What to Do When Things Are Not Going Well in Your Garden

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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.

Environmental Conditions 

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

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. 

Leaf Morphology 

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.

Amy Allen

Amy Allen

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  • As usual Jayne, very useful info. Had to tear our garden down this week as the weather in North Central Florida kills off anything planted. Can re-plant in late September for a Fall garden and again in March/April for a Spring garden.

    TRUMP WON!

  • I’ve had more failure this year than ever. I just moved and had foot surgery which limited garden work.

    I didn’t realize that north east Florida has two seasons, spring and fall but mid summer is a dead zone. I do have a bunch of cherry tomatoes and some beans but most things just are burnt.

    I’ve been using BT (bacillus thuringenis) to kill the caterpillars. Neem oil for fungus and some tolerance for minor pest damage.

    The soil in this development is mostly sand with little organic matter. I am making my compost as quickly as possible but it will be years to get the garden beds up to a healthy and productive state. I do use some non organic fertilizer due to the poor soil.

    All that aside, we have had some (really a lot, considering) great tasting and healthy food from two tiny garden patches. I both fish and garden. The Gardens provide more calories. Lol.

    • It sounds like you’re learning quite a bit actually! And I’m sorry about the foot surgery. Few things crimp gardening better than that! Ugh.

      From your description, it sounds like you’re giving this a lot of thought and making some great observations. Have you considered raised beds? Those are great because you can control what kind of soil goes into them right from the start, making your garden more productive while you’re working on the in-ground portion.

      I’ve also heard good things about bt. If that and the neem oil are working for you, so much the better. I hate using pesticides but I hate going hungry even more LOL.

      Good luck to you.

    • I feel your pain Sam Teel– our garden was a disappointment this year for a number of reasons. Our tomatoes started out stunted and have never really taken off. Local gardeners said they had the same trouble and blame it on high heat early in the growing season.
      I was not able to get out and weed like I normally do and we all know what happens with garden neglect!
      Finally, in addition to our raised beds, my husband amended the soil for an in-ground garden carved out of a grass field. He put up a fence to keep the goats out, but amazingly, they learned to jump over that fence! They’ve eaten our potato plants and lettuce. Where there’s a goat there’s a way!
      The only plants that are doing well are bush beans, spaghetti squash, pumpkins, and a nice tri-colored Romaine lettuce in the raised bed from Johnny’s Seeds. We’re hoping the garlic is good when we harvest later in the month. Peppers, carrots, tomatoes–none are doing well. I’m keeping notes on a calendar about when we seed started, when we planted and what worked and what didn’t.
      We did start large compost bins this year, supplemented from our neighbors horse waste, which should help us enrich the soil for next year’s garden.

  • Gardening on the desert is a real challenge as the daily temps can swing 35 degrees. 90 early morning to 125 mid-afternoon or in the winter freeze early morning to 65 later. My biggest problems are the rats and poor soil. Send soil samples of for testing and was able to remedy that. Rats learn fast so I’ve had to use a number of traps. The first year I killed 25 or so. Now that the colony is wiped out, I only get the occasional nomad.

    • And I forgot to mention the single digit humidity combined with 30 mph winds that really dry out the plants. Have taken to using 1/2 in pipe covered with plastic to help control plant environment.

    • I grew up in the Mojave in SoCal, so I can relate to the temperatures! It would be cool in the morning and hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk by afternoon. But if that’s what we have, then we work with it. What do you do for water?

  • Great article, Jayne. Thanks for sharing Jayne and Daisy!
    I don’t have problems with rabbits or deer since all is fenced off but due to lots of rain the aphid’s have been having a fun time. I usually mix up a garlic-jalepeno tea and spray the plants as well as pour the chunks left after blending around the plants. It kills the critters I don’t want but not the healthy bugs, bees, etc.
    Thankfully so far this is the only issues I’ve had, my garlic/jalepeno tea is working and my soil is super fertile and grows veggies well.

    • Garlic and jalapeno, hey? My taste buds are burning just thinking about it! I’ll have to give it a try, the next time I see aphids. Or try it on Japanese beetles. They’re the equivalent of a scourge of locusts up here. LOL

  • Jane, We have had absolutely no female blossoms on any of our pumpkin and squash.
    Lots of male but no female…a little help please

    • Gary, I have the same problem. There’s a guy on YouTube called MIGardener, who has a great video on squash. One thing he says is that plants produce male to female flowers on about an 8:1 ratio. One thing you can try is picking the male flowers to encourage more flowering, which has to result in a female at some point. Playing the numbers basically. Also, immature vines will produce more males until they mature; when that happens depends upon the species and the plant. Another thing you can try is making sure, as best you can, that growing conditions are favorable. I would suggest reading up on what conditions are favorable in your grow zone. Also a bit of fertilizer might help, but don’t overdo it. Reproduction is very energy intensive and you want to support that without burning the plants. Good luck!

  • One of the ways that we have learned to keep the rabbits and deer away from out eatables is by placing pots of Marigold flowers around them. Works in our garden, and around berry bushes and fruit trees too. We understand that both can’t stand the smell of Marigolds.

    For squirrels we spray “hot sauce” around them or sprinkle red pepper flakes. Hopefully it gives those rotten little tree rats a headache !

    TRUMP WON!

  • We’re having a heck of a time with our garden in Northeast Texas. A rainy season like we’ve never seen. Now it’s freaking HOT and muggy. The tomatoes and potatoes are taking a big hit. I had to pull my potatoes before they went bad because of all the water. The tomatoes are just now beginning to produce. I’m having a plant in different spots starting to wilt and die. I dug around and there isn’t any ants, grubs, ect. I’ve started looking at maybe a bacteria in the soil(after reading this article).

    YES…..Trump did Win!!

  • The garden is doing good here. The broccoli bolted from early heat, but the melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and bell peppers are doing good. Didn’t rototill this year. Just planted in holes with the shovel. Mixed a good bit of compost in the holes and hills when planting. They seem to like that. Compost tea every two weeks. Water with sprinkler as needed. Really no pests other than a few early aphids on the tomatoes that disappeared after a couple days. Same rabbit fence for 10 years…still works.

    THE PEOPLE LOST

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