Plants are one of the most diverse organisms on the planet, with many species capable of enduring even the most extreme situations. However, this diversity is also why millions of gardeners can grow different plants in different climates and regions. Still, it’s not uncommon for some gardeners to find dead plants in specific areas of their gardens, leaving them puzzled and clueless about how to fix the problem.
Your plants keep dying in the same spot for one of the following reasons:
- Living or dead roots in the soil
- Poor water retention or drainage
- Too much or too little exposure to sunlight
- Poor soil type or condition
- Diseased soil
In the rest of this article, I’ll dive into these causes in greater detail and explain what you can do to solve the problem. This article will also present best practices to guarantee optimal plant health in every garden you start or keep. Let’s get started!
Reasons Why Your Plants Keep Dying in the Same Spot
Although the main culprit when there’s a problematic patch in your garden is troublesome soil, there are still quite a few other possibilities.
Here are some of the most likely reasons why your plants keep dying in the same spot:
1. Living or Dead Roots in the Soil
Plants follow the same basic laws as all living organisms. Therefore, they die at some point. Although it might hurt to see, a few dead plants usually aren’t a cause for concern if they’ve lived out their life cycle.
However, roots left behind by dead or poorly uprooted plants can cause problems in the soil with time, even if they’re not attached to a living plant.
Here are some risks of growing plants in soil with old roots:
Competition for Moisture and Nutrients
These roots can still draw lots of nutrients from the soil—a mostly harmless process, except for when it starts to affect your garden.
By drawing these moisture and nutrients, these roots may unwittingly become competitors in your garden and keep your new plants from thriving. Naturally, this process results in a situation where the unattached roots will be directly responsible for plant death—usually in a concentrated area.
Nutrient Imbalance from Decomposition
Like every other part of the plant, roots will slowly undergo decomposition after dying. This decomposition process is typically facilitated by microbes and draws critters like earthworms and bacteria, which is often beneficial to your other plants.
These organisms decompose the dead roots and other organic matter in the soil, releasing energy as a byproduct. Regardless of the source of the organic matter, decomposers typically release one or more compounds as waste.
These compounds are usually rich in nitrogen, but it’s not uncommon to have other compounds in the soil during decomposition. Small amounts of these compounds aren’t dangerous to plants and animals. In fact, they provide the soil with more nutrients necessary for successful gardens.
However, large concentrations can lead to stunted growth, resulting in wilted or dead shoots and leaves. Excessive amounts of this usually give you a problem similar to overfertilization, where the nutrient imbalance in your soil can stunt plant growth.
Spread of Diseases
If the spot previously housed sick or diseased plants and their roots are left behind, the infection may persist in the old roots and infect the new plants you grow in it.
As the old roots die or decompose, most disease-causing bacteria will remain dormant in the soil and wait for living plants to occupy the spot. Once the roots of the new plant get cuts or wounds from parasitic or physical damage, the bacteria can enter and multiply, causing disease to the new plant.
How to Fix
Here’s how you can fix the problem:
- The first thing you need to do is move any surviving plants to a different spot in your garden to stop them from dying completely.
- Properly inspect the spot for any sign of a root system. Remember that some roots go deeper than others, so you may need to dig a few meters deep.
- When you find roots, do not hesitate to take them out of the soil. Ensure you get everything out.
- Measure your soil pH level changes, and treat as required. If the soil is too acidic, raise its pH with additions like dolomite or lime. For alkaline soil, opt for elemental sulfur or acidic compost.
2. Poor Water Retention or Drainage
Water is essential for all plants, and they need it to survive. It provides structure to your plant’s cells and outer body and also helps the plants grow and perform photosynthesis a lot easier. However, too much or too little water may cause your plants to die.
Inadequate Water-Holding Capacity
Too little water in a particular spot in your garden might mean that all the seeds you try to grow there may fail to sprout into seedlings. And even if they do, they might not grow for more than a few days.
Your plant’s leaves and stem will turn brown and curl up if it doesn’t get water for a while. Ultimately, the plant will die if the problem persists. While some drought-tolerant plants can survive without water for several weeks, many garden plants cannot.
This usually happens if the spot receives too much sun that dries the soil up rapidly. It’s also possible if the soil is too porous that water just drains too quickly without giving your plant’s roots enough time to absorb the moisture.
Similarly, overwatering may also lead to the same problem. In fact, it’s one of the leading reasons for plant death. If you grow your plant in soil that has retained too much water, its roots may struggle to absorb the life-saving oxygen they need to breathe and thrive.
