Having garden problems? Do you ever feel frustrated with your soil, pests or limited space? Is it too hot or windy, cold, wet or dry to grow food? If you’re having challenges growing an edible garden, it helps to have a ‘tool kit of techniques’ you can use to overcome common problems.
When the Growing Gets Tough
Here in subtropical SE Queensland, Australia, we have challenging wet and dry seasons. We often experience long months of drought. Our growing periods are not governed by a calendar with a traditional three month season like many places in the world. Spring typically only lasts a few weeks in the subtropics and summer is at least four months long! Here the hot/wet/dry months can be very challenging to grow food. Many northern hemisphere gardeners look forward to warm summers as a prime growing season but get frustrated with a long, cold period. So no climate is perfect!
“Extreme temperatures, high humidity, wild storms, hail, damaging winds, sudden heavy downpours, driving rain, drought and flooding are common weather issues to deal with. Not to mention pest insect population explosions. It’s no wonder many food gardeners throw their hands in the air and give up altogether!”
So what CAN you do when growing conditions are difficult?
9 Strategies to Help Combat Common Edible Garden Problems
These are a few techniques I use to find enjoyment and grow at least some edibles all year.
1. Focus on your VIPs (Very Important Plants)
Prioritize your plants. Decide which ones you can’t live without! Make a list of your VIPs:
“Focus on those that save money by feeding you, provide you with value, have special meaning or you can’t afford to lose. e.g. long term investment fruit trees, herbs you use in cooking regularly, edibles you only have one of, or healing medicinal plants.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
My VIPs are the plants I always give first attention to i.e. protect or maintain if I have limited time and have to make tough choices. This takes the pressure off trying to give every plant the same care. Some will just have to fend for themselves! You can always put the rest of your garden into ‘low maintenance mode’ until circumstances or the weather become more favourable.
2. Grow an Easy Indoor Garden
When it’s too hot or cold outdoors or you simply don’t have the energy, you can still enjoy nutritious, tasty edibles:
- Start sprouting. You can grow sprouts all year round for digestive enzymes and only need basic equipment. [Follow my Tutorial]
- Sow microgreens. I reuse plastic punnets as mini greenhouses and grow year-round indoors. [Follow my Tutorial]
- Move potted edibles indoors into a sunny or well-lit spot like a window sill. Focus on harvesting from those. Many edibles like leafy greens still produce plenty of salad leaves in less than perfect growing conditions. 3-4 hours of light daily is often enough for loose leaf lettuce varieties. You may be surprised what will grow indoors in a well-lit location!
- Start seeds indoors and get the jump on the next season.
- Be adventurous! Try a mushroom kit – humid bathrooms and laundries are perfect environments. I’ve had great success with kits. My favourite are oyster mushrooms.
- Propagate cuttings in water on your kitchen bench. Herbs like the mint family, basil and rosemary can be propagated ready for planting out, so you don’t waste time.
- Follow a moon calendar for optimal times to take cuttings and improve your strike rate. It’s fun and SO satisfying growing your garden for free.
- Grow spring onions in a glass of water. These tasty nutrient-packed greens will flavour meals continually and are very versatile ingredients.
- Allow your root crops to sprout ready for potting up – potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, ginger and turmeric are all easy to grow this way.
“I encourage you to experiment! If you don’t try, you’ll never know what you CAN grow.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
3. Protect and Cover your Crops
In harsh hot, dry or windy weather, shade structures are a smart strategy to save your plants. There are many DIY portable or temporary ones you can make. Palm fronds are just one example of garden ‘green waste’ you can reuse in a practical way to save money and food crops. I love Del’s idea here:
White shade cloth (50% or 30% UV) helps reflect heat to keep your crops cool. It is also more visible to bats and other night creatures, reducing the risk of injury.
I use a shade house to allow filtered light into my plants on wire shelves. A greenhouse structure can be used to protect plants from hail, strong winds, heat and frost = a multi-purpose solution. If you have the budget and space, it’s a great investment.
