA Crop Monitoring
ReCl index map of a cumin field with problem areas.

When the problem is identified, it’s time to fix it by an application of a lacking fertilizer. This process is often tricky as everyone wants to reduce fertilizer waste. That’s when a variable rate fertilizer application turns handy. EOSDA Crop Monitoring productivity mapping divides the field into specific zones, where each zone requires a different amount of additional chemical elements. Such zoning precisely treats each field area depending on its needs, which saves resources. Moreover, it reduces environmental pollution, making food production and agriculture more sustainable.

productivity map of a cumin field on EOSDA Crop Monitoring
Productivity map of a cumin field.

Weather forecasting is another important feature of EOSDA Crop Monitoring that facilitates efficient treatment for nutrient deficiency in plants. Knowing the upcoming weather, you can avoid undesired fertilizer leaching and choose the most favorable day for fertilization with the best results.

EOSDA Crop Monitoring can provide many other valuable features. Reach out to our sales team at for more details and expert consultation. All in all, nutrient deficiency threatens crops and negatively impacts their growth. If nutrient starvation persists, there’s a risk of yield losses. So, it’s critical to understand the nutrient deficiency in plants promptly and address it with adequate supplies. Satellite-based field monitoring helps do it on time and apply fertilizers rationally.

About the author:

Vasyl Cherlinka Scientist at EOS Data Analytics

Vasyl Cherlinka has over 30 years of experience in agronomy and pedology (soil science). He is a Doctor of Biosciences with a specialization in soil science.

Dr. Cherlinka attended the engineering college in Ukraine (1989-1993), went on to deepen his expertise in agrochemistry and agronomy in the Chernivtsi National University in the specialty, “Agrochemistry and soil science”.

In 2001, he successfully defended a thesis, “Substantiation of Agroecological Conformity of Models of Soil Fertility and its Factors to the Requirements of Field Cultures” and obtained the degree of Biosciences Candidate with a special emphasis on soil science from the NSC “Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry Research named after O.N. Sokolovsky”.

In 2019, Dr. Cherlinka successfully defended a thesis, “Digital Elevation Models in Soil Science: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations and Practical Use” and obtained the Sc.D. in Biosciences with a specialization in soil science.

Vasyl is married, has two children (son and daughter). He has a lifelong passion for sports (he’s a candidate for Master of Sports of Ukraine in powerlifting and has even taken part in Strongman competitions).

Since 2018, Dr. Cherlinka has been advising EOSDA on problems in soil science, agronomy, and agrochemistry.

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