Magnesium Deficiencies in Vegetables Revisited

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

We have seen several cases of magnesium deficiency in vegetables already in 2019. Magnesium (Mg) is considered a secondary macro-element and is essential for plant growth. It is a component of chlorophyll, the green pigment that captures light energy in photosynthesis. The chlorophyll molecule has a porphyrin ring with a magnesium atom at the center. Therefore, deficiencies of magnesium will result in reduced chlorophyll production and yellowing of plants.

In most vegetable crops, magnesium deficiency commonly first appears as yellow or white areas between the veins of older leaves. As the deficiency progresses, the yellowed areas may turn into dead spots. Older leaves in plants may also have a purple or bronze appearance and leaf tips and margins may brown and die. The plants may be stunted and have an overall yellow appearance. Symptoms are most severe on older leaves because magnesium is a mobile element in plants and will be scavenged from older leaves and transported to new growth.

In Delaware, magnesium deficiencies are most commonly found in sandy, acid soils with a pH below 5.4. Therefore, magnesium deficiencies are commonly not field wide, but will be in areas of a field with depressed pH such as “sand hills” that have been excessively leached. Often a whole field pH will be in an acceptable range so it is critical to check the soil pH in affected areas. Tissue tests should be considered to confirm the magnesium deficiency.

Excessive levels of potassium can also induce magnesium deficiency in situations where available magnesium levels are low to moderate to begin with.

Magnesium deficiency in sweet corn.

Magnesium deficiency in tomato.

Commonly, magnesium is applied to soils with dolomitic limestone (Hi-Mag lime). Sulfate of potash and magnesia (K-Mag, Sul-Po-Mag) is a naturally mined mineral deposit that can also be applied to add magnesium to soils. Other magnesium sources include magnesium sulfate (same as Epson Salts), magnesium oxide (basic slag), and magnesium chloride. To correct a deficiency in growing vegetables, soluble magnesium sources should be used.

Foliar applications are effective but must be applied in a dilute solution to avoid salt injury. Spray 20 lbs of a soluble magnesium source (20 lbs of magnesium sulfate for example) in 100 gallons of water per acre (10 lbs in 50 gallons or 5 lbs in 25 gallons). Dry broadcasts of 15-25 lbs of actual magnesium per acre, irrigated in, or fertigation with similar amounts from soluble sources will also be effective. Sidedress applications may also be effective at 15-20 lbs of actual magnesium per acre. For drip irrigated vegetables, soluble magnesium fertilizers can be applied through the drip system.

Magnesium deficiencies corrected early enough in the growing season will often result in little yield loss. However, it is critical to target affected fields with corrective liming for future crops in the rotation. Variable rate liming may be considered and is recommended where there is excessive variability in pH in a field.

If pH is below 5.2 and vegetables are still small, dolomitic limestone may be broadcast over the top and cultivated in to correct pH related problems. This should be coupled with a foliar magnesium application to more quickly address the magnesium deficiency.

In vine crops, low pH may also be a causal factor for manganese toxicities and you may see both magnesium deficiency and manganese toxicity in the same field.

Foliar magnesium levels for most vegetables at mid growth should be in the 0.3 – 0.6 % range (leaves).