What is Nutrient Burn?

Updated: Jul. 26, 2023

Overfeeding your plants can hurt them in the long run. Here's a look at nutrient burn and how to prevent it.

We all want to give our beloved plants exactly what they need. This obviously includes plenty of water and sun, but also the nutrients they need to flourish. Unfortunately, sometimes as gardeners, we overdo it, smothering our plants instead of supporting them. Such is the case with nutrient burn, a type of damage caused to plants by over-fertilization. Here’s everything you need to know about nutrient burn, including what it is, how to tell if your plant is burned, how to prevent it and what to do if your plant is already suffering.

What Is Nutrient Burn?

Yellowing Spots On Leaves On sick Houseplant from overwateringEvelien Doosje/Getty Images

Nutrient burn—also called “nitrogen burn,” “fertilizer burn” or “nute burn”—refers to the process of a plant seemingly “burning” from over-exposure to the nutrients in fertilizers. In the same way that too much sun or water can damage plants, saturating them with more nutrients than they need can too. Plants can become oversaturated with fertilizer if the gardener applies too much too often, or if the soil drainage is poor.

Which Plants Can Be Affected by Nutrient Burn?

Nutrient burn can affect all homegrown plants, but is especially common in delicate fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes. However, it is a significant growing danger for cannabis, so many online discussions of nutrient burn center the controversial plant. Rest assured that information on nutrient burn is vital for all home gardeners, not just those growing weed.

What Are the Signs of Nutrient Burn?

Leaf blight is a plant disease characterized by a general browning, death of foliage, and falling of leavesBoy_Anupong/Getty Images

Nutrient burn often manifests in yellowing, brownish leaves that have gone crisp at the tips. However, there are many critical early signs of nutrient burn before the leaves physically “burn.” The leaves can turn a deep green, curl or bend at the tips, twist, or wilt. Additionally, plant production of any buds or fruits will slow down.

How Can I Prevent Nutrient Burn?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so take steps now to decrease the possibility of nutrient burn. First, ensure your plant has proper drainage. If it’s in a container, ensure that container has drainage holes at the bottom. If the plant is in-ground, amend the garden soil with drainage-promoting materials, such as coir. Next, only feed your plant as much fertilizer as it can feasibly consume. Choose the appropriate fertilizer for the plant varietal and feed it in the proportions outlined in our guide to garden fertilizers.

What Should I Do If My Plant Has Been Nutrient Burned?

Unfortunately, gardeners cannot reverse nutrient burn. Still, they can salvage the plant by taking the right steps. To do so, cut off the parts of the plant that have been burned. Then, stop feeding your plant fertilizer. If you can, remove excess fertilizer from the base of the plant and ensure proper drainage at the roots. If you cannot remove the fertilizer or proper drainage isn’t possible, transplant your crop in new, well draining soil. Recovery from nutrient burn will take a few weeks, but is possible!