If supermarkets did not exist, I would have starved myself by now.
August 17, 2009 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I am a failure as a gardener and a human being. What the hell did I do wrong with the vegetable patch?

This was our first season trying a "real" garden (in fact, the first season I've had a back yard to do anything with). We built a raised bed, 4'x8', filled it with top soil from Home Depot, started some seeds indoors, and planted them about April-ish. And then again mid-May after everything died.

Whatever hasn't been killed off is so puny as to be worthless. All of our neighbors have nice big tomatoes growing; nothing of ours has produced any fruit whatsoever. A rundown of our attempts:

-Lettuce. None of them grew larger than half an inch off the ground, and then they all died.
-Basil. Same thing. Only a couple pairs of leaves, followed by death.
-Roma tomatoes. Grew about three or four pairs of leaves, then all the leaves fell off.
-Hot and bell peppers. Leaves all fell off. One specimen was left indoors for very long, got big and bushy, put it outside and then all the leaves fell off.
-Beefsteak-style tomatoes. These were starters, they've grown to be about 5 feet tall, but no fruit.
-Zucchini. I thought these were supposed to be vines; each of them is only about six inches long. One flowered, then all the flowers fell off and it died. Two others withered and died. The other ones are not growing.
-Cucumbers. Very, very small. Maybe three pairs of leaves, and an inch high. These have all flowered, but no fruit. They're not growing any larger.
-Mint. Didn't even bother sprouting.
-Parsley. They still only have two or three leaves, with very thin and flimsy stems.

So, we have literally zero yield for our efforts so far and it looks like we won't get a thing for the rest of the season. With the exception of the beefsteak tomatoes, everything was started from seed according to the instructions on the packages.

It's fairly shady in the back yard, and we just bought bags of generic top soil to fill the bed (it was pretty clumpy and had a bunch of sticks). I didn't do anything to the soil - just dumped it in, raked a little bit, and planted seedlings when I thought they were big enough. Also, being in New England, we had about a six week stretch of rain and low temperatures.

Obviously, I need some help. I could really use some very basic "For Dummies"-style advice as far as a) fixing the garden for the rest of the season, or b) prepping it for next season so it's not such a failure. I could also use some trouble-shooting to identify what went wrong this year. Some thoughts I had:
-Transplanted seedlings to early/too young
-Not enough light
-Not enough nutrients in the soil
-Too much/too little water

We also managed to kill a jade and an ivy plant that were in pots indoors (seriously, how is it possible to kill ivy?!), so we're really not doing too well with this.

And if anyone in the Boston area wants to come over and show me what I'm doing wrong, drop me a line.
posted by backseatpilot to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Generally, cucumbers have stopped producing for a while when it gets as hot as this. They peak in early summer, after it's started to warm up and before it gets unpleasant. Two questions:

1. When you say shady, how shady? The comments about the thin leaves and the lack of fruit/flowering even on robust things like zucchini, as well as the change in the pepper plant, make me wonder how many horus of sunlight your plot gets. Vegetable gardens with zucchini and peppers and basil and tomatoes need oodles of sunlight.

2. You don't mention watering. Did you do that? I know the Northeast got some nice wet weather earlier in the year, but things have been pretty dry in my section of the Midatlantic for a while. Vegetables need steady, deep watering.
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:24 PM on August 17, 2009

All the stuff you have seems to like the same amount of water, so if you've ben giving it decent water, that seems unlikely. But they all generally like a lot of water.

You say that it's shady, though -- how shady? A couple of those are really light-loving plants.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:28 PM on August 17, 2009

It never hurts to add a little fertilizer and compost to the soil.
posted by Allee Katze at 1:28 PM on August 17, 2009

Not enough light would be my first guess. Vegetables need serious sun - at least 6 hours of direct sunlight for something like tomatoes, less for lettuce. Every time I've tried to grow them in a spot with marginal light, I've failed miserably with results like you have had.

Water can definitely be an issue too especially for houseplants, which people tend to overwater.

