Ask a Question forum→Gardening, I can't figure it out - just what am I doing wrong?

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Name: Patrick
Oakland, California (Zone 10a)
Image
alibrarian510
Aug 10, 2020 10:12 PM CST
Disclaimer: I'm writing this frustrated so please excuse any dramatics. I just need help, please.

Picture this: I go to tend to my tomatoes on my deck and one out of three tomatoes are doing well. I've taken care of all three of them just the same. No matter what I do, I can't make it work with them. I walk back inside and see that one of my succulents has mealy bugs on it. I then see some of the leaves of my air plants leaves are not looking so hot. The same goes for my spider plant. I go to my raised bed in the local community garden and it looks like my tomato plants have been inside a closet for months even though they've been in the sun and were watered 3 days ago and fertilized just over 2 weeks ago. I have followed instructions for taking care of each plant. I look at my neighbor's raised beds and they look PERFECT. It was so crazy to look at that I had to include pictures below. The first two pictures are of my raised bed.

I take care of plants like my life depends on it. I read articles, watch videos, spend a lot of money on different plants, seeds, soil, soil amendment and supplies. I've been gardening for over 2 years and it looks like I have never gardened in my life. No amount of pruning, fertilizing, mulching and watering makes a difference. For my veggie plants, I've never had even a medium sized yield. I have never had enough to give more than 1 or 2 vegetables away. I am getting sick of this hobby because it seems that no matter what I do, I cannot make it work. I feel like I am wasting time and money. Excuse my French, but how in the hell are others that I see (online and in person) so successful? I even take care of a neighbor's raised by by watering it once per week and his tomato plant has more tomatoes than all three of my tomato plants combined. This is insane! The only plant that seems to be doing well is the corn. As a result, my raised bed looks so unsightly. The plants are wilted, the soil is uneven, nothing looks lush. At one point, I stopped watering, looked at the raised bed and thought "why am I bothering maintaining this? I should just rip everything out".

I am sick of watching videos, reading articles and asking for advice as it seems like nothing is helping me. At some point, you think it would just work for me but that's the thing, it really doesn't seem to!

Please help me out everyone. I don't know how to be successful with this hobby. For reference, the plants in the raised bed include the following: Thai basil, Genovese basil, Greek basil, zucchini, acorn squash, corn, runner beans, sugar snap peas and tomatoes.

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Name: Big Bill
Livonia, Michigan (Zone 6a)
American Orchid Society Judge
Region: United States of America Critters Allowed Growing under artificial light Echinacea Hostas Region: Michigan
Butterflies Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Orchids Cat Lover Birds Bee Lover
Image
BigBill
Aug 11, 2020 5:27 AM CST
Gardening is knowledge that comes slowly over time. I have two thoughts that came to me quickly.

Why not meet with your neighbor at the community garden and talk to them to learn about what they are doing. Most gardeners would welcome the chance to mentor a new gardener. If you don't see them there ever, leave them a note in a plastic bag and attach it to something in their bed. What do you have to lose?
Second, I would remove the mulch at the top of your soil. I believe in mulch in my flower beds with my perennials, not with my vegetables. Your main problem could be directly related to a water issue. The mulch could be effecting that!
Oh, I said two ideas, here is another. There can be great differences in the type of veggie chosen! By that I mean variety selection. Look at my cherry tomatos for example. I have always grown varieties called Sweet One Hundreds or Sweet One Thousands!!! BUT THIS YEAR I FOOLISHLY bought a globe variety. It was supposed to produce a meatier, slightly larger cherry!! Well that is true, they do!! THEY JUST PRODUCE 80% LESS FRUIT!!! Had I known that, I would not have purchased them.
Good luck.👍
Rodney Wilcox Jones, my idol!
Businessman, Orchid grower, hybridizer, lived to 107!
Port d'Envaux, France (Zone 9a)
A Darwinian gardener
Image
JBarstool
Aug 11, 2020 6:03 AM CST
Sorry about your frustration.
My advice: Focus on the things you actually have control over and learn less from questionable videos and more from successful gardeners around you - after all, they are gardening in similar conditions to yours. If your neighbor has good looking beds and success study what he or she does differently

