Plants talk to you if you know how to listen

Thursday, October 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Did you know your plants communicate with you? Whether your plants live in the house or are out in your garden, they are talking to you all the time if you know how to listen.

They tell you if they are not getting enough light, too much light, not enough water or too much water, and too much or not enough fertilizer. Plants speak to us using nonverbal communication, but speak they do.

If your plant is not getting enough light, it will indicate this in several ways.

  • No blooms

Generally, plants need more light to flower than just to grow. If your plant has nice deep, dark green foliage but only an occasional flower or no flowers, it probably isn't getting enough light.

  • Small leaves

Does your plant have leaves quite a bit smaller than when you first brought it home? If it's a flowering plant, it could be that the flowers have taken so much energy that the new leaves are stunted, but it might also need light.

  • Rotten roots

Plants in low light don't need as much water. They can't absorb and use the water you're providing, so the roots get soggy and rot. Rotten roots could also be an indication of inadequate drainage.

  • Leaf loss

Plants need a certain amount of light to support their growth. If they don't get it, they'll drop leaves and reduce foliage.

  • Weak, long stretched leaves

This is an indicator that your plant is screaming for more light. It's stretching and reaching for any available light it can get.

  • Growing toward the light

It's natural for plants to grow toward light. Try rotating your plants on a regular basis. Give them a quarter of a turn every week to have a well-rounded plant.

  • Spots on leaves

If your plant has spots on it, that indicates the presence of a disease or insects. Your plant is sick, the same way you would be sick if you broke out in spots.

If we pay attention to our sick plants the way we pay attention to a pet or family member, they will respond and begin to thrive again.

One thing that plants need for sure is room to grow. If your plants look spindly, they are probably trying to escape from a crowded spot. A little thinning out will improve things. Like all living things, plants need air.

All plants also need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If your plants get too much or too little of these important nutrients, they will let you know. A symptom of too much nitrogen is a plant that has a lot of foliage but is not strong. Weak plants can get disease more easily and be bothered more by bugs. When plants don't get enough nitrogen, they have thin, spindly stems, their growth is stunted and the older leaves may turn yellow.

Plants that don't get enough phosphorus have reduced growth and small leaves, and the older leaves turn a bluish green. Leaf edges often turn brown. Plants that don't get enough potassium do not have enough energy to properly grow. Their roots are not well-formed, and they have weak stem and stalks. Plants deficient in potassium are more easily affected by pests, bugs and diseases.

Plants constantly communicate their needs to us. For a fun book about this topic, check out "Stop Talking to your Plants and Listen" by Elvin McDonald.

Barbara Michael has been a Master Gardener since 1993 and serves as the Master Gardeners’ liaison to the Community Garden Coalition, in addition to serving on its board. She enjoys container gardening and houseplants. She can be reached at

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