That being said, I've heard complaints from other gardeners this year in Minnesota that their tomatoes aren't coming in or aren't ripening. I think we had similar weather to New England, so it could have just been a bad year?
posted by cabingirl at 1:31 PM on August 17, 2009

It sounds like 1) you don't have enough sun 2) you didn't enrich your soil with compost or other mild fertilizers (fish meal, bone meal, etc.) or 3) you have an issue with nematodes from spent soil. It also sounds like you had bad luck with low temperatures and grey days early on in the season, so nothing was able to get off to a good start.

It's not you. Keep plugging away at it - I would focus on next season, establishing drip lines so that your watering schedule is fixed and repeated, mulching everything down and applying compost in the fall to help build up your soil reserves over the winter. Next year, try to start a few nursery started plants alongside the stuff you grow from seed to give yourself a control to measure against.

Now that you've had a season to really pay attention, is your raised bed in the best spot for getting the most sun, or should it be moved next year?
posted by annathea at 1:34 PM on August 17, 2009

Sunlight and fertilizer are important.

You may want to read up on Square Foot Gardening, I'm currently reading the book and it seems a nice and rewarding way of gardening for beginners.
posted by IAr at 1:36 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry your first attempt has been met with such failure!
I suspect that you've had a confluence of events and choices that have led to your circumstances.
My first questions are: What did you use to build your raised beds? That is, are they just mounded soil, or did you border them with wood? If the latter, was it by any chance pressure-treated? If so, that could be one of the culprits. Treated wood should be scrupulously avoided, as it is treated with chemicals that are toxic to both humans and plants.
The second culprit would be light, or rather, your beds lack of it. Gardens, unless they are shade gardens, generally need light, because light means warmth; vegetable plants (especially those grown in the summer months in N. America) need warm soil. Without sufficient light, plants will indeed be puny.
The third culprit could be that 'topsoil' you bought. Most topsoil, is, in my opinion (and that of Steve Solomon - more on him later) a very large waste of money, for the very thing you state - it has 'lots of sticks in it'. Those sticks are woody material, and too much woody material actually causes soil biota to go to work on it and in the process use up the available nitrogen in the soil. This is what is meant when you hear that wood chips 'tie up nitrogen'. Available nitrogen is a key nutrient for nearly all vegetable garden plants, some need more (like lettuce, onions, garlic, spinach - anything mostly green), and some need less, but very very little is available until all that woody debris is completely broken down - a process that can take a long, long time.
The fourth culprit could indeed be the weather this year in your location, especially when compounded with the first three.
Lastly, you failed to mention any kind of watering plan - how did you water? That is, how often, how much, and when?
So, what to do?
First, get a copy of Steve Solomon's book: Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food inHard Times, and consult it frequently - it's great, and provides a fairly comprehensive, yet simple instruction for home gardeners.
Second, re-think where your garden 'should' be - no one really says it has to be in your backyard - how about a side yard or front yard? The key here is that the soil should be okay (you can improve it on your own by liming and adding some compost), well-drained, and sunny - or at least sunny most of the day (like all morning, or all afternoon, or a combo).
Third, consult your local County Extension Office for more assistance - they run the Master Gardener programs throughout the country, and always have volunteers happy to help you - and the emphasis is on organic gardening (though not exclusively).
posted by dbmcd at 1:41 PM on August 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Raised beds can dry out pretty fast, so it could have been you didn't water stuff enough. But I also guess it's a location issue. How much sun does the bed get?

It's also usually a lot easier to start most veggies from transplants than from seed.

Lettuce is a cool weather crop, whereas tomatoes and cukes are summer crops. One of the advantages of buying transplants is that usually stuff is out at your local nursery when it's a good time to plant.

I suggest asking a neighbor with great tomatoes over for a beer, and ask him/her what they think of your gardening space.

And ask at your nursery (or Home Depot or wherever) how and where to plant this stuff.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:47 PM on August 17, 2009

I'm going to N'th sun and soil as major issues here. Since everyone else has addressed sun, let me address soil.

When you say "top soil" from Home Depot, what exactly did you buy? Was it potting soil, or was it sphagnum moss mix soil, or what? If you had a sphagnum moss mix, those SUCK for retaining water, and as such could have produced the withering effect you describe. As could lack of water in general. But the starting to grow then failing sounds like a nutrient issue big time.

