Gardening 101: Trouble in the garden

Ugh. This is not going to be a fun story to tell. While I have had moderate to great success with perennials around the house, I have had more problems with what should be a simple vegetable garden than I think is normal. Yet, I am determined to get this thing working so I’ll tell you about what I’ve done, what I’ve lost and what I’ve learned.

Ok, where to start? How about at the beginning, that sounds reasonable, huh?

A few years ago when we lived in another house, I built a flower box for my wife. She planted roses and they grew lush and beautiful. We didn’t do much to the soil either. We threw in vegetable scraps and dug them under and watered occasionally and we were rewarded with some really pretty flowers.

One year we tossed our jack o’ lantern in there to rot and feed the soil. I didn’t really think about removing the pumpkin seeds or anything, just chopped it up and tossed it in. A few days later we had several pumpkin sprouts. Intrigued, I left them alone to see what would come of them, and within a few weeks we had a couple of strong, thick vines running along the bottom of the bed and throwing up feelers to catch on the rose bushes. A couple months after that came the flowers letting us know that soon there would be pumpkins. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, we never got to see if any pumpkins actually grew because we sold the house and moved before any would have come about. But I was both inspired and encouraged. If I could grow pumpkins just by tossing a rotten one into a flower bed, what could I produce if I was actually trying? The answer, so far, is not much.

I built raised garden beds and filled them with a nice mixture of garden soil and compost. There’s a good solar aspect, meaning they get a good mix of light and shade, and theoretically everything should be growing like gangbusters. Instead I’ve been met with wilt, rot, pests, depleted soil minerals, and spontaneous death at every turn. Every time I find a solution for one problem, another pops up. I’m only just now getting a decent survival rate, much less food production. This shit is frustrating.

On first planting, seedlings came up and everything seemed pretty happy. Then one morning I came out to what looked like the aftermath of an epic battle in one of the beds. Seedlings were stomped and scattered, there were holes all over the place; the whole thing was wrecked. Squirrels. So I replanted some stuff and put in some rubber snakes to scare off the squirrels. The snakes worked for a while and then plants came up. When they got a few inches tall, it was time to lay in some mulch. I got a few bags of organic wood mulch and spread it. Within a day or two most of the seedling were yellow and wilting. Come to find out that wood mulch is kept in big stacks where it begins to break down anaerobically. When it is spread, it off-gasses the built up crap and that is poison to plants. Hooray!

So I removed the wood mulch and replanted. Some stuff came up rather nicely and the snakes did their job of keeping the squirrels away. For a while there everything seemed to be good and it looked like we had overcome our problems. Then the pumpkin and cucumbers went limp. This all happened literally overnight. It’s not a slow decline or anything. One day everything was fine, the next it’s not. So I did some research and discovered something horrible: Vine Borers. 

A vine borer is a moth that lays its eggs on vining plants like pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers. The eggs hatch and the larvae bore into the vine and feed off of it as they grow. When they are mature, they bust out of the vine like the chestburster in Alien, tearing it almost in half. If you see what looks like wet sawdust on your vines, you have a borer in there. You can get a pin and dig out the little maggot and possibly save your plant, but probably not. Oh yeah, they’re also immune to most pesticides and birds don’t like them so they are nearly impossible to prevent.

In the other bed I had a little more success. The broccoli did really well as did cabbage, asparagus, and eggplant. Tomatoes were a little problematic but I figured out that they just got too much shade. I moved them to a different spot and they all got happy. Then one morning one of the tomatoes was stripped completely bare of leaves. On closer inspection I found a very, very fat hornworm. Hornworms will kill a tomato plant dead in a few hours. I killed him dead pretty quickly myself, though. Vengeance by Adidas.

So we limped through the summer and into the fall with most plants croaking even after a hard-fought battle to survive. The ones that were doing well did pretty well, then about half of those began to mysteriously wilt and die. I have no idea what caused that.

We let the beds overwinter fallow and started again in the spring. We’ve had much better luck this year but I still lost most of my vining plants to borers. I thought that planting a lot of that stuff would increase the chances of at least some of them making it. Apparently it just means more food for the bugs.

I’m not beat yet, but as I move forward, I’m thinking a lot less vegetables and a lot more fruits and nuts from perennials. Perennials come with their own set of problems, but the damn vegetables seem to need to be babied almost constantly just to keep them alive. Either that or Mother Nature is just a bitch.

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