Ask a Question forum→Hydrangea nutrient deficiency?

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Mashpee, MA
May 22, 2020 7:47 PM CST
We have big leaf hydrangeas (Nikko Blue I believe) planted in sandy soil and full sun to light shade. I fertilized them in late April with a decent dose of Hollytone.

As they have leafed out over the past few weeks, I've noticed that they are partially yellow especially toward the tips of the leaves. In some places the veins are greener than the rest of the leaf, but more frequently, it's just generally yellow toward the tip of the leaf. I don't see any red-tinged edges that I've read are associated with nitrogen deficiency, but maybe that is still a possibility.

I think some of these symptoms were present last year, though less pronounced. I don't know what the pH of the soil is, though I believe the blooms were a mix of blue and pink last year so I guess it's somewhere in the neutral range. I haven't added any aluminum sulfate or soil acidifiers.

Any advice on the most likely cause and best way to address it?
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Name: one-eye-luke US.Vet.
Texas (Zone 8a)
Quitter's never Win
Hummingbirder Birds Organic Gardener Dog Lover Cat Lover
May 23, 2020 1:14 AM CST
The general guidelines for applying products like Holly-tone are to scatter 5 pounds of the grains over each 100 square feet of bed space. Thats a 10x10 area and if given more, it can cause tip burn. Holly-tone is supposed to be safe, but you can still burn your plants with it if you applied too much.

You say you have sandy soil which is a indication you already have acidic soil. Also you say the blooms were pink and blue last year, and that tells me you already have acidic soil. All that being said, if you use Holly-Tone acidifier when you are already getting pink blooms in a acidic soil it could be you are dropping too low for your Hydrangea. The only way to know for sure is get your soil tested at the soil lab.
NOT A EXPERT! Just a grow worm! I never met a plant I didn’t love.✌
Name: Luis
Hurst, TX, U.S.A. (Zone 8a)
Dog Lover Region: Texas Salvias Roses Hibiscus Plumerias
May 23, 2020 5:05 AM CST
Some possibilities of leaf yellowing:

* A nitrogen deficiency can cause a complete yellowing of leaves but this is rare. You can correct this problem by adding a salt like ammonium sulfate or organic sources like blood meal. However, it may be more useful to investigate why there is this deficiency or if the deficiency is caused by a different problem. For example, the roots may not be able to absorb oxygen and other minerals if there is a lot of water in the soil. The excess water may be caused by overwatering or by excessive rainfall. To rule out too much water, you could get some soil in between two fingers and press to see if the soil produces water droplets. If it does, the soil is too wet. Inserting the two fingers to a depth of 4" or so.

* Nitrogen toxicity (too much nitrogen) can also cause some leaves to completely turn yellow. In this case, the reason is usually over-fertilizing. Or using fertilizers that contain a lot of nitrogen (the first number in the NPK Ratio). Or using that type of fertilizer too often. This toxicity will cause extremely dark leaves... with some leaves turning yellow. A soil test can tell you if you have too much nitrogen. Since hydrangeas do not need much fertilizer, I would use instead organic compost or composted manure with your sandy soil instead of the chemical fertilizer.

* A lack of minerals or difficulty absorbing minerals can cause yellowing of leaves that keeps leaves light green or yellowish while the leaf veins remain dark green. Lack of magnesium or iron for example, could cause this type of chlorosis. The soil may not have enough of these minerals (specially in sandy soils like yours) or the roots may be unable to absorb them because the minerals have formed chemical bonds with other minerals. The reason for chlorosis may be due to overwatering, lack of the minerals or due to alkaline soil that blocks the uptake of the minerals. A soil pH test can be used to rule out alkaline soil problems. Checking the soil for too much water can be done to rule out overwatering. My late aunt in Ocala, FL used to add organic compost when planting and also a 1/4 to 1/2" layer every Spring. A soil pH test kit can tell you if your soil is too alkaline or too acidic.

* Too much sunlight can also cause leaves to completely or partially yellow out. In such a scenario, only the leaves in direct contact with the sun would yellow out. The other protected leaves would remain dark green. Hydrangeas like Nikko Blue will do best in either morning sun only (say, until 11am or so), dappled sun or in full but bright shade. No afternoon and no evening sun.

* Winter damage can also cause leaf yellowing. If a plant breaks dormancy too early, the sap begins to flow. If a late freeze/frost hits when the frost is flowing, the leaves can turn a variety of colors: yellow, red, purple, dark green, etc. Picture 3 shows signs of this. Then you have to wait and see what the plant decides to do with the damaged leaf. Sometimes parts of the leaf brown out. Other times, they stay yellow and fall. New foliage may take 2-4 weeks to come out but it will be up to the plant to decide where to leaf out.

* Heat stress can also make some hydrangeas develop complete yellow leaves. For example, during the summer months, some hydrangeas will tend to lose leaves at the bottom of the plant. Some people call this "showing their feet". You could minimize the chances of this by always proving 2-4" of mulch (do they have any mulch?).

* Powdery mildew can also cause some leaves to yellow out too. But this fungal disease usually displays some white or grey splotches first. I could not detect signs of PM in the pictures.

* There are some cases where this is normal. There are hydrangeas whose leaves start yellow and stay yellow for a long time. One example is Sun Goddess. The more sun the leaves get, the faster they will change from yellow to dark green though.
[Last edited by luis_pr - May 23, 2020 5:10 AM (+)]
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Mashpee, MA
May 23, 2020 7:08 AM CST
Thanks Luis and Luke. Very helpful! The soil dries very quickly and I've been relying mainly on rain so I don't think overwatering is likely. It seems most consistent with either a pH issue (probably too alkaline for hydrangeas, but possibly it got too low with the hollytone) or iron / magnesium deficiency. I'll see if I can get a soil test nearby to help steer me. If it's an iron / magnesium issue, what's the remedy?
Name: Luis
Hurst, TX, U.S.A. (Zone 8a)
Dog Lover Region: Texas Salvias Roses Hibiscus Plumerias
May 23, 2020 10:11 AM CST
Hydrangeas normally need 50% more water in sandy soils than otherwise. Mixing some organic compost at planting time is usually a great idea because it adds minerals to the mix and organic compost retains a lot of water. In Florida, it is not unheard of to mix 50% organic compost to the local soil when planting.

How to tell if you need to water? Most roots are located at the top 4". So, insert a finger into the soil to a depth of 4". If it feels dry or almost dry, water.

How much water should you use? After watering, see if the soil is moist at a depth of 8" or so. If not, use more water. This test is useful in non-sandy soils. Highly sandy soils will need organic compost to help counteract their tendency to drain water too well.

Lowes, HD and plant nurseries usually carry soil pH test kits to get an idea of how alkaline, neutral or acidic your soil is. A formal soil test will provide a more accurate result of the soil pH. I use the cheapo kits to tell me when things are very alkaline or very acidic, which is all I care to know and then I take action. My soil is typically around 7.6 soil pH, which is alkaline. It already has normal levels of iron but the iron gets chemically tied to other chemicals when the soil is alkaline and then the roots cannot absorbs the larger molecules that have the iron. So, I acidify the soil with garden sulfur, aluminum sulfate or iron-chelated liquid compounds.

You can amend the soil using epsom salts to increase the amount of magnesium. You can amend the soil to add iron using either greensand, iron sulfate, or iron-chelated liquid compounds... typically sold in plant nurseries. Soil test results usually specify what needs to be amended, how and by how much.

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