Did you add ANYTHING to it? You might have over or under done on particular nutrients. Nitrogen levels in soil in particular, if too high, can "burn" plants by sucking water out of the cells and producing yellowing and withering. You can buy a home test kit for nitrogen and other chemical levels at Home Depot and they are WELL worth the price.

If you live somewhere near a zoo or horse farm? I've had loads of success adding elephant and horse manure to soil to beef it up.
posted by strixus at 1:48 PM on August 17, 2009

Yeah, it's not the pressure treated lumber. That's just incorrect.

I'd go along with most of the other suggestions about light being the problem, however the lettuce thing is mysterious, lettuce should be easy to grow in even low light. Part of our backyard is always in the shade of our neighbors garage and we have no trouble growing lettuce there.

I'd send a sample of my soil to a lab. Your local extension service should be able to hook you up with one.

I'd avoid putting anything besides well composted manure or leaf gro on the soil until you get the results back from the lab. Dumping in a bunch of fertilizer or soil amendments like lime is a pretty easy way to make sure nothing grows there for awhile.

Something is seriously wrong when you can't grow mint. Most people I know have the opposite problem.
posted by electroboy at 2:00 PM on August 17, 2009

When you say "top soil" from Home Depot, what exactly did you buy? Was it potting soil, or was it sphagnum moss mix soil, or what?

This is what I would like to know as well.

Usually low light results in spindly plants that are stretched and leggy. I think there's a problem with your soil.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:15 PM on August 17, 2009

It's also usually a lot easier to start most veggies from transplants than from seed.

They did start with transplants, with seed they planted themselves.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:17 PM on August 17, 2009

Response by poster: I bought dirt that I believe was intended for lawns; the bag mentioned peat moss. We added nothing at all to the dirt. We have been composting all summer, so there will be some of that available this fall.

I set up the bed before the trees grew leaves back in March. It seemed ideal until the trees filled in, and I really don't know for sure how much light is available. We started the plants inside and they were all stringy right from the beginning.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:23 PM on August 17, 2009

... and now that I think about it, did you harden off the seedlings you started indoors? Or just take them outside and stick them in the soil? Because along with whatever issues "topsoil" from Home Depot is going to present, hardening off seedlings is critical to their survival.

It never hurts to add a little fertilizer and compost to the soil.

Compost, sure. Fertilizer randomly added to any soil (especially without a pH test) is a waste of money, and is sometimes harmful. One common example: too much nitrogen just before fruit set can lead to calcium deficiency and blossom end rot, especially in tomatoes.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:26 PM on August 17, 2009

I've tried the "starting seed indoors" route several times--being in Minnesota, it seems like the right thing to do in theory--but I've rarely had good luck with it. Plants struggle to come up inside, and then most of them wither from the shock when they're transplanted outdoors. It may work for other people, but I've given up on it.
posted by gimonca at 2:35 PM on August 17, 2009

OK. Next time buy proper soil. Or amend what you have- get some local advice that includes soil testing and texture evaluation. I was at a Home Depot a couple weeks ago, and considered buying a bag of soil to transplant my houseplants. I couldn't find a single bag of soil anywhere with a proper ingredient list- a sure sign that it is pretty much crap. Buy soil and/or amendments at a nursery or a rockery, and make sure it is potting or bedding soil without any added fertilizers. Ideally it will be organic, and everything in it will be on the label. You want it to be more than just composted tree trimmings or waste soil ("clean fill") from building sites, which is what a lot of the junk in Home Depot is.

I'm not familiar with any of these groups as I am far away, but here are some resources in your area.

Make sure your seedlings look pretty robust, and harden them off before transplanting. It is also very important to transplant things at the right time- you usually can't even find tomatoes in nurseries here in the mild Bay Area before Easter, because the soil is too cold for them to thrive when transplanted. Nighttime temps need to be above 50 for a few weeks to plant tomatoes in the garden. At any rate, if you have less than three hours of direct sun, you are going to have issues with growing vegetables, and in that case you might want to see if an arborist can trim your trees to give you more light. So this is something you should try to determine now while the sun is out.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:40 PM on August 17, 2009