In your case you have control over (at least) two of the most important elements of successful gardening; soil quality and water. To my eye your soil looks very dry, but it is only a photograph - do you check beneath the surface to determine how much watering is required rather than watering on a predetermined schedule?
Again, recognizing it is only a photograph, your soil looks more like some version of potting mix than what might be a soil-based mix better suited for a raised bed. If you focus on improving the quality of what your soil you will exponentially improve your chance of success. Over time, the addition of compost and any other organic matter you can add to the soil will gradually make a significant difference.
Finally, you might take comfort in knowing that gardeners of all experience levels face frustration and challenges.
I have gardened for forty of my sixty years, the last twenty+ very seriously. I'm a certified Master Gardener in two states and retired early solely so that I could focus on a five or ten year gardening project; converting a small field into a garden of interest. I mention these things as a description of my level of interest - and maybe a little bit of skill - and yet this year I am having the undeniably w o r s t year in my gardening history of growing tomatoes. Which, by the way, is the primary reason I bother with a veg garden. I don't think I became a worse gardener between last October and this July, it's just what the vagaries of gardening dealt me this year.
And perhaps I wasn't as quick to respond to what was different in my garden this year. Regardless, if my experience this year was what my first year or two was like I'm not sure I would have persevered, so timing plays a role in our gardening trajectory as well.
That is a long winded way of saying that gardening is a long term exercise in patience and education, you will get better and be more successful. Hell, if what you say is true you are bound to be more successful if only because it would be hard to be less so - sorry, sarcasm.
Or you could take up woodworking, or fishing...now there is one stultifyingly boring hobby.

Focus on your soil. And for what it is worth, I hope you don't throw in the trowel...there aren't many hobbies that you can enjoy for your entire life.

----EDITING TO ADD:---
Two notes about your corn (which looks a bit anemic) 1) remember it is a member of the grass family and as most grasses wants quite a bit of nitrogen. 2) corn is wind pollinated (which is why it is recommended to plant it in blocks) so with only one or two plants you may find it beneficial to hand-pollinate it. As corn ears form and silks emerge from them tassels will also form above. Simply cut a tassel or two and use them like feather dusters brushing across the silks of the nascent fruit.
I have a great deal of respect for BigBill's gardening know-how. On the issue of mulching in the veg garden we disagree...I am a proponent and believe the benefits of mulching far outweigh the potential drawbacks. I garden on heavy calcareous clay and rely on heavy organic mulch to preserve soil moisture in my hot, dry, often breezy summer weather and believe that as it breaks down (and is topped up) it gradually improves the tilth of my soil. Differences of opinion; your experiences will inform your choices.
I find myself most amusing.
[Last edited by JBarstool - Aug 11, 2020 6:33 AM (+)]
Give a thumbs up | Quote | Post #2325436 (3)
Name: GERALD
Lockhart, Texas (Zone 8b)
Hydroponics Greenhouse Region: Texas
Image
IntheHotofTexas
Aug 11, 2020 7:31 AM CST
I will only add a couple of things. You say "no amount of fertilizing." Over fertilizing produces just about all the things you're seeing. Yellowing, wilting, browning, poor growth, root rot, growing so fast that the roots can't keep up.

I'm suspicious of that because you have problems throughout the garden. The things plants need is a short list: Water, nutrients, light and air. The first two can be overdone. Even light, when artificial, has to be turned off for hours at night which is when the plants use what they metabolized during the day.

Air is a sneaking one. It's the one you can't see. Highly compacted soil can suffocate the roots, as sure a death as lack of water or nutrients. Hydroponic growers have to use systems that leave part of all of the roots in the air for periods or use aquarium type aeration to vigorously inject air into the nutrient solution. Otherwise, the roots drown and die. Your soil has to do it without mechanical help. If you can't stick a finger down into the soil (to check moisture), it's too dense.