If the ground is lower than the other areas of your garden, water can pool in it, leaving you a spot that is always wet. Plants grown in such a spot can die rather quickly unless they’re a species that thrives in swamp-like conditions.
Overwatering can also cause mildew, mold, and fungi to grow at alarming rates, infecting nearby plants and killing them. When you dig up an overwatered plant’s root, there is usually a slight chance you might find root rot symptoms.
I recommend you examine a plant’s leaves to check for symptoms if you suspect you might have overwatered it. More often than not, overwatered plants will have yellow, limp leaves that may show water-soaked spots.
How to Fix
To fix the problem, you’ll first need to check your soil texture.
If you suspect poor water-holding capacity, check the soil 1-2 days after watering deeply. If it is dry more than 2 inches (5 cm) deep, it means there’s excessive drainage.
In order to improve water retention, work 2-3 inches (5-7.6 cm) of compost into the top 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) of the soil. This will hold more water within the root zone of your new plant. You can also apply 2 inches (5 cm) of mulch after placing your new plant in the amended spot.
On the other hand, you’ll know that the soil has poor drainage if it feels squishy under your foot even if it’s been 3-5 days after your last watering session. You can usually fix this by working sand evenly into the topsoil.
However, if the issue is that the spot is in a low-lying area, you can select plants that thrive in swampy environments because they’ll have better chances of growing there. One excellent example is the marsh marigold, which can attract pollinators to your garden in spring.
After amending the soil, remember to water your plant only if necessary. It also helps to check credible sources for your plant’s water requirements. While some plants relish water and can thrive in generous amounts, others may drown and die.
3. Too Much or Too Little Exposure to Sunlight
Sunlight is an essential resource for all plants. Many plants will die in your garden without it. Unsurprisingly, sunlight overexposure and underexposure are usually the reason for plant death in many gardens.
Plants can’t perform photosynthesis if you don’t expose them to sunlight. The process allows plants to create food and metabolize nutrients from carbon dioxide and water. Plants that cannot photosynthesize will eventually die.
While all green plants require sunlight to survive, the requirements vary among species. Some need full sunlight for at least eight hours every day, while other plants will get by if you place them in the shade.
Popular plants and vegetables that don’t need a lot of sunlight to flourish include kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. You might damage these plants if they’re exposed to the sun’s harsh rays.
Additionally, too much sunlight might affect your soil’s moisture content. It can suck moisture out through rapid evaporation before your plant’s roots can absorb enough. Without enough moisture, your plant will become dehydrated.
How to Fix
The first step is to check the plant’s sunlight requirements. It’s important to remember that different plants require different levels of sunlight. Some plants need all the sunlight they can get to stay alive, while others only need a relatively small amount of indirect sunlight.
If your plant doesn’t need so much sunlight, you can either replant it somewhere less exposed to sunlight or install some shade to keep the plant cool during hot and dry seasons.
On the other hand, if there’s little to no sunlight in that particular spot, you can grow shade-loving plants there instead. Alternatively, you can install reflective surfaces or paint nearby walls white to add more light to the area.
4. Poor Soil Type or Condition
Most plants won’t grow in poor soil. Even if the plant does develop, it will most likely die of nutrient and moisture deficiency. After all, your plants need these resources to survive, and you can control their levels in the garden soil by fertilizing and watering.
However, your soil will lose nutrients if you grow plants in the garden without adding mulch or fertilizer for a long time. This depletion is natural and results from the plants’ biological activities.
Still, it’s necessary to understand which compounds and elements are essential for your plant’s success. For example, deficiencies in nitrogen or other essential minerals will be evident in any plant’s development.
Affected plants will typically begin to look yellow and wilt after some time. These plants won’t be able to perform photosynthesis since their chlorophyll levels will drop drastically, and they’ll usually die after a few days.
That said, the soil quality in the area significantly affects the plant’s health and success. Therefore, you need to learn what these soil types are, how to identify them, and the classes of plants that thrive in each type.
The three most common soil types are:
Let’s explore each of these soil types in more detail:
Clay is the firmest type of soil structure on this list. Its tightly packed molecules are responsible for the soil’s peculiar density.
However, while clay holds water well, it has pretty lousy drainage properties, which is why most gardeners and plant keepers avoid using it for their plants and gardens.
Its density is also a problem. The packed structure makes it extremely difficult for the plant roots to dig deep or the seedlings to break through the soil’s surface.
