I have always wanted to grow a lot of garden produce for my family. Unfortunately, like a lot of people (even you?) I’ve had my share of failures with gardening.
I’ve seen (or not seen, actually) seeds planted that never germinated.
Seeds that grew above the ground withered and died. These plants got diseases, were attacked by pests, and failed to give few or any production.
I understand why people get so frustrated with gardening and give up. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Now I want to give you some tips to help you have a better garden!
So let’s try to figure out why you’re not having success.
Note: This post may contain affiliate links that give us a small commission at no cost to you. See the Disclosures page for more info.
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
My toddler learned a new word recently, and uses it all the time.
If have you ever dealt with a child whose favorite word is “Why”, you know how frustrating it can be to answer that question.
Now, you want to get to the base of the problem and fix it instead of wasting time working on symptoms.
One way to determine the cause of a failure is asking Why? at each stage to drill down to the root action or cause.
This is sometimes called the 5 whys method, though you can use any number until you find the root cause.
Once you find the root cause the solutions should be self-evident. Or at least the problems easier to see and develop ways to fix it.
Toyota (and many other manufacturers) uses this method to improve its production lines.
It’s also at the heart of efficiency methods like Kaizan, Lean Manufacturing, and Six Sigma, that reward small improvements.
Here’s an example:
Failure: The seeds didn’t germinate.
Why? The seeds were old, or the soil was too cold or hot, or were planted at the wrong depth, or had too much or too little water.
Why? I held onto the seeds and didn’t plant them soon enough. I planted the seeds too soon, or too late. I didn’t know the correct planting depth, or didn’t take care to do it right. I didn’t water enough, because I was busy and forgot.
Why? I’m cheap and didn’t want to throw away something I paid for. I didn’t look at the last frost date and count backwards to start it on time. I was trying to do too many things too fast to do them right. I forgot because the seed trays were “out of sight, out of mind.”
Why? I feel like I’m throwing away my time and energy that was traded for money. I didn’t care enough to do the job right. I don’t have a good seeds starting location.
Why? I don’t feel wealthy enough to waste resources. It wasn’t important enough to me (or not a priority) to do the job right. I haven’t made a good seeds starting location because it isn’t a high enough priority.
Now I’m down to the root cause, and can work on what I found.
Realize that this doesn’t make the work any easier, but at least you’re working on the right problem!
On to the veggies!
So let’s think about your desired end result and work backward from there.
I will slightly modify it to ask How? instead, but the principle is the same.
Be that child asking Why?, at least for this exercise. Refine your answers to explain the previous answer.
Then you can understand the next steps to take (many times in reverse Why? order).
So, let’s begin.
Goal: You want lots of healthy garden production.
How? (does that happen)
The plants must grow well and produce fruit/leaf.
How? (can you help them do that)
Healthy alive soil, good available nutrients, favorable conditions, properly timed planting.
How? (exactly can you do that)
Feeding and encouraging the soil life, pest protection, mulching, watering, sheltering/shading, and weeding where necessary, “last frost date”-adjusted seeds starting and planting time.
How? (can you accomplish this)
Now you have your answer and actions to take. And that didn’t even take 5 whys/hows!
Now that you know how to get good production, on with the tips!
Tip # 1 – Feed and encourage the soil life
Plants get their best nutrition from the soil and soil life, not from MiracleGrow fertilizer dumped on the plants.
So you need to feed the soil, so the soil can feed the plants.
But what does the soil (and soil life) need?
You need to
- Feed and care for bacteria, fungus, and other soil life (decomposers, nematodes, worms, etc.)
- Provide (if not already present) proper macro (NPK) and micro nutrients
- Protect the soil life from temperature and hydration extremes (flooding or drought)
Luckily, you don’t usually have to add food and homes for each different class of soil life.
Like the saying goes, “if you build it they will come.” Essentially, create an encouraging environment that will attract and create healthy soil life.
What kind of nutrients you need to add depends on your soil’s composition.
Next, add a good organic compost, either bought or made yourself.
After that protect the soil by adding a natural mulch like wood chips. Don’t use sawdust however!
The best wood chips are made by taking small-size branches tips with the leaves and chipping them.
For example, if you trim a tree’s branches and grind them up.
Make sure the trees you’re getting the trimmings from have not been sprayed with pesticides. Many cities do this for trees along public roads to prevent the spread of tent caterpillars and other pests.
The problem is the pesticide will keep killing for a long time. And you don’t want to be eating that.
Tip #2 – Protect from pests
If your crops are being attacked by pests, consider what that reason is.
Have you planted the same crop in that location for a few years? You may be encouraging the pests to breed and grow.
Could you change up the planting location or grow it earlier or later? This may help to break the pest cycle.
Pests may also be attacking because the plant is weak and nature needs to remove it.
This could be because your soil nutrition or soil life isn’t up to snuff. See Tip #1 above.
I’m going to assume if you’re reading this that you’re interested in organic (or better than organic) gardening.
For organic pest control, you have some options: organic sprays for insect control, biological methods, barriers, and physical removal.
These are fairly straightforward and range from sprays to control whiteflies, spider mites and aphids, to releasing ladybugs, praying mantis and lacewings, to installing Argibon (or similar) over crops, to picking the caterpillars off tomatoes or blasting pests off plants with a jet of water.
You could use pest trap/repulsion plants, which may draw pests away from crops or repel them. One example is using marigolds to repel nematodes that attack some plant roots.
You can also use companion planting. This means putting complementary plants together to benefit our food crops. See Carrots Love Tomatoes for more information.
