There’s a great quote attributed to the former gardening editor for the Toronto Star, H. Fred Dale. He said: “My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.”
Trial and error is what it takes to make a good gardener great. There are no silver bullets, no one-size-fits-all answers, no ‘panacea’ in making thumbs greener. As with everything, challenges are inevitable.
Sometimes it’s enough just to know we are not alone in our struggles. Other times, there are real answers to help us overcome our loamy tribulations. In that spirit, here are a few answers to some of the most common problems facing gardeners. Think of it as the technical support desk for your patch.
Help! Why didn’t my seeds germinate?
Many gardeners are quick to think the problem is the seed itself. This is quite unlikely if the seed is purchased from a reputable seed company, which have trial gardens and do germination testing on site.
Rather, there are a few common reasons why seeds may not germinate: they are planted too soon, planted too deep or do not have enough light.
After a long winter, many gardeners are eager to get out and plant seed as early as possible. This strategy has fewer benefits then waiting for warmer weather, because most seeds need warm soil to germinate.
The key to success is growing what you have time and space for. Growing more than you need can be overwhelming and may deter gardeners from trying again. Keep it simple, choose disease- and pest-resistant varieties from reputable seed companies, and follow proper cultural practices and you are sure to have a rewarding gardening experience.
In cold, wet soil, seeds may rot or be attacked by maggots, which will eat the center of the seed from which the sprout emerges. While some seeds – like peas, lettuce and spinach – do prefer to be planted in cool soil, avoid planting when the soil is very wet and be sure that the seeds don’t get buried deeply after a heavy rain.
Small seeds like carrots and lettuce will have difficulty emerging if covered by too much soil, or if the soil is filled with rocks or thick particles. Be sure to work the soil well and only cover lightly. Read and follow the planting directions on the back of seed packages.
Lastly, make sure to provide the seed with adequate light conditions. Most garden plants require at least six hours of sunlight per day, though some vegetables will even benefit from eight hours. If plants are in too much shade, they may not germinate or will have trouble growing to the best of their potential.
There is one other reason your seed might not have come up: it may have been stolen. If you notice birds flying around your garden, you can pretty much guarantee they are the culprits. Even squirrels can grab seeds right after they have been planted, and you may not even notice. Try using scarecrows (here’s some inspiration) or scare eye balloons to prevent your seeds from becoming food for others.
My seeds started out all right, but then stopped growing.
If your plants come to a standstill and show no additional signs of growth, they could be suffering from a lack of nutrition. Some vegetables need to be well fed in order to, eventually, feed you well. This is particularly true of cole crops such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, as well as corn, potatoes and cucurbits like pumpkins, squash and cucumbers.
Before starting your garden, take a soil sample to your local soil analysis lab to get a full report of your soil’s ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ nutrients, pH level and percentage of organic matter. Then get a professional recommendation for how to amend your soil based on what needs to be balanced. You may also need to feed your crops during the growing season by applying a side or top dressing of fertilizer.
I’ve got green, healthy plants but they are not producing fruit.
Just as plants suffer from under-nutrition, they can also be affected by over-feeding. Lush, dark green foliage with no fruit can be an indication that your soil is too rich. Again, having a soil sample done before planting will help to indicate if there is too much of one nutrient or if the soil is too rich in organic matter. Once the garden is started, take care when fertilizing and only apply as needed.
Be sure also that your plants are planted with proper spacing and thinned out as they grow. This is essential for vegetables to reach their desirable size. Use the directions on the back of the seed package to get the right amount of spacing.
Am I watering my garden correctly?
Many gardeners rely only on rain to water their garden – and this usually doesn’t pose a problem if you live in Atlantic Canada. But it is better to have a plan so your garden gets just the right amount of water – too much or too little can result in stressed plants.
Plants need at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) of water each week in order to grow properly and be able to access the necessary nutrition from the soil. In a hot, dry summer, that means relying on rainfall is not enough. Water your garden early in the morning, and try not to water every day as plants need air circulation to maintain health. Mulch your garden beds to keep moisture in and to cut down on the need to water.
How can I stay on top of weeds?
Going out to weed your garden can be a dreaded task, but it is critical to a healthy, productive garden. A few simple tips will make the most of your efforts. First of all, get to the weeds while they’re young. Pull or hoe them when they first emerge and before they can establish themselves. Definitely make sure to eliminate weeds before they can go to seed. Use a thick layer of mulch to block the sunlight from reaching any weed seeds that may have dropped. Finally, invest in the right tools to make the job quicker, easier and less of a dreaded chore. Take heart: your garden plants will eventually get big enough to shade out the weeds and will be less maintenance for you as a result.
I’ve got bugs in my garden! What should I do?
First of all, don’t panic. The bugs you see may actually be good for your plants. Ladybugs, spiders and some types of flies are important predators and pollinators, so be sure to make a proper diagnosis before treating, and then look for organic and earth-friendly solutions. One effective way to reduce pest problems is to cover garden beds with row cover as soon as the seeds have been planted. Check with the staff of your local garden centre for more ideas on how to control pests in your area. Tip: use your smartphone to take a picture of the bugs you’re seeing and bring it with you to your local expert. That’s a sure way to get a positive ID on whether your visitor is nice, or a nuisance.