Therefore, if a particular area in your garden has a high amount of clay, there’s a significant chance that this might be responsible for plant death. And while the clay is perfect for plants like apples, elms, and willows, it’s unsuitable for growing many vegetables and plants that prefer loose soil.
Sand is the most porous soil type. And although it can quickly absorb lots of water and nutrients, it can’t retain them. This inability to retain essential resources can be detrimental to moisture-loving plants. In addition, sand holds much heat, making it unsuitable for plants with sensitive roots.
However, sandy soil is ideal for warm-season crops because the warm soil temperatures are necessary for seed germination.
Loam is the best soil to use for growing almost all types of plants—including many succulent species. It is commonly called black dirt and consists of a mixture of sand (around 40%), silt (approximately 40%), and clay (up to 20%). Some loamy soil may include substances like humus and organic debris.
Loamy soil combines the pros of all three soil types to create a suitable environment for most plants to thrive. This soil can retain water well and encourage proper drainage.
Using loamy soil is a surefire way to get enough air to the root systems and nutrients to the rest of the plant.
How to Fix
Here’s how to fix the problem:
- Check your plant’s soil temperature and moisture requirements. You’ll have better chances of keeping your plants alive in the spot in question if you choose species that match what the area has to offer.
- Add some loamy soil to your garden if you suspect your plants keep dying due to incorrect soil structure. This soil is packed with nutrients and is highly beneficial to your garden, as it will prevent stunted growth.
- Add nutrients directly to the soil if the issue is nutrient depletion. You can do this by adding more organic matter to your soil. This organic matter could be compost, dead leaves, wood chips, chopped-up tree bark, or even manure.
- Consider adding earthworms to improve the natural decomposition process and improve aeration in the root zone. The presence of earthworms naturally leads to the emergence of other decomposers like microbes and other soil organisms.
- Add some organic fertilizers regularly to rejuvenate your soil. Not only does doing this give your soil a huge structural boost, but it also replenishes lost nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
If you would like to explore your options for improving soil quality, check out my article: How To Improve Soil Quality (The Ultimate Guide)
5. Diseased Soil
Most plants will encounter diseases at some point in their life, and while many plants can fend them off quite easily, some powerful diseases might infect all the plants in a particular area and kill them.
Many of these diseases are caused by phytopathogenic microbes, a class to which bacteria and fungi belong. Interestingly, phytopathogenic fungi are a lot more dangerous than phytopathogenic bacteria.
Examples of phytopathogenic fungi include Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Fusarium. In comparison, some examples of phytopathogenic bacteria include Xylella and Agrobacterium.
Once these bacteria and fungi come into contact with your new plant, they feed on all the nutrients they can find. This feeding affects your plants’ cells and their overall structure.
Phytopathogenic fungi, in particular, break down the cell wall and release all the protoplasm, resulting in cell death.
It’s almost impossible to get rid of phytopathogenic microbes once they infect your soil.
For example, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum is one of the most dangerous microbes and can kill most plants in days. The microbe is also called stem rot or crown rot since it can affect plants at all stages of their development cycle.
Sclerotinia sclerotiorum spreads quickly between plants and may cause your plants’ leaves to drop and wilt—typically resulting in plant death.
How to Fix
Here’s how to fix the problem:
- Remove affected plants. You’ll need to burn or dispose of them properly. Check with your local regulations on how to dispose of infected plants.
- Use fungicides on the affected plants and soil. I recommend using the Biosafe ZeroTol HC (available on Amazon.com) since the product can kill most disease-causing microbes it comes in contact with, including powdery mildew and mold. It also kills spores before they can grow into more deadly pathogens.
Unfortunately, fungicides don’t work on bacteria. You’ll need to use more intensive preventative measures to control these pathogens.
Here’s how you can control bacteria in the soil:
- Remove and separate infected plants from healthy ones.
- Cut out any leaves that have symptoms of bacterial infection.
- Remove weeds from your garden bed regularly.
- Ensure your soil is well aerated.
- Practice regular crop rotation using resistant plant cultivars to give your soil time to breathe.
- Control soil moisture content by establishing an efficient and effective watering routine.
At first, it might seem challenging to understand why your plants keep dying in a particular spot. Ensure you understand the specific problem before applying the mentioned fixes.
You can also reach out to a professional for help if you still have issues with your plants. In fact, working with soil scientists and horticulturists might be the best course of action if you’re dealing with diseased soil.