Frost Banner for abiotic plant problems, picture of plant with frost crystals on it for Anne of Green Gardens

Abiotic or other plant problems are those not caused by living factors like side insect and animal pests, and weeds and diseases.

What is an Abiotic Factor?

“Abiotic” means without life, so abiotic plant problems are damage symptoms caused by non-living factors like weather, chemicals, nutrient deficiencies, etc.

The most common abiotic plant problem in a garden is over watering. Often gardeners aren’t sure how much water to give a plant, so they err on the side of giving too much water. Symptoms of overwatering are yellowing leaves that start at the base of the plant and then spread to the rest of the plant, leaf drop and finally, plant death.

Sometimes gardeners are fooled into thinking their plant is dying from a mysterious disease, and that the plant needs more water. However, plant roots need air as well as water, and letting the soil dry out slightly in between watering is best for most plants. (However, now that drought has become a problem in so many places, overwatering may become a thing of the past).

Examples of Abiotic Problems

Weather-related abiotic problems could be wind damage causing tattered leaves, hail damage which may cause holes in leaves, and frost damage which can kill entire plants or just the new growth depending on the temperature.

Abiotic damage from chemicals could be oddly curling leaves and/or distorted branches. To diagnose a plant problem of this type, it helps to think back about something you, your neighbor, or a landscaper may have done in or near your yard such as spraying or applying a systemic pesticide.

Other abiotic factors include an imbalance of nutrients in the soil, mechanical damage from tools used for landscaping and overuse of fertilizers or pesticides.

Diagnosing the Problem

Walking through your garden frequently is a great way to catch problems before they become serious. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the various pests and diseases and to diagnose whether they may be some other kind of problem. In closing, it can be very difficult for most gardeners to diagnose plant problems, so if your research leaves you feeling puzzled, contact your local Cooperative Extension Office Master Gardeners or a local nursery professional.