Why Plant Leaves Turn Yellow and How to Fix Them

From living rooms to landscapes, plants with rich green leaves brighten your day and beautify your world. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, plant leaves turn yellow. Known as chlorosis, yellowing occurs when something interferes with your plant’s chlorophyll, that’s the plant pigment behind its beautiful green color. The good news is that yellow leaves let you know that the plants need help. By reading the signs and taking the proper steps, you can remedy yellow leaves and prevent their return.

Most yellow leaves can be traced back to one of these problems:

Reading: My plant is turning yellow

  • poor drainage or inadequate irrigation
  • root damage or compacted roots
  • inadequate soil ph
  • lack of adequate nutrients

Why Plant Leaves Turn Yellow and How to Fix Them

Yellow patterns on chlorotic leaves provide clues to nutrient deficiencies.

bad drainage or inadequate irrigation

Water problems, either too much or too little, are the main reason behind yellow leaves. in soils that are too wet, the roots cannot breathe. they suffocate, go out and stop supplying the water and nutrients that plants need. lack of water, or drought, has a similar effect. with too little water, plants cannot absorb essential nutrients. result yellow leaves.

To solve or prevent water problems, start with a porous soil that drains well. if growing in containers, choose pots with good drainage holes and keep saucers free from excess water. In your landscape, avoid planting where rainwater or irrigation collects. Incorporate organic matter, such as compost, into your soil to improve soil structure and drainage.

Before watering, “finger test” the soil. insert your index finger a few inches into the ground. As a general rule, water only when the soil feels dry. then water thoroughly and deeply. if the soil feels cool and moist, wait a few days. always let the soil dry out a bit before watering again.

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damaged roots or compacted roots

Root damage occurs in many ways, from rogue shovels to root rot and other diseases. once damaged, the roots can have a hard time delivering what your plant needs. When container plants outgrow their pots, compacted roots result. Outdoors, compacted landscape soil inhibits the movement of water, oxygen, and nutrients. in these cases, the roots cannot function properly and the problems manifest as yellow leaves.

To check containers for damaged or compacted roots, gently slide the plant out of the pot. (You will also see soil moisture up close.) the roots of healthy plants are whitish-yellow. dark, rotten roots smell bad. if the roots are rotten and diseased, it’s time to consider a new plant. if compaction is the problem, prune off diseased roots, gently loosen roots, and replant in a larger container with well-draining soil.

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With landscape plants, improve soil compaction by aerating your lawn. incorporate organic matter and organic mulch into your planting sites. Garden plaster can also improve soil compaction, especially in heavy clay soils, and help keep leaves green.

Why Plant Leaves Turn Yellow and How to Fix Them

Improper soil pH can cause nutrient deficiencies and yellow leaves.

inadequate soil pH

If you are growing plants in pots and feeding them regularly with premium plant fertilizers, the pH of the soil is probably not the cause of yellow leaves on your plant. But if your problem with leaves is centered around garden plants, soil pH may be the key.

Soil pH influences plant access to nutrients. Nutrient availability changes as soil pH moves up or down the pH scale. Most plants, including grasses, do best with a soil pH in the neutral to slightly acidic range, about 6.0 to 7.0. “acid-loving plants” such as rhododendrons and blueberries prefer soil near 4.5 to 6.0 ph.

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When soil pH drifts below or above a plant’s optimal range, some nutrients become less available to the plant. Even though the nutrients are present, the plants can’t absorb them, even from the fertilizers you add. leaves turn yellow until ph problems are fixed.

A simple soil test identifies the pH of the soil and provides other important information. Most testing labs also give recommendations for soil amendments to restore pH balance. once that happens, nutrients become available again and green leaves return to normal.

Why Plant Leaves Turn Yellow and How to Fix Them

Improper watering is a leading cause of yellow, wilting foliage.

lack of adequate nutrients

When yellow leaves appear where soil pH is ideal, a true nutrient deficiency may exist. some nutrients are highly mobile. nitrogen, for example, moves easily through the soil and leaches out. Unless soil nitrogen is regularly replaced by fertilizer applications, nitrogen deficiencies cause grass and plant leaves to turn yellow or pale green.

If you suspect nutrient deficiencies, proper fertilization and premium plant foods can help. your local county extension agent can also shed light on the specific nutrients involved. identifying which leaves turn yellow first and how the yellowing begins provides clues to common deficiencies1 such as these:

  • nitrogen deficiency manifests as a generalized yellowish coloration. the oldest inner leaves turn yellow first. as it progresses, the yellowing moves outwards, eventually reaching the young leaves as well.
  • potassium deficiency manifests itself when the edges of the leaves turn bright yellow, but the inside of the leaf remains green. older leaves show symptoms first and leaf margins soon turn brown.
  • magnesium deficiency begins as yellow spots between leaf veins on leaves older. the veins remain green as the yellow moves from the center of the leaf outwards. the edges of the leaves turn yellow at the end.
  • iron deficiency also manifests as yellowing between the leaf veins, but affects young leaves first in the tops of plants and the tips of branches.
  • sulfur deficiency starts with the newest leaves and turns them yellow all over.
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Relationships between nutrients in the soil and in plants are complex. for example, low potassium can make iron less available.2 however, excess potassium binds calcium, magnesium, and nitrogen, leading to deficiencies of those nutrients.1 that makes proper fertilization with reliable, premium plant foods is crucial to keeping your plant free of yellow leaves.

pennington ultragreen all purpose plant food 10-10-10 provides an ideal blend of essential primary nutrients plus secondary and micronutrients needed by healthy, green plants. For acid-loving plants, Pennington UltraGreen Azalea, Camellia & Rhododendron 10-8-6 Plant Food provides essential nutrients with additional micronutrients in forms that remain more available when soil pH is less than ideal. when magnesium or sulfur is lacking, pennington epsom salt corrects yellow leaves. And when low iron is the problem, ironite plus 12-10-10 combats deficiencies and helps keep plants green.

At pennington, we understand how important healthy, vibrant green plants can be. We’re committed to bringing you the best lawn and garden products and helping you keep yellow leaves at bay. let us help you learn and grow so you can enjoy the plants that brighten your day.

Always read product labels carefully and follow directions.

pennington is a registered trademark of pennington seed, inc.

ultragreen is a registered trademark of central garden & pet company.


1. integrated pest management from the university of missouri, “diagnosing nutrient deficiencies”.

2. illinois extension, “yellow leaves can indicate plant problems.”

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