There are many creative crop protection solutions – temporary and permanent. Make choices based on your time, budget and DIY skills.
Exclusion netting is an option for keeping out pest insects, birds and animals. It’s also worked very well in my garden to protect crops against hail, filtering tiny hailstones through and catching the rest. Taught netting has saved my garden from being shredded. It’s economical, easy to move and quick to erect. Just be aware you may need to hand pollinate some crops if the netting is very fine.
In cold weather, a greenhouse or cold frame can provide your plants with a safe, warm environment to grow. Small portable cold frames can also be used to raise seeds each season.
4. Grow in Containers
I’ve found container gardens offer many benefits in difficult weather, space and soil conditions. They are portable, can easily be protected and moved to a more suitable microclimate in the short term. The bonus is you have minimal if any, weeds and pests! If you have poor soil, just make your own potting mix.
I grow a lot of my food crops, herbs and medicinal plants in pots. During summer, I move these under the semi-shade of two large trees just off my porch. When storms are forecast, to avoid waterlogging, heavy rain, hail damage or broken pots from wind, I can easily shift them to a protected spot. Heavy pots are best on castors so they can be moved quickly.
By planting crops in pots, you can also extend the growing season for many edibles. For example, leafy greens like lettuce or rocket often wilt or bolt to seed in the heat. In containers, you’re more in control of growing conditions. I often put my salad greens in a semi-shaded microclimate and get to enjoy them for weeks longer!
Other crops like beets, spinach and curcubits suffer rust and powdery mildew in the garden due to rain splash. Then there’s the greedy grasshoppers who don’t play fair! These challenges can be avoided with smart pot choices.
“Container gardening provides greater control over the environment and microclimate, so you can minimise most problems.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
With so many advantages, I encourage you to learn container gardening skills.
5. Build Healthy Soil for next Season
If you want to eat an abundance of nutrient-dense food, your top priority is to work on soil health. Even when you’re not growing food, you can still be improving your soil. These are a few techniques for building healthy, living soil:
- Cover crop solutions – Sow a ‘cover crop’ or ‘green manure’ over unused or tired garden beds. A practical solution for a low maintenance summer or winter garden. Choose a suitable mix of legumes and grains for your season and climate. Buckwheat, cowpea, oats, woolly pod vetch, lucerne/alfalfa, clovers and fenugreek are a few crops that help enrich the soil and attract beneficial insects.
- Cover crops and green manures minimise weeds, leaching and soil erosion by covering bare soil. Each crop provides different benefits. They can help smother weeds; build soil fertility by recycling nutrients; aid aeration; prevent soil-borne pests and diseases; and boost beneficial microbe populations. You cut the plants at ground level before they set seed, typically just as flowers are forming. ‘Chop and drop’ the crop as a nutrient-rich, weed-free mulch. You can also cover with another layer of mulch to accelerate breakdown. Wait 2-3 weeks for the organic matter to break down before planting.
- Build a compost system to recycle your household and garden waste.
- Plant a living ground cover. Some root crops like sweet potatoes, yakon or yams do the digging for you. Their tubers aerate the soil and provide erosion control. The leaves above ground prevent weeds and provide shade protection.
- Start a worm farm in a shady spot and turn your kitchen scraps into beautiful nutrient-rich humus for your soil, potting mix and seed raising.
- Add a thick layer of mulch. Recycle free garden waste like bark, leaves or grass clippings if available. Mulch retains soil moisture; adds microbes and nutrients; insulates soil temperature; prevents weeds; and improves the visual appearance of your garden.
- Grow nutrient accumulators like nasturtiums, comfrey, yarrow, sorrel, dandelion and watercress. These plants will add health to your garden by drawing up minerals from the soil into their leaves, stems and flowers. Use them as ‘chop and drop’ mulch or as ingredients in your compost to remineralise your soil.
6. Pay Attention to Seedlings
If you are raising seeds indoors or a protected area, they can die if it’s too hot, dry, cold or wet. Nurture your plant babies with a little extra care:
- Maintain consistent moisture and light.