Whatever the problem(s) is, it lies within those four elements, and each can be explored. You've addressed light by default, for the most part. Check on the water. Don't water until soil is dry down a finger length. And then water when it is. But it should never be wet. Never mud. You can water some soils into a compacted, airless mass. That one photo shows river beds in the soil and soil that looks very dense. Proper soil should not keep a ball shape when squeezed. It should fall right back apart. And that's the air part right there.

But there's no curse on your garden. The growing environment is just out of balance somewhere. It can be fixed. A soil test is generally of value as a starting point.
Name: Zoë
Albuquerque NM, Elev 5310 ft (Zone 7b)
Region: New Mexico Herbs Salvias Composter Bee Lover Container Gardener
Bookworm Cat Lover Enjoys or suffers hot summers
Image
NMoasis
Aug 11, 2020 10:42 AM CST
Hey Patrick. I so relate. Nine years ago I moved from near you (Sonoma County) where I'd gardened for 30 years to high desert where everything was different—soil and water alkalinity, sun intensity, humidity, weather patterns—and I went from feeling like an accomplished gardener to rookie newbie overnight and have had to re-assess everything I thought I knew and why I was gardening in the first place. Looking at your photos and reading your frustration, I have some general thoughts, in no particular order.

-Accept that "gardening" is a broad term and encompasses a wide range of knowledge, experience and practice. I sense that you've jumped in trying to accomplish too much too soon with too little basic understanding of the fundamentals, with too much reliance on gimmicks from Internet click-bait sites that promise unrealistic, immediate results. Slow down and scale back your ambitions. Get yourself the Sunset Western Garden book and read all the parts about basic gardening skills, basic soil health and types, watering techniques, etc. If veggie gardening is what you want to do, decide on two or three crops only—say, salad greens in the spring and basil and summer squash in the summer—and concentrate on learning how to grow those. Add more in subsequent seasons.

-For all the hype about tomatoes, there is probably no single home crop that is subject to so many ailments and so many cultivation theories. At first, stick with the boring common hybrids that are resistant to numerous diseases. Add more interesting heirlooms as you gain experience. Also, growing tomatoes in containers on your deck is way harder than in the ground and have entirely different needs re water, soil, fertilizer and support. Smaller (both fruit and plant size), more compact varieties work best in containers.

-Understand that there are fundamentals, guidelines and basic science, and none of it is black or white, right or wrong. Everyday home gardening has so many variables that nothing is guaranteed. What works in New England isn't right for California. What works for your friend in San Francisco doesn't work for you in Oakland, because she's in a different micro-climate. Or you get the soil and compost right, sow seeds in the right season, watch your seedlings emerge and WHAM a heatwave hits and fries everything. Or freak rainstorms cause a fungal outbreak. Or one particular insect has a population surge. Everything is changeable and unpredictable.

-If you want guaranteed, perfect, immediate results, gardening is not for you.

-You mentioned succulents, air plants and several vegetables. There are gardeners on this site that have spent decades specializing in each one of those categories. None of them mastered the entire field in one or two years.

-Your beds look seriously underwatered. Get rid of the wine bottles (gimmick) and get a hose or drip system. I agree with JBarstool: mulch and mulch heavily. Don't be afraid to pull out a plant that isn't working, regardless of how much energy you've put into it. I disagree with JB about the corn: two stalks are just wasting space and will cause you more aggravation trying to learn to hand-pollinate. Try corn another year and do it right.

-Two years in gardening time is only two growing cycles, sort of like two semesters at school. You can't possibly cram in all required classes toward your Master's degree in that time.

-It's all about the soil. Get that right or nothing will be right. Creating really healthy, rich soil takes time. You can't hurry nature's natural processes.

-Too much of anything is counter-productive, and that applies to water, fertilizer, soil amendments, pruning and general fussing.

-Think, really think, about what you want to get out of growing things. Food? Flowers for the bees? A pleasurable pasttime? Seek out people who garden for the same reasons. Listen to them.

-If you want to garden as a "hobby" then treat like any other hobby. Whether it's music, sculpting, basketball or collecting bone china, it takes time to get good. I'm not sure why there is a mystique around instant gardening success that doesn't apply to other undertakings.