Actually, you will probably have issues with less than six hours of direct sun. I'm not sure why I typed three. Although you can get away with less than six if you are very choosy about the things you plant, use mulch, &c. I have grown tomatoes with only three hours of direct sun, but it was in a very warm backyard, and they were tomatoes specially bred for the foggy Bay Area.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:44 PM on August 17, 2009

I'd avoid putting anything besides well composted manure or leaf gro

Sorry, Leaf Gro is a local product that isn't available in your area. It's pretty ubiquitous around these parts. Leaf mold would be what you want, but still, not much point in doing anything to the soil until you know what's going on.
posted by electroboy at 2:49 PM on August 17, 2009

Problem #1 is the topsoil. That stuff is mostly junk. dbmcd is right that it may be nitrogen deficient, but test it to be sure. It also probably doesn't drain well, so your plants' roots weren't getting oxygen and rotted. If it holds moisture for a long time, you need to mix in something light like vermiculite to improve drainage.

Problem #2 is hours of available light. For tomatoes and peppers, sun needs to hit the leaves directly for 8 hours a day. Any less will give crappy results. Most of your other vegetables can do okay with 6 hours of direct sun. As you noted, hours of sun can change dramatically in one spot over the year because of tree or building shade. You may have to move the spot somewhere else.

Not hardening seedlings off, leaving them inside too long, water, compost and everything else mentioned are good things to think about, but if you don't fix those first two things, absolutely nothing else you do will help.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:01 PM on August 17, 2009

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned pH. Improper pH can make nutrients unavailable to plants. You can fertilize out the wazoo, but if your pH is too high or too low, the plants can't get the nutrients. A good pH is around 6.2 for most vegetables.

Gardening is not really something you can do overnight by buying a bag of dirt and sticking some plants in it. You need to get your soil tested by a soil lab. Call your local agricultural extension office and find out how your county does it. A soil test should cost about $10 or less (perhaps free). Then follow the recommendations to adjust the nutrients and pH. Your extension agent should be able to help with this, or direct you to someone who can.
posted by bengarland at 4:38 PM on August 17, 2009

The bags of topsoil that you get for around $1 are okay as "filler," but too dense to promote good root growth. The Miracle Garden Soil is decent, I use this, along with a big bale of peat moss, some compost, and some manure when starting a new raised bed.

Seedlings need ALOT of light when they're indoors - in fact you can literally have your grow-light touching the leaves. A sunny window is not adequate for seed-starting. A cheap shop light hung over the seedings will do the trick.

You can't just move your seedlings from indoors and immediately plant them outdoors. They need to gradually get used to the change in environment. As others have said, this is called "hardening off."

It sounds like poor soil and transplant shock contributed to the demise of your plants. Don't get down about it, though. Gardening does have a learning curve, and it's extremely rewarding when you are successful. Like anything, it takes practice.
posted by Ostara at 6:05 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Gardening is not really something you can do overnight by buying a bag of dirt and sticking some plants in it.

Gardening isn't rocket science. It really mostly is sticking some plants in dirt and seeing if they grow. If they do, then bully (and tomatoes) for you. If not, then you try to figure out what went wrong.

That said, I'm voting for some unnaturally high level of nitrogen combined with poor light and possibly the unusually shitty weather the east coast has been experiencing. You shouldn't be able to not grow lettuce or mint.
posted by electroboy at 9:35 PM on August 17, 2009

Two cents here: if you do replant the mint, plant it in a very large pot without a hole in the bottom. Once it starts to grow, it will invade every inch of your garden forever.

Don't be discouraged. All gardeners suffer losses. Given that this is your first time out, it's disappointing but not fatal. Use the summer and fall to prepare your soil for next year and see if there's a way to prune something to give your patch more light. I saw somewhere last year a person who had incorporated mirrors into his garden to give his plants reflected light as he had insufficient sunlight. That's a bit drastic - and expensive - but, perhaps a good pair of loppers is in your future. As for watering, take a look at drip and weeper hoses. They water at the soil level so promote fewer mould diseases than overhead watering and are the lazy gardener's way to get the garden a thorough soaking. Otherwise nthing all the advice you already have.
posted by x46 at 1:53 AM on August 18, 2009

Response by poster: Whew, ok. Let me see if I can summarize everything we need to improve for next year:

-More sun
-Improve the soil
-Harden plants before they go into the ground
-Grow light for the seedlings
-Send out for a soil test

This will be an interesting balancing act, since we live in a triplex and I don't want to (can't) cut down the trees in the back yard. Maybe some judicious pruning will focus the sun on the garden while keeping the rest of the yard comfortable.

