What to Do When Things Are Not Going Well in Your Garden
by Jayne Rising
So, things are not going well in your garden and you aren’t quite sure what to do. Maybe the plants aren’t growing, or the fruits have problems, and production seems low. The first step towards a correct resolution involves pinpointing the exact problem, consisting of a bit of detective work.
How’s the weather? Wet conditions, whether hot or cold, are very conducive to disease. Disease can be bacterial, fungal, or viral. Different diseases will require different solutions.
What’s the date? Pests such as squash vine borers have a specific life cycle. (To avoid the problem, plant when the vine borer isn’t laying eggs.) Get help with dates, garden planning and more at Seeds for Generations.
It wouldn’t hurt to test your soil pH because if the soil is too acidic or basic, the plant won’t take up the nutrients. Commercial chemical tests are quick and easy. Be aware that these aren’t as accurate as lab testing but will get you a good ballpark figure.
How is the problem spreading? Is it spreading across the landscape or within the plant?
Plant Morphology-Symptoms and Signs
First of all, what is the plant exactly? Tomatoes have different problems than strawberries do, for example. Looking up issues common to the specific plant is a great place to start troubleshooting.
Look at the plant. Do you see holes in the leaves or stems that appear to be bitten off or boreholes? Small, round holes may be common insect predation, whereas entire leaves chewed could be caterpillars or even the dreaded Japanese beetle. Small insects taking a nibble won’t hurt anything, but caterpillars and that beetle can totally strip your plant. While Japanese beetle damage is unsightly, it won’t actually kill the plant. What a caterpillar can do depends upon the caterpillar. Tent caterpillars, for example, can kill many trees and are considered an invasive species. Boreholes in squash could be the squash vine borer. A bitten stem could be a rabbit or other rodent predation. Rabbits will strip your plants to the stems and must be dealt with accordingly! (I know this from experience. See Lessons in gardening below.)
Damping-off is typically a seedling problem, and once it happens, there’s nothing to be done but start over. The causal organism is usually Phytophthora, a nasty bacterial genus with many unfriendly species. The seedling will appear to be growing until it simply wilts, usually at the soil line. Toss the diseased plants, wash your pots out with bleach, and try again.
Look at the leaves. Are they healthy and green? If not, how do the plants look? Note any spots and precisely what those spots look like, i.e., yellow with black or brown rings. Be as specific as possible.
- Do you see bugs on either side or eggs?
- Are the affected leaves older, towards the base of the plant, or new growth?
- Are the veins affected or the leaf between them or both?
Many nutrient deficiencies affect the leaves, but so do many other diseases. A good magnifying glass can help.
How About Those stems? Roots? Fruits?
There are several wilt diseases. These attack the plant vasculature, clogging the allegorical pipe and causing the plant to wilt. Some pests, such as squash vine borers, actually burrow into the stem. Take a stem, cut it open, and look inside. Dig up a root and see what it looks like. Is it strong & healthy or twisted & tortured looking? Nematodes attack roots. If there are fruits, are they healthy or rotten? Document exactly what you see.
You Know Why Things Are Not Going Well in Your Garden. What Now?
Once you have the symptoms documented, compare them to pictures of the problems specific to your plant. Read the descriptions. There are plant ID apps that can help diagnose problems, but ultimately, your best method is simple critical thinking combined with powers of deduction.
Some problems are easier to fix than others, and the specific fix depends on the problem. Nutrient deficiencies are easy: add the appropriate fertilizer. There is a wide variety available, including micronutrient formulations. Many organics are available.
Disease and Pest Problems Are a Bit More Complicated
Some diseases, such as Septoria leaf spot, powdery mildew, and Verticillium wilt, are very aggressive and spread quickly. Organic methods may not be enough to control them. This writer once lost 90% of her tomato crop to Septoria. Organic methods, in this case snipping diseased leaves and neem oil, weren’t enough. The following year, careful use of copper fungicide fixed the problem—ditto for leather rot on strawberries, a fruit rot.
Pesticides, even organic formulations, aren’t really good for the soil fauna. Losing your crop isn’t good for your diet. If organic methods can help, go for it. If you must use chemicals, be very mindful and don’t overuse them. Also, be very careful to avoid neonicotinoids, which are toxic to bees. Fences and netting work on rabbits and birds. Aphids and vine borers are another matter.
What’s the Difference Between Pest Control and Pest Management?
These are two different concepts.
Control is the traditional method and is reactive, dealing with the problems after they are found. Control tends towards an over-reliance on pesticides. There are many organic pesticides, such as biopesticides, neem oil, and pyrethrins. However, overuse of these products can harm your soil’s ecology and aren’t good for pollinators either.
Management involves planning strategies, for example, planning your squash plantings to avoid the vine borer. Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a strategy that considers the plant’s needs and environment along with pest biology in the solution, tolerating some damage and leaving pesticides as a last resort. IPM is a topic for an article in its own right. I suggest looking it up if you’re interested; it’s a fascinating topic! It’s up to the individual to decide which method best suits the need.
Lessons in Gardening
Early on in my gardening career, I decided to try for a second crop of broccoli and cauliflower. I started my seedlings and had them hardened out & ready to go in July when I harvested my first crop. Since July is sweltering and brassicas are a cooler crop, I decided to forgo the plastic covering I usually would have used. That plastic not only makes a decent temporary cold frame, it also keeps rabbits out of my seedlings until they’re big enough to be left alone. It was too hot, so I left the cover off. My mistake!
The following day I looked at my garden, and a fat little rabbit was lying in my bed, chewing away at my new seedlings! It evidently thought it was enjoying a salad bar and was making full use of the opportunity. I had never wanted rabbit stew more at that moment than I did in my entire life! It chewed my plants down to the stems, and they never did come back.
Daisy had a similar experience with deer.
Now I fence everything. Garden and learn.
How’s Your Garden Doing?
Have you been able to fend off the pests and critters? How about those nasty plant diseases? Share your tips with other readers on how you successfully (or not) kept your garden growing. Let’s talk gardening in the comments below.
Jayne Rising is a gardener and bookworm with a BS from the University of Wisconsin and a Master Gardener certification. She’s been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010 and teaching others how to do it since 2015. She’s involved in a number of local urban agriculture initiatives, working to bring a sustainable and healthy food system back into the mainstream.