Plant Problem Troubleshooting Guide–Part One

I thought it might be helpful to go through a thorough way of examining a plant to determine what a specific plant problem is. This guide is broken into three parts:

 I highly recommend that you check out Parts One and Two before digging in to Part Three–There are questions that were asked previously that get built upon in this segment, and the whole thing will make much more sense. 

For part 2, see here.

For part 3, see here.

For solutions to plant problems, see here.  (You will need to scroll down to the bottom of the page.)


These are the types of questions that Master Gardeners will ask you when you ask them a question at an Answer Clinic, or take a plant sample into the office for help with a plant problem. They all start with simple observations of specific areas, and really anyone can learn to do this. So let’s start.

1. Is the plant located on a commercial property, at a commercial nursery, or in a home garden or landscape? (Some plant problems are more closely associated to certain locales than others.)

2. What type of plant is it? Options include:

  • broadleaf tree
  • flower
  • tree fruit
  • small fruit
  • shrub/vine
  • ground cover
  • conifer
  • vegetable

(Again, certain plant problems are more closely associated with particular plant types.)

3.   What is the name of the plant and the variety?  (It is a good idea to keep your plant labels, or at least a list of the plants that you grow, for answering this type of question.  Certain plants are more prone to particular problems, so knowing the name is helpful.)

4.  How old is the plant?  (Some plant diseases and pests go after young seedlings, while others affect mature plants.)

5.  When was the plant planted in this location?

6.  What is the size of the plant–approximate size (height and/or width)?

7.  Try to describe what the problem is.  (This can be broken down into several areas.  The first area are patterns that the plant problem might take.)


           A.    On the affected plant:

  • The pattern of damage started at bottom of plant and moves up?
  • entire plant is affected?
  • damage only on one side? Which side–north, south, east or west?
  • started at the top and moves down?
  • damaged only on tips of branches?
  • damaged only on inside branches?

          B.  In the landscape or planting:

  • Is the pattern of damage such that only scattered plants affected?
  • only one plant affected?
  • several plants in a row affected?
  • all similar plants affected?

Now, with this specific information about patterns of plant damage . . .

8.  Illustrate or describe the pattern of damage in a sentence or two or in a little quick sketch.


There will be further posts in this series in the days to come, so stay tuned!

I’d love your comments to know if you find this type of post helpful to you?  Are there any specific plant issues that you are dealing with that could be the basis for a post?  Let me know.

Please stop on by the Tuesday Garden Party–much fun and glorious gardens to see!



  1. zentMRS said,

    July 27, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    This is fantastic information! I never know quite how to figure out what is wrong – I can usually tell that *something* is wrong though. 😉 Thanks for sharing!!

    • minervasgardenwriter said,

      July 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      You are welcome!

  2. Lexa said,

    July 27, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Great post! As someone who has one very diseased tomato plant on her hands, it is very useful to know what information to pull together before I drop in on the extention folks. BTW, I just LOVE your cat statue!

    • minervasgardenwriter said,

      July 27, 2010 at 10:50 pm

      I wish you good luck with your tomato plant–it is so frustrating when you have such high hopes for your plants to produce well, but your local extension agent might have some helpful ideas. The cat statue I picked up at a plant sale where they also sold garden art several years ago. We are cat people, and so I thought I’d pay tribute to them out in the garden, too!

  3. July 28, 2010 at 3:45 am

    Love that photo! The kitty is very cute!

    • minervasgardenwriter said,

      July 28, 2010 at 7:52 am

      I always liked her, too. We have several very plump cats, and so it kinda reminds me of them!

  4. Toni said,

    July 28, 2010 at 11:21 am

    What a lovely blog! Thank you for all of the wonderful information. Actually, I do have two issues I’m dealing with right now: One is that darn Tomato Bacterial Speck and the other is Sumac. Little Sumac plants keep popping up all over my yard. We don’t know how to tell the difference between regular and poison. Since my husband is severely allergic, I have to keep going around removing them. Maybe a post on poison and non poison plants? (I live in NW Indiana, BTW.)

    • minervasgardenwriter said,

      July 28, 2010 at 3:30 pm

      I garden in the Pacific Northwest, Garden Zone 8, and have not had experience with either issues you mention, so I will have to do some research and see what I can come up with. In the meantime, here is a link to Cornell University’s plant pathology dept., where they discuss Tomato Bacterial Speck.

      Their tips, which make sense to do with any plants having bacterial disease issues, is to rotate your crops each season, plant disease-resistant varieties, good weed control, good sanitation–in other words, throw any diseased plant parts into the trash can rather than composting them, which can spread the disease around your garden– and good air circulation around the plants–bacteria like wet areas.

      I’ll see what I can find out about Sumac.

    • minervasgardenwriter said,

      July 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

      I found this link re: identification of poison sumac vs. regular sumac:

      The article has lots of helpful pictures for identification.
      The good news is that poison sumac is pretty rare, so probably what you have is regular sumac growing in your yard.

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