Gardening Advice: Vegetable Despair

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Gardening Advice: Vegetable Despair

November 19, 2002
10:40am

Q: Five years ago I started a vegetable garden, and every year there has been some kind of disappointment. For example, eggplant just won’t grow. I was starting to think I could grow zucchini and cherry tomatoes, but this year I just got one squash, and all my tomatoes were a bust. What is so frustrating is that I have added all sorts of compost to the soil every year. I fertilize and water, and the plot receives almost full sun. What else can I do?Elyse Schatz, Maple Glen, PA

A: You're on the right track. As I pondered your question, it occurred to me that I, too, have had crop failures in my vegetable garden every season for 25 years, and yet I usually feel that it has been quite a success after all is said and done. It took me some years to come to see it that way. The trouble with vegetables is that there are so many kinds of them. Each has its own problems, and so many of the problems are by nature unpredictable. The weather and the cast of insect characters are constantly changing year to year, yet to be successful, we need to understand these things in advance and be prepared to deal with them. The antidotes to this built-in unpredictability are soil building every year and planting a great variety of things. If you plant just six tomato plants, make sure that each one is a different kind. Even in a bad year, a couple of them will do quite well and offset the losses you may have from the others. Also, be ready to replant. Set out some zucchini early, but realize that insects will likely do them in. Plant a smaller amount a month later. One of those two or three plantings will surely do well, and with time, you will gain a surer sense of what problems tend to afflict zucchini in your area. Replanting smaller amounts of a crop is what some books call succession planting, and it also serves as a good way to prolong the harvest and reduce overproduction. I have found it's a good idea to continually try new vegetables, both new varieties of old standards and also completely new things, ones you never even think of buying when you see see them in the supermarket. Midsummer lettuce can be very hard to grow, but arugula is easy then. Fresh mustard greens and kale are amazingly tasty when they are fresh. The list of unusual vegetables is long and rewarding, so give them a chance and you will find ones that you like and that thrive in your garden. Do keep building the soil. All vegetables like rich soil, so add as much compost as you can every year and use nutrient-rich mulches (grass clippings, shredded leaves). Irrigate weekly, because vegetables really need a regular supply of water to grow quickly. Stay up to date with the latest pest control practices. And don’t let yourself become discouraged when things fail. Finally, I know it's a small consolation, but eggplant never works well for me, either.