I see a theme running through my thoughts. You probably do, too. Slow down, step back, breathe deeply and find satisfaction in your small successes. And play in the dirt occasionally. You'll get there.
Smiling

For me, gardening is really just an excuse for playing in the dirt. Admittedly, plants are a satisfying by-product.
Name: stone
near Macon Georgia (USA) (Zone 8a)
Plant Identifier Garden Sages Million Pollinator Garden Challenge
Image
stone
Aug 11, 2020 1:37 PM CST
BigBill said: THIS YEAR I FOOLISHLY bought a globe variety. It was supposed to produce a meatier, slightly larger cherry!! Well that is true, they do!! THEY JUST PRODUCE 80% LESS FRUIT!


nmoasis said:
-Think, really think, about what you want to get out of growing things. Food? Flowers for the bees? A pleasurable pasttime? Seek out people who garden for the same reasons. Listen to them.


Ditto...

Add me to the list of people that believe deeper digging, more organic amendments, less bags of stuff...

The above point about regional varieties... When I purchase seed from other areas of the country, and they don't grow well... it's no big deal, different regions have different conditions, and plants acclimated to those conditions... may not thrive here.

Suggest "borrowing" seed from one of the beds that is growing well... see if things improve.

Most of us are happy to share our successes.
Name: Daniel Erdy
Catawba SC (Zone 7b)
Pollen collector Fruit Growers Permaculture Hybridizer Plant and/or Seed Trader Organic Gardener
Daylilies Region: South Carolina Garden Ideas: Level 2 Garden Photography Herbs Region: United States of America
Image
ediblelandscapingsc
Aug 11, 2020 1:53 PM CST
Great responces Thumbs up
🌿A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered🌿
Port d'Envaux, France (Zone 9a)
A Darwinian gardener
Image
JBarstool
Aug 11, 2020 2:22 PM CST
nmoasis said: Slow down and scale back your ambitions. Get yourself the Sunset Western Garden book and read all the parts about basic gardening skills, basic soil health and types, watering techniques, etc.
-For all the hype about tomatoes, there is probably no single home crop that is subject to so many ailments and so many cultivation theories. At first, stick with the boring common hybrids that are resistant to numerous diseases. Add more interesting heirlooms as you gain experience.

-Understand that there are fundamentals, guidelines and basic science, and none of it is black or white, right or wrong. Everything is changeable and unpredictable.

-If you want guaranteed, perfect, immediate results, gardening is not for you.


-Your beds look seriously underwatered. Get rid of the wine bottles (gimmick) and get a hose or drip system. I agree with JBarstool: mulch and mulch heavily. Don't be afraid to pull out a plant that isn't working, regardless of how much energy you've put into it. I disagree with JB about the corn: two stalks are just wasting space and will cause you more aggravation trying to learn to hand-pollinate. Try corn another year and do it right.

-Two years in gardening time is only two growing cycles, sort of like two semesters at school. You can't possibly cram in all required classes toward your Master's degree in that time.

-It's all about the soil. Get that right or nothing will be right. Creating really healthy, rich soil takes time. You can't hurry nature's natural processes.

-Too much of anything is counter-productive, and that applies to water, fertilizer, soil amendments, pruning and general fussing.

-Think, really think, about what you want to get out of growing things. Food? Flowers for the bees? A pleasurable pasttime? Seek out people who garden for the same reasons. Listen to them.


Smiling


I wish I'd said part of that.
Advice about Sunset Western Gardening - it as a really good tool. I have lots of reference books and it is still one that I go back to...though I am far from the Western US. Good info is still good info and you learn how to adjust it.
Zoe's right about the corn...but if you are wanting to t r y to keep what you have going, my advice remains the same...but you will have better luck next year doing it 'right'.
Finally - that's what I meant "it's all about your soil'.


I find myself most amusing.
[Last edited by JBarstool - Aug 11, 2020 2:23 PM (+)]
Give a thumbs up | Quote | Post #2325749 (8)
Name: Patrick
Oakland, California (Zone 10a)
Image
alibrarian510
Aug 11, 2020 10:10 PM CST
BigBill said:Gardening is knowledge that comes slowly over time. I have two thoughts that came to me quickly.