Gardening is not really something you can do overnight by buying a bag of dirt and sticking some plants in it.

I have remained baffled throughout this entire process that we as a species ever managed to move beyond the hunter/gatherer stage.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:44 AM on August 18, 2009

You may not necessarily have to do all that -- if you're willing to scale back your garden a bit.

Container gardening may be a good way to get your feet wet. You won't have the yields you probably are hoping for, but you may also end up with more than you've got now, so that'll be an improvement. If you stick to container gardening just for a season, then you'll have some advantages on all of these counts:

1. If you have everything in pots, then you don't need to prune your trees to give your plants more sun -- you'll just have to pick up the pot and put it exactly where you want it.

2. If you have everything in pots, you can have more control over the quality of the soil -- simply by making sure you get good potting soil.

3. If you have everything in pots, you won't have to worry as much about hardening seedlings before going in the ground - because they won't be in the ground.

4. If you have everything in pots, you won't have to worry about getting a soil test -- because you've gotten good soil already.

There are varieties of vegetables that do very well in containers. Of the plants you have above, I know that there are cucumbers suitable for containers; there are also tomatoes (and I don't just mean cherry tomatoes either). You may not be able to do iceberg lettuce in containers, but lots of other salad greens do well (arugula in particular). Putting the mint in a big pot will actually be a good thing, because in good conditions mint grows like crazy and if it's in a pot you'll be spared from having it take over your entire lawn.

Try that next year, just to get your feet wet. Get some big pots for the vegetables, and be prepared for each pot to only be able to take one or two plants -- that's just the way of things. But if you maybe have one or two tomato plants, a big pot of a mix of salad greens, a couple pots of herbs, and maybe a big pot with a cucumber, you can have a decent introduction to gardening. That's also a manageable number of pots to be toting around your yard, moving them to catch the sun. The only rule of thumb for container gardening is that they tend to need a lot more water -- particularly the plants you've chosen -- but if you're focused only on that without having to worry about a ton of other things, it may be dealable.

Or you could specifically look for plants that can take a little less water. The woody herbs like rosemary, sage, and oregano actually benefit from drying out a little between watering -- that's one reason why I chose them, because I knew that occasionally I'd forget to water them all that much. They've survived just fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:14 AM on August 18, 2009

I've got some sort of deficiency in my soil that zucchini need. Two years in a row I've got practically nothing.

electroboy writes "Something is seriously wrong when you can't grow mint. Most people I know have the opposite problem."

Yes mint is a semi invasive plant that tolerates medium shade to full sun. You should be able to grow it. So you've got either a soil problem or a water problem. It sounds like your raised bed was filled with a woody "top soil" and I'd bet that is the problem. The fix could be as simple as mixing the top soil 50/50 with whatever kind of dirt you have under it plus your compost and whatever grass clippings and leaf mold you can get. Do this now so the soil can start working.

bengarland writes "Gardening is not really something you can do overnight by buying a bag of dirt and sticking some plants in it."

Well it can be that simple. Potatoes for example are pretty tolerant to black thumbs. It would be worth trying "no-till" potatoes in your situation. Other things that are practically guaranteed and can be planted directly (so no transplanting worries) are rutabagas and beans (which are nitrogen fixers so do ok in poor nitrogen soils).
posted by Mitheral at 7:40 AM on August 18, 2009

electroboy - sorry to correct, but if the OP has a bed filled with woody 'topsoil', there's no way he could have "...an unnaturally high level of nitrogen...". It's probably just the reverse - as stated previously, woody debris ties up nitrogen in soil, making it utterly unavailable to plants.

I also just realized on other thing - how close to the trees are your beds? Are they within the 'drip line' of the trees (that being the area under which moisture would drip from the leaves)? If so, your bed may be trying to compete for nutrients with the tree - and depending on the kind of tree, it can have an affect on the soil.

