5 Reasons Why Your Vegetable Garden is Struggling

healthy vegetable garden without soil problems

My garden in the middle of August – the height of the season!

During the height of the vegetable garden season your plants should be big and lush, the fruit and veggies abundant, and the flowers bursting with color.

But what if your garden looks terrible? What should you do?

First, you should know you’re not alone. This has happened to me. At two different houses. Even after ordering new soil and installing new raised beds.

Here’s the quick version of the story:

When we purchased our current house a few years ago at the beginning of June we immediately installed four raised beds as a quick first phase of our new front yard garden.

new raised beds not growing plants

Installation of phase 1!

I was nursing a bunch of seedlings along all spring, so the plants were pretty yellow when I planted them in the garden. Usually, when I plant a sad looking seedling, within a few weeks it bounces back with new growth that’s dark green and healthy.

Four weeks later, the plants had grown very little and still looked stressed out. I immediately went through the most common factors that affect plant growth and tried to diagnose what was happening.

Generally, when there are problems with your plants – they are yellow, they’re not growing, they’re not producing food – you’ll want to look at several different things to see if one or two of them are causing the issues.

peas growing in healthy soil

5 Reasons Why Your Vegetable Garden is Struggling

Sun: Is your garden getting enough hours of sunlight? Vegetables do best in full sun – eight or more hours per day. If your vegetables aren’t growing to full size or producing as much as you think they should, lack of sun might be the reason.

If you can relocate your garden into a full sun area of your yard that’s the best option. If not, focus on growing vegetables that need less sunlight.

The warm weather vegetables like tomatoes, melons, peppers, and eggplant prefer as much sun as possible (unless you live in a very hot climate). Those might not be the best choice for a partly shady garden. Instead, plant root vegetables like carrots and beets, and leafy vegetables like spinach, salad mix, cilantro, and kale.

My garden is in full sun, so I knew this wasn’t the problem.

healthy garden soil

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Soil: Sun and soil are the two most important factors in your garden’s success. If you have enough sun to grow the vegetables you’ve planted in your garden, then lack of soil nutrients is the next likely cause.

In general, I’ve found that most gardeners benefit from adding a balanced organic fertilizer to their gardens every time they plant. You should purchase some at a local garden center and apply it to your garden to see if it makes a difference.

I’ve written a whole post (with a video!) on which kind of fertilizer to buy and how to apply it when planting seeds and plants. Check it out here.

Missing nutrients causing soil problems was the culprit I suspected in my garden. More about my solution in a minute…

garden after a rain soil issues

Weather: Certain weather patterns in your area can cause vegetable plants to act in strange ways. For example,  cool nighttime temps below 60 degrees F and hot daytime temps above 85 degrees can cause tomato and pepper plants to drop their flowers. If that weather continues around the time these plants are usually flowering and setting fruit you may get less than expected.

You can’t control the weather where you live, but you may be able to assist your plants in coping with abnormal weather by using things like shade cloth, row cover, and mulch.

The weather in Madison was pretty average for that time of year, so I didn’t think this was the problem.

harvest of different varieties in vegetable garden

Variety: What variety of each vegetable you choose to grow very much matters. Choosing a variety that grows well in your climate is a very important factor in having a healthy and productive garden.  If you’ve been growing the same variety year after year and have never had much success with that particular crop, it might be time to try a new one.

I’ve trialed a lot of different varieties in my garden over the years and they have varied quite a bit in performance, yield, and plant health.  Talk to local farmers at the market, or other gardeners in your community, to see which vegetable varieties people are having success with. (Read more about choosing varieties here.)

The varieties I was growing in my garden were all tried and true ones that I’ve grown for many years. They had performed much better in the past, so I knew variety wasn’t the issue this time around.

water cause garden problems

Water: If you garden is in a boggy area where the soil stays water-logged or you’re watering too much (as in every day) you may have inhospitable conditions in your garden. Most vegetable crops like to dry out a bit between waterings, and some vegetables like tomatoes and squash don’t like to be soggy. (Read all about how to water the right way here.)

In the previous two weeks, my rain gauge had recorded about a foot of rain. That’s way too much water! We installed this new garden right on top of the grass so the drainage probably wasn’t as good as a more established garden.

Do the plants have wet feet? The soil in the bed didn’t seem waterlogged, but it was possible.

adding fertilizer to vegetable garden soil problems

The Verdict & Solution

After running through all of these possible causes in my head, I decided that soil problems were the most likely culprit. I had a lack of fertility at my last house, and many of the symptoms were the same.

I just happened to be reading The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food which focuses on how to build soil fertility to grow food with the most amount of nutrients, so I was already thinking about my overall soil health.

In the book the author gives a recipe for a Complete Organic Fertilizer you can mix up for your own garden. I decided to quickly gather the ingredients and create a batch. I spread a handful around each plant and gently dug it into the soil with my fingers.

At the same time, I also decided to send a soil sample away to the lab he recommends in the book to help me assess my soil and formulate a more long-term plan.

I also contacted the local company I ordered the soil from and shared the problems I was experiencing and told them I thought the soil they sold me had nutrient issues. They sent a staff person to collect a soil sample and sent it to their own lab.

Within a week of spreading the fertilizer around my plants, they perked up, turned a deep green, and started growing. It was amazing to watch and confirmed my suspicion that soil problems were the cause of my stunted plants.

stunted celery plant with soil problems

My stunted celery plant. Notice the ring of fertilizer I’m about to work into the soil around it.

Moving Forward with Soil Problems

If you suspect you have soil nutrient deficiencies, your first step should be to purchase a balanced organic fertilizer and apply it to your whole garden. (See how here.) If that doesn’t improve things, then you may need to take the longer road of sending a soil sample away for a more complete analysis.

Soil issues won’t be corrected with one application of fertilizer. It may take several years or more to bring your soil into balance. I’ve been retesting my soil every year and it’s slowly improving. I continue to add my own custom mix to my garden beds several times a season and my plants have thanked me for it!

It’s worth it to tackle this issue because when you do you’ll be rewarded with lush and healthy plants that yield more fruits and vegetables for you to cook and serve to your family. Don’t be intimidated by the subject of soil fertility. Do some experiments in your own garden and see if you can drastically improve the vigor of your plants in the coming seasons.

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