Why not meet with your neighbor at the community garden and talk to them to learn about what they are doing. Most gardeners would welcome the chance to mentor a new gardener. If you don't see them there ever, leave them a note in a plastic bag and attach it to something in their bed. What do you have to lose?
Second, I would remove the mulch at the top of your soil. I believe in mulch in my flower beds with my perennials, not with my vegetables. Your main problem could be directly related to a water issue. The mulch could be effecting that!
Oh, I said two ideas, here is another. There can be great differences in the type of veggie chosen! By that I mean variety selection. Look at my cherry tomatos for example. I have always grown varieties called Sweet One Hundreds or Sweet One Thousands!!! BUT THIS YEAR I FOOLISHLY bought a globe variety. It was supposed to produce a meatier, slightly larger cherry!! Well that is true, they do!! THEY JUST PRODUCE 80% LESS FRUIT!!! Had I known that, I would not have purchased them.
Good luck.👍


Thank you BigBill!

Watering has been the main culprit. When I watered yesterday with liquid worm castings and returned to the raised bed today, nearly every plant looked vibrant and full of life. I say nearly because one of the runner beans looks like it is on its last legs. I placed a wine bottle full of water next to it to give it more because I don't think it was getting any. I am also going to start watering three times a week to see if that makes any difference. I suspect it will because everything looks very green, just wilted.

Name: Patrick
Oakland, California (Zone 10a)
Image
alibrarian510
Aug 11, 2020 10:26 PM CST
JBarstool said:Sorry about your frustration.
My advice: Focus on the things you actually have control over and learn less from questionable videos and more from successful gardeners around you - after all, they are gardening in similar conditions to yours. If your neighbor has good looking beds and success study what he or she does differently

In your case you have control over (at least) two of the most important elements of successful gardening; soil quality and water. To my eye your soil looks very dry, but it is only a photograph - do you check beneath the surface to determine how much watering is required rather than watering on a predetermined schedule?
Again, recognizing it is only a photograph, your soil looks more like some version of potting mix than what might be a soil-based mix better suited for a raised bed. If you focus on improving the quality of what your soil you will exponentially improve your chance of success. Over time, the addition of compost and any other organic matter you can add to the soil will gradually make a significant difference.
Finally, you might take comfort in knowing that gardeners of all experience levels face frustration and challenges.
I have gardened for forty of my sixty years, the last twenty+ very seriously. I'm a certified Master Gardener in two states and retired early solely so that I could focus on a five or ten year gardening project; converting a small field into a garden of interest. I mention these things as a description of my level of interest - and maybe a little bit of skill - and yet this year I am having the undeniably w o r s t year in my gardening history of growing tomatoes. Which, by the way, is the primary reason I bother with a veg garden. I don't think I became a worse gardener between last October and this July, it's just what the vagaries of gardening dealt me this year.
And perhaps I wasn't as quick to respond to what was different in my garden this year. Regardless, if my experience this year was what my first year or two was like I'm not sure I would have persevered, so timing plays a role in our gardening trajectory as well.
That is a long winded way of saying that gardening is a long term exercise in patience and education, you will get better and be more successful. Hell, if what you say is true you are bound to be more successful if only because it would be hard to be less so - sorry, sarcasm.
Or you could take up woodworking, or fishing...now there is one stultifyingly boring hobby.

Focus on your soil. And for what it is worth, I hope you don't throw in the trowel...there aren't many hobbies that you can enjoy for your entire life.

----EDITING TO ADD:---
Two notes about your corn (which looks a bit anemic) 1) remember it is a member of the grass family and as most grasses wants quite a bit of nitrogen. 2) corn is wind pollinated (which is why it is recommended to plant it in blocks) so with only one or two plants you may find it beneficial to hand-pollinate it. As corn ears form and silks emerge from them tassels will also form above. Simply cut a tassel or two and use them like feather dusters brushing across the silks of the nascent fruit.
I have a great deal of respect for BigBill's gardening know-how. On the issue of mulching in the veg garden we disagree...I am a proponent and believe the benefits of mulching far outweigh the potential drawbacks. I garden on heavy calcareous clay and rely on heavy organic mulch to preserve soil moisture in my hot, dry, often breezy summer weather and believe that as it breaks down (and is topped up) it gradually improves the tilth of my soil. Differences of opinion; your experiences will inform your choices.


