Nitrogen (N) is one of the macronutrients, needed by plants in relatively large amounts, and is important in the production of chlorophyll – the green leaf pigment that absorbs sunlight. It helps promote strong, green, leafy growth, so a deficiency results in yellowing leaves (chlorosis) and stunted growth.
Nitrogen deficiency is caused when there are insufficient suitable nitrogen-containing materials in the growing medium (soil or compost). It can also be caused when plants are growing in dry soil, which prevents the roots taking up the nitrogen from the soil.
As nitrogen is very water soluble, it is easily washed out of the soil or compost by excessive rainfall or overwatering, leading to a deficiency. Shortages are worse on light, sandy soils that drain quickly and contain little organic matter to hold on to the nitrogen.
To check if your soil is short of nitrogen, you can use a simple soil-testing kit.