- Wait until their roots have fully formed before planting out.
- Give them a few days to adjust to the weather.
- Sun-harden them gently for short periods over a week, so they acclimatize and have a better chance of transplanting successfully.
- Plant out early morning only.
- Mulch well and protect with some shade or suitable cover for your climate.
7. Harvest and Use Rain Water
If you experience downpours in your climate, use this as an opportunity to passively harvest free rainwater. It’s full of minerals, especially nitrogen. Even better, it’s free of chemicals like chlorine and fluoride that can harm your plants.
Even a small water tank, bin or barrel will make your garden more sustainable. When it rains, it’s an ideal opportunity to give your container gardens a good soak. Bring houseplants and pots outdoors to wash off dust, remove toxic salt buildup in the soil and remineralise. Your plants will ‘thank you’ for refreshing them in a rain shower with new growth and vitality!
Whilst it can be soul-destroying when plants are damaged or destroyed in bad weather, you can still recycle the nutrients. Add plant material to the compost or use as mulch. They will give life to a new garden.
8. Work WITH the Weather
Become a weather watcher. Familiarise yourself with your favourite online weather channel. I check the weather every day.
“Having advance warning of seasonal or daily weather changes can save you time, money and even your garden, from destructive damage.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
You can find out:
- when storms are coming e.g. hail and snow (plants need early protection);
- daily temperatures (for heat/frost cover);
- gusty or drying winds (extra watering, mulch or protection);
- when rain is forecast (avoid watering to save time and money, move plants to prevent waterlogging or flooding).
Get to know your local weather patterns. Use them to your advantage to save time and money while maintaining your plants.
Locally I use:
- Weatherzone – Australia (choose your suburb)
- Gympie (Mt Kanigan) Radar Loop (rainfall real time)
- Brisbane (Marburg) Radar Loop (rainfall real time)
- Bureau of Meteorology Weather Warnings for QLD (storms)
- Higgins Storm Chasing
Other free online weather resources include:
- World Weather: Choose your location at AccuWeather
- World Weather: Choose your location at Weatherzone
- US: Weather Forecasts & Alerts
- Canada & USA: The Weather Network
- US & Europe Severe Weather Alerts: Weather Underground
- New Zealand: MetService; Weatherzone
9. Time your Gardening Activities
- During hot weather, I get up early or go out late in the day when it’s cool. This gives me time to observe plants. I see what needs attending to or harvesting, when it’s a comfortable temperature. Keep a garden journal so you have a record of your seasonal patterns.
- Do less when conditions are not favourable. Let yourself off the hook! Do more when you’re able to.
- Walk in the rain. Grab the umbrella and your gumboots and go outside! It’s amazing how many important things you will notice about your garden in wet conditions. Which plants are thriving? Who’s drowning with wet feet? What’s the drainage like? Is there a boggy spot you could plant water-loving plants? There are opportunities to ‘design out’ problems and observe what’s doing well.
- I use a Moon Calendar as a planting guide every month to maximise my production, plant health and success. It really makes life easy and I love working with nature’s moon cycles. This simply means working with the soil moisture when it is flowing up or down and using it to your advantage.
- There are times in the month when your plants have a rest and times of incredible growth. You can plan your activities easily to enjoy the many benefits of moon gardening.
- If it’s too hot or cold to plant, choose seeds for next season. Write up your garden journal, take photos or work on your garden design.
“There’s just as much joy and satisfaction in planning as planting.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
At the end of the day, growing a food garden should be fun, low-maintenance, sustainable and give you pleasure. If it’s all too hard due to weather, your health, budget or skill level, there are ALWAYS solutions! I hope these ideas help inspire you.
How do YOU manage, when the ‘growing gets tough’? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.
- Tips to Grow Food in Hot, Dry or Windy Weather
- 18 Top Tips for Gardening in Dry Climate Conditions
- How to Restore Waterlogged Pot Plants
- Summer Heatwaves
- 10 Water Saving Tips for your Garden
- 17 Water Saving Tips for Container Gardens
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2016. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.