Very good points made all around. Focusing only on things I can control can be tough but important.

On to your questions:

I do not check underneath the soil surface if I need to water although I will begin doing that. I returned to the raised bed today and after a watering with liquid worm castings yesterday, everything had sprung to life! I truly believe that under watering is my main issue because everything looked very green yesterday, just wilted. The only plant that looks like it is on its last legs was one of the runner beans. There was a leaf or two that looked healthy so I gave it some water. All in all, I will start watering more frequently than twice a week but of course checking before hand if it is needed. I will also start composting too.

Good eye! I did use all purpose potting mix. Surprisingly, everything is still growing but for the next time, I will use raised bed soil. I had been so used to purchasing the former that I just bought 4 bags on auto pilot and went to town.

I won't throw in the towel, not at all. I am excited to begin anew. Someone suggested the book Golden Gate Gardening which is specific to my area. Thanks for the corn tips. I had no idea. The staff member at the nursery I purchased them from suggested I buy at least two because they don't like to be alone.
Name: Patrick
Oakland, California (Zone 10a)
Image
alibrarian510
Aug 11, 2020 10:29 PM CST
IntheHotofTexas said:I will only add a couple of things. You say "no amount of fertilizing." Over fertilizing produces just about all the things you're seeing. Yellowing, wilting, browning, poor growth, root rot, growing so fast that the roots can't keep up.

I'm suspicious of that because you have problems throughout the garden. The things plants need is a short list: Water, nutrients, light and air. The first two can be overdone. Even light, when artificial, has to be turned off for hours at night which is when the plants use what they metabolized during the day.

Air is a sneaking one. It's the one you can't see. Highly compacted soil can suffocate the roots, as sure a death as lack of water or nutrients. Hydroponic growers have to use systems that leave part of all of the roots in the air for periods or use aquarium type aeration to vigorously inject air into the nutrient solution. Otherwise, the roots drown and die. Your soil has to do it without mechanical help. If you can't stick a finger down into the soil (to check moisture), it's too dense.

Whatever the problem(s) is, it lies within those four elements, and each can be explored. You've addressed light by default, for the most part. Check on the water. Don't water until soil is dry down a finger length. And then water when it is. But it should never be wet. Never mud. You can water some soils into a compacted, airless mass. That one photo shows river beds in the soil and soil that looks very dense. Proper soil should not keep a ball shape when squeezed. It should fall right back apart. And that's the air part right there.

But there's no curse on your garden. The growing environment is just out of balance somewhere. It can be fixed. A soil test is generally of value as a starting point.


Thank you. I admit, I was being overly dramatic and the frustration certainly came through. I'll begin checking the soil before watering. When I watered yesterday with liquid worm castings, I returned today and saw that nearly everything had sprung to life! Everything in the bed is very green, but it was just wilted. I am absolutely sure that it is a watering issue.
Port d'Envaux, France (Zone 9a)
A Darwinian gardener
Image
JBarstool
Aug 12, 2020 6:57 AM CST
Great! It remains, however, not a good idea to water on a set schedule...every two days even. It really is best to feel how dry the soil is and water as needed. With a free draining potting soil that isn't going to hold lots of water during a warm week you may be watering daily. Other conditions, less. And back to my suggestion of mulching - a good thick mulch over the surface will help preserve the moisture in the soil...anything organic, shredded leaves, hay, etc.
I find myself most amusing.
California
fiddler
Aug 15, 2020 7:46 AM CST
One other thing you should be aware of--if you have filled your beds with potting soil instead of raised bed mix, potting soil tends to contain a lot of peat. Once peat dries out, it is very difficult to re-wet. So if your soil has dried out underneath due to under-watering, you will need to take special care to get that soil to absorb water again. Poking holes in it and cultivating a little before you water may help.

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