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What's Wrong With My Plants?

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

 This is the big question every vegetable grower must face at some point because I can guarantee that EVERYTHING will not go perfectly throughout your growing season. Along the way, you'll need to recognized points of difficulty and make your best judgement call about how to react.

In your first few years of vegetable growing, the problem solving process is a real challenge because problems aren't obvious to the new grower early on so many can go unnoticed for too long. Furthermore, once the problems have been identified it seems like there are an infinite number of factors that could have caused the problem! I still remember that sense of mystery and overwhelm I felt in the early years, but I've stuck with it, and after thousands if not millions of plants have passed through my hands, some patterns have emerged to help make the problem solving process a lot simpler and effective. So in this post, I'm going to share with you the five major factors to start with whenever you find yourself diagnosing growing pains in your garden.

Be Present In Your Garden

You won't notice a problem if you are not in your garden. I know, ignorance can be bliss, for a time so it can be tempting to avoid checking in with your garden, but eventually your extended absence will catch up with you, and you'll return to your garden sure to find a plethora of problematic permutations. (Say that five times fast!)

My tip here is a simple one, but so important. I challenge you to commit to walking through your garden regularly. That's it. Your frequent visits will improve your observation skills and help potential problems stand out as soon as they start to develop. You are sure to be rewarded from these regular interactions, because every problem is easiest to address when it is identified early. In fact, I have often thought to myself, "I'm so glad I was here today because that could have been a big problem later on if I hadn't noticed it right now."

A quick check-in at this plot earlier this summer helped spot a potato beetle problem before it was too late.

Where I struggle sometimes with this first tip is when I let myself associate the thought of gardening with work alone. I don't always want to take a walk through my garden if gardening=work. So I need to remind myself that gardening can also equal relaxation. This way, I can head out to the garden with no goals in mind other than to simply be present and notice what's happening.

Identify the Cause of the Problem

So you were present in your garden and you noticed something was looking a bit less than ideal? Congratulations! You're about to learn something...but what exactly? That's the real question. Lessons in biology will tell you that living systems are incredibly complex so the average gardener ends up bouncing around a tangled web of possible factors that might somehow be related to the problem. The path appears long and inconclusive, and it's anything but clear.

Thankfully, I have a background in physics, a field of science that looks for hidden patterns to help simplify problems. What if we could use the mindset of physicist to solve problems of biology? What if we could reduce that complex web of biological interrelationships to just a few key and highly impactful factors? Well, that's the approach I brought to my garden plots, and it turns out that the pathways to our solutions can look at lot simpler than I once thought.

Throughout many growing seasons and more growing problems than I would like to admit, the importance of five core variables have revealed themselves to me. Over and over, I found that I was able to solve problems by just reviewing these five fundamental needs of our vegetable crops. This realization allowed me to swap my web of gardening confusion with a relatively simple flow chart. This chart shows how 90% of my growing problems can be logically linked back to one of the five core variables with a few yes or no questions.

In our July plot tours for members, I walked through our garden plots to highlight a few examples of how I still use these five core variables to solve problems today. One of those examples was the bed of corn shown in the image below. You can notice an obvious change in height, from right to left, but why?

Sometimes height changes like this are present due to decrease of SUNLIGHT, but these beds are located in full sun all day long. Could that left portion of the bed be receiving less WATER? No, the same drip system serves every bed and the water is delivered right to the soil, so the water is being distributed properly. The SPACE between plants is the same throughout the entire bed and it's a corn spacing that has performed well for use many times in the past already, so that can't be the cause of the problem. Could the TEMPERATURE be more extreme on the left end of the bed? Not really. There's no amplification of sunlight there to add extra heat and any increase in wind stress in our urban context would be pretty minimal on the end of the bed as well. That leaves us with the question of SOIL. What could be different about the soil on the left side of the bed?

If we pay attention to the other plants growing in the near vicinity, we see that there are some trees just over the fence and the arrow points to another larger tree near the end of the bed. The roots of these nearby trees must be competing with our corn roots in the soil for water and nutrients. That's the only plausible explanation for the difference in growth from one end of the bed to the other, and we can thank the corn plants for pointing this out to us so clearly. Corn is one crop that is particularly revealing with regard to weaknesses in the soil.

Make Adjustments

The flow chart I shared in the last section should help you narrow down the possible causes of the problem, but you're not done yet. Now some adjustments need to be made so that history doesn't repeat itself every season in your garden. There's no point in learning if you don't intend to make some changes.

Sometimes these adjustments are as simple as tweaking the watering schedule or changing the plant spacing a little for next season. Other times, a problem might require urgent attention and all other tasks take a back seat until the problem is addressed. In the case of the corn example above, I'm not going to remove the crop or hop over the fence to cut down all of my neighbours trees. Unfortunately, the nearby trees are just part of sharing land in the city. However, since corn is clearly less happy with the tree competition here, I will make a note for myself to avoid planting corn here in the future and just stick with the other crops that I know have still performed well in this same spot.

I find myself writing about this subject of problem diagnosis in July because this is a great time to walk around your garden and assess how well each crop is growing, at least in our climate. For us, July is the time when we have the longest days and warm temperatures so everything in our garden should be thriving and growing fast. If something is not thriving, this is an easy time to notice. I want to know about every problem I have so that I can do my best to optimize plant growth. If there are troubles in your garden patch this season, I hope the tips shared in this post will help simplify your problem solving process and encourage you to press onward to get the most from your growing space. Gardeneing is a lot more satisfying when most of the problems are sovled. To learn more about the five core variables we focus on to optimize plant growth, check out my Free Workshop.


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