I think the Empress Callipygos has a great idea regarding container gardening - it is indeed a wonderful way to get started. You can even put some pots on wheeled caddies, and move them throughout the day (maybe only two times) for better light!

Best of luck - there's really nothing more satisfying than growing your own food. (um, in my experience, anyway)
posted by dbmcd at 9:09 AM on August 18, 2009

No need to apologize. Two gardeners, three opinions and all that. This is all just speculation based on little information anyway.

That said, I disagree with your conclusion. If he has tomato plants that are five feet tall with no fruits, that would indicate to me he has an excess of nitrogen, instead of the reverse. How the nitrogen got there is undetermined. Lots of Miracle Gro would be my guess. Nitrogen levels go up, soil gets more acidic (which tomatoes can tolerate to a point), everything else dies. Decaying wood chips certainly would suck the nitrogen out of the soil, but if his tomato plants are growing I would guess that's not the reason.

Another possibility is that it's pine mulch, which will make the soil acidic and pretty inhospitable to most plants (save a few things, like blueberries, hydrangeas and potatoes.)

Also, if the trees in your backyard are black walnuts, you're pretty much done for.
posted by electroboy at 11:34 AM on August 18, 2009

If so, your bed may be trying to compete for nutrients with the tree - and depending on the kind of tree, it can have an affect on the soil.

According to the OP, these are raised beds, so there's no competition from the tree.

That said, I disagree with your conclusion. If he has tomato plants that are five feet tall with no fruits, that would indicate to me he has an excess of nitrogen, instead of the reverse. How the nitrogen got there is undetermined.

I don't think he has an excess of nitrogen; the plants were stunted and failed to grow. If by some chance backseatpilot planted his plants in peat moss I would imagine a copper deficiency is much more likely.

At any rate: backseatpilot, since we don't know 1) what kind of soil you used 2) how much sun you get 3) how much you water, this is all idle speculation. No one can give you good answers online without that information. It doesn't sound like you hardened off your seedlings (you haven't said whether you did or not), so I lean toward that as your number one issue, because even with great garden conditions seedlings that aren't hardened off will not thrive or get off to a strong start. I highly recommend visiting your local nursery and agricultural extension office. I always tell my clients to get a soil test, but you are going to need someone to help you make whatever recommendations the test identifies (and I would also highly recommend figuring out what product you used from Home Depot, because if it really is just peat moss you don't need a soil test to start correcting that).

Generally, gardening is easy. Plants really try hard to grow, and most of the time, they succeed. However you've got to provide the minimum requirements, and I think you've gotten off to a rough start by not buying soil for plants and (possibly) not knowing the correct procedure for seed starting and transplanting. Those are two things that are extremely difficult for any plant to overcome. So talk to someone local, preferably a few people, and be able to answer the questions we've asked here re: sunlight, watering, soil. They will be in a much better position to give you useful advice for your specific situation.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:29 PM on August 18, 2009

A little late to the party, however, here’s my advice:

There’s so many variables in your post that I’ll try to address the ones that stick out.

Your profile says you’re in Cambridge, MA so I plugged one of Cambridge’s zip codes (02141) into here and found out that you’d be in USDA Zone 6A. I couldn’t find anything about Cambridge specifically, though looking here I found that Boston’s spring frost free date is April 5 and first fall frost is November 8. That’s a really nice long growing season (at least to me up here in USDA Zone 4).

… and planted seedlings when I thought they were big enough…

I’ll use tomatoes as an example because I love them. Plugging the April 5th date into this gardening chart shows the earliest you could have started sowing your tomatoes indoors was February 15th with the latest date being March 8th. You could have planted out your tomato seedlings on April 12th at the earliest and April 19th at the latest. Is this the general time line you used? When you transplanted your seedlings, did you harden them off?