Tip # 3 – Season extension
To protect your tender starts from late spring frosts (and early fall frosts) and get more production, you can use season extension techniques.
Basically you’re trying to keep the plants above freezing so frosts are not damaging.
Here’s several ways to do that:
- Cold frames – well-insulated with glazing on south or top face
- Cloches – glass or plastic
- Water protection jackets/devices i.e Wall-O-Water
- Water around plants when frosts are expected
- Cover with agricultural frost protection fabric (up to 10 degrees of protection)
Note that another good use (multiple functions, anyone?) for the ag frost fabric is to encourage germination. This could really help improve your production.
Also, when preparing the garden for spring, make sure to:
- Clean up old plant debris
- Get irrigation set up and repair any broken fittings or pipes < (I’m terrible at this!)
- Pull back winter mulch to allow soil to warm up
For even more warming up of garden beds, cover with plastic film or old glass doors. This creates a…
Tip #4 Microclimate
To encourage earlier (or later) garden production, you can use warm microclimates (or cool microclimates in summer).
Microclimates are places that are warmer (or cooler) than the surrounding areas in that one spot. For example:
- Sun-exposed brick south wall, retains heat at night and releases to the nearby plants – great for frost-delicate fruit trees like peaches/apricots
- Ponds can reflect sun during the winter onto areas you want to warm
- Shaded rocks and water act as a heat sink and keep plants roots cool
- Sun scoop: horseshoe -shaped areas constructed of berms or trees that focus sun warmth and redirect cold winds
- Adjust cold air flow or sinks to prevent or encourage warmer or cooler areas
Microclimates provide a better environment that will help your garden veggies do better.
Tip #5 – Shade/wind protection
Plants don’t need 16 hours of direct hot sun. 7-8 hours of light is enough for most fruiting plants, even less for leafy crops like lettuce and spinach.
You may have head of the giant vegetables people grow in Alaska, which is because of their 20-plus hour days.
But realize that they aren’t nearly as hot as the lower 48, so they can get away with letting the plants soak in all that sunlight (not heat).
Plants that love heat like tomatoes and watermelons actually do poorly in Alaska.
Especially important in the desert, shade cloth provides cooling relief from the hot summer sun.
Make sure to pay attention to the south and west sides, as well as overhead.
In my article on 7 tips for desert gardening success, I suggested these shade grades:
- Overhead: 50%
- East: 0-20%
- South: 50%
- West/southwest: 70%
You could make a pergola to hang your shade cloth on. Or use tall posts and horizontal wire like the nursery greenhouses do it.
If you don’t want to buy two different grades, you can get away with using 50% on everything, and putting two layers on the west & southwest side.
No, it putting two 50% layers won’t make it 100%, it will be more like 70-80%.
There’s a very simple table here, but you shouldn’t need to do complex shade calculations.
Just watch your plants and see if they are getting too hot, or not enough sun, and adjust accordingly.
Berms are great for noise, smell, view, and wind redirection.
The wind will “bump” up to will go over a berm, reducing wind speed on the ground. This technique can also be used to drop fertile wind-blown air particles where you want them. Free (and labor-free) fertilizer!
You could even combine them with hugelkultur and small shaded ponds to get multiple functions out of a single element.
This could create pleasant outdoor living spaces and more food production.
Along with that you’re blocking the noise, smell, dust, and wind (not to mention the view) from those pesky neighbors!
Trees can be shade and wind protection, depending on the variety and where you plant them.
The wind will slow down when passing through trees, and some of it will bump up and over like with a berm.
They also act as an evaporative cooler, by releasing water to the air from their leaves.
Just trust me, trees are good, mmmmkay?
Tip #6 – Create a garden plan
Creating a garden plan is about deciding what goes where, when it gets planted (or transplanted) and harvested, and what resources to use for maintenance and enhancement.
I talked about this in my article on creating a garden plan, so I won’t repeat it here.
Also, I suggest setting up pre-frost seed starting time reminders on your phone or computer, and set them to repeat each year.
This may be your most beneficial step towards better production in getting plants into the ground at the proper time and size.
Tip #7 – Reflect and respond
The fourth principle of permaculture is “Apply self-regulation & accept feedback.”
This means you should be willing to change your design or process based on empirical evidence (not magical thinking or guessing).
You should not be stubborn by sticking to a particular method, technique or management system shown to be flawed.
Most people don’t respond well to change, so this is sometimes a difficult principle to put into practice.
But if you can periodically reevaluate and make changes based on your observations, you can see incremental changes that will add up over time.
Like I said in the beginning of this article, large auto manufacturers use the principle of evaluation and micro-changes to improve their production and profits.
So to apply this to a garden, try to reflect on your successes and failures. See what didn’t work, and try to figure out why. Notice what worked well and try to apply that idea more widely.
Essentially, you change gears according to your observations in your area, with your soil, in your microclimate.
Ask Why? until you get to the root cause of problems.
Feed and encourage the soil life – what soil life needs.
Protect from pests – control methods, timing.
Season extension & microclimates – cold frames, cloches, soil heating, stone and water.
Shade/wind protection – Shade cloth, berms, windbreaks, trees.
Create a garden plan – What goes where, when, and how much.
Reflect and respond – Apply self-regulation & accept feedback.
OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about organic gardening, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
FREE Lazy Gardener's Guide to Homestead Management
What to plan, do, and buy each month to keep your sustainable homestead on track.
Never forget important tasks again, and get lots of stuff done!
And you get our latest content by email. We usually publish new stuff twice a week.