Hardening off seedlings from their cushy indoor lifestyle to the brutal reality of full sun, wind and rain is a very important step that can’t be rushed. This may have been a major factor seeing as almost all of your seedlings died off right away (except for your tomatoes, which were starters, right?). Here’s a basic hardening off schedule:

Day 1: 10 minutes outside in a shady, wind-protected area on a cloudy day
Day 2: 20 minutes outside in a shady, wind-protected area on a cloudy day
Day 3: 15 minutes outside in a shady area with a bit of wind
Day 4: 30 minutes outside in a shady area with a bit of wind
Day 5: 20 minutes outside in a sunny, wind-protected area on a partially cloudy day
Day 6: 40 minutes outside in a sunny, wind-protected area on a partially cloudy day
Day 7: 30 minutes outside in a sunny, windy area on a partially cloudy day
Day 8: 1 hour outside in a sunny, windy area on a partially cloudy day
Day 9: 40 minutes outside in a sunny, windy area on a sunny day
Day 10: 1 hour and 20 minutes outside in a sunny, windy area on a sunny day
Day 11: half a day outside on a partially sunny day
Day 12: half a day outside in the sun
Day 13: full day outside
Day 14: camp out overnight and leave outside 24/7 until you transplant into your garden (protect if there's hail, frost or cool nights - I'll bring my seedlings in if the forecast is +4°C at night)

You can see how gradual (and annoying) it is to bring your seedlings in and out of the house. If the weather is not cooperating, i.e., the sun is too sunny, tie up a shade cloth so that the seedlings can hang out underneath in the shade. Look up wintersowing if you want to have seedlings and skip the hardening off stuff. You’ll know if you’ve pushed your seedlings too far in the process if they start to get brittle around their leaf edges or have whitish spots on their leaves. I always stunt the growth of a few seedlings by rushing this process.

…started some seeds indoors, and planted them about April-ish. And then again mid-May after everything died…

Did you start seeds indoors again in mid-May or did you direct sow? Or did you buy plants from the nursery? If you started seeds indoors in mid-May you may have put them out too early and if you had direct sown in mid-May it may have been too cold. You should have been okay if you had bought plants from a nursery as they are usually hardened off and can go straight into the ground (like your beefsteaks).

It's fairly shady in the back yard...

How shady is shady? Your garden should be getting, at minimum, 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. If not, your produce will be weak and small.

…and we just bought bags of generic top soil to fill the bed (it was pretty clumpy and had a bunch of sticks). I didn't do anything to the soil - just dumped it in, raked a little bit.

Top soil alone is not a good enough medium to be growing your vegetables in. You need to amend your top soil with organic matter in the form of aged sheep or cow manure that you can buy in bags. For vegetable gardens I like to add 2 – 4 lbs of manure per square foot. Your 4’x8’ space is 32 square feet, so I’d add 64 – 128 lbs or sheep manure which translates into 29 – 58 kg which would be one to three 20 kg bags. You could prep the garden this fall or start early next spring.

Too much/too little water

You should be watering your garden once a week to a depth of 1 inch, up to 2 inches if it’s been particularly dry. Be sure to water the soil, not the leaves of the plants as it may invite leaf disease like fungus. Water in the morning, instead of at night, so that the leaves have a chance to dry off in the morning sun.

We started the plants inside and they were all stringy right from the beginning.

What kind of light did your seedlings get? Putting them in a sunny, southern window may not have been enough. You could invest in a set of workshop lights with alternating cool and warm fluorescent tubes that you string 2 – 3 inches above your seedling tops and switch on for 16 hours a day. Running your fingers across the tops of your seedlings forces them to grow stronger stems. Be sure to water from the bottom of the tray to reduce the problem of damping off. Don’t fertilize until you set them out into the garden, about a week after the transplanting shock wears off.

All this sounds a lot harder than it actually is. You're going to have successes and failures and that's normal. There's going to be striped cucumber beetles, potato bugs, cutworms, damping off, cabbage moths and blight in your future but none of them beat the crunch of a fresh cucumber or the juice of a ripe tomato.

My theory is that plants want to grow and as long as you give them the basics like soil, light and water, they'll try their hardest. MeFi mail me if you, or anyone, wants a copy of my Excel seed starting chart. It's a combination of the Lazy Gardener's and Square Foot Gardening seed starting charts. You type in your frost-free and first frost dates and it'll tell you when to sow indoors, direct sow, transplant out and harvest for spring, fall and continuous crops.

Good luck!
posted by KathyK at 6:47 AM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

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