15 problems solved in your warm-season vegetable garden

Story and Photos by Andrea Dee

Gardening in Kentucky presents some unique challenges. Here is a sampling of common problems in the summer veggie garden and some ideas for solving them.

1. Deterring Deer
A deer gracefully grazing in a meadow is a beautiful sight. Though their allure quickly diminishes when you see the path they’ve made through your garden patch. Luckily, there is an easy trick for deterring even the most determined deer. 

Deer damage to sweet peppers in the summer garden.

Stringing fishing line so that it is approximately chest high of the average-sized deer, about 4 feet above the ground, all the way around the garden creates an imperceptible deterrent. Deer cannot see the fishing line, but they feel it when they attempt to enter a garden. The resistance stops them in their tracks. Since they aren’t sure if they can jump over the line, they usually turn away. For additional security, string a top line, a bottom line, and an “x” pattern between the two. Because fishing line is so light, it can easily be strung on tomato stakes or similar items that are usually readily available.

The only 100 percent effective method of keeping deer out of the veggie patch is fencing – fencing should be 8-10 feet high and angled outward for the best results.

2. Soil Test for the Best
If you struggle year after year getting transplants to root or plants to fruit, your garden may have a weak foundation. You wouldn’t want to build a house on a poor foundation, and neither is it a good idea to invest time and money in a garden built on anemic soils. The most important step when starting a garden is getting the soil right. First, have your soil tested for pH and nutrients. These test are usually free or very inexpensive if performed through your county cooperative extension service. You can adjust pH and nutrients according to recommendations from the soil text for the best chance at success. Additionally, organic matter does matter! Most Kentucky soils have a heavy clay content and the best way to bust up clay is to add organic matter, such as compost, pine fines, peat, etc. 

3. Blight Basics
If caught and controlled soon enough you can rescue tomatoes from early or late blight. If you notice dark lesions on lower leaves, remove them without making contact with upper foliage. Use recommended fungal sprays on a regular schedule for the rest of the season and continue good sanitation practices in the garden. Early detection is key!

Tomato blight can be controlled if caught early.

4. Fleeing Fleas
If your eggplant transplants or arugula are dotted with pinholes days after setting or emergence, you have a flea beetle infestation. For arugula, keep in mind that early planting and slow seedling growth in cool weather lessens the plant’s ability to outgrow flea beetle damage. However, according to University of Kentucky Plant Pathology, eggplants can quickly outgrow moderate damage. Floating row covers are very effective, however both organic and conventional pesticide dusts are considered harmful to visiting pollinators, so use with care – if at all. *

5. Borer No More
If your zucchini are seemingly collapsing overnight, the culprit is more than likely squash vine borer. Preventive action includes scouting plants daily. Hand removal is also an option. When they’re borers are small, in their larval state, just split the stem lengthwise and pull them out. Try planting later in the season – July squash plantings mature after adult borers have finished laying eggs. Keep the garden free of debris, practice crop rotation, and dispose of infected plants. There are organic pesticides that provide some measure of control, such as those containing neem or pyrethrin. These will need to be regularly reapplied to be effective.

6. Mold and Mildew
While it is tempting to overfill a small garden space, it is not always the productive. Kentucky summers are high in humidity and mold and mildew spread easily. Leave plenty of space around plants to ensure good circulation, keeping the mature plant size in mind when seeding and transplanting. Ground level irrigation is preferred to overhead irrigation to reduce the spread of soil-borne disease by water splashing onto foliage. 

7. Ravaging Rabbits
Rabbits are undeniably adorable … that is until they munch up all your mustards and greens. There is an easy fix: a physical barrier. Building a low tunnel-like structure using chicken wire and placing it over your seedlings and beds is the best deterrent.

8. Figuring out Fertilizer 
Lack of fertilizing or improper fertilization is a frequent cause of problems in the vegetable garden. Slow-release fertilizers are increasingly popular and very effective when used at planting and then every three to four weeks thereafter. However, targeted fertilization yields a bigger harvest on heavy nitrogen feeders like corn and tomatoes. Do your research to ensure you are fertilizing with not only the correct formulation, but also at the correct growth stage(s). Be careful not to overfertilize with nitrogen, as plants will put out more foliage grown, but at the expense of fruit. 

9. Towering Tomatoes
In a good year, many tomato varieties can reach 6 feet high or more. Staking tomatoes is recommended to improve air circulation, which prevents fungal disease spread, keeps fruit blemish free, and makes harvesting easier. Most tomato cages at big-box stores are too small for the job. Concrete mesh is sold in rolls of varying lengths and a height of 60 inches. An approximately 6-foot length of mesh makes a perfect tomato cage when held together with wire or carabiners. And don’t worry, there should be no problem harvesting fruit!

10. Corny Corn
If you seem to be growing corn-less corn, you probably have a pollination problem. Corn is wind-pollinated, unlike most summer garden veggies, which are insect-pollinated. Therefore, corn must be planted blocks no larger than 8 feet square for successful pollination to produce ears of corn. Corn planted in straight rows usually does not produce without a little help from hand pollination.

11. Deeply Rooted
If your carrots look snack-sized and your beets look like little round bouncy balls, your soil is too compacted for the roots to spread deep enough. Root vegetables grow best in well-amended, “fluffy” soil and raised beds rich in organic matter.

12. Ending End Rot
When you find tomatoes with dark sunken bottoms, blossom-end rot is the likely diagnosis. There is no quick fix other than discarding the sooty bottom and devouring the rest. Luckily, you can prevent blossom-end rot, which happens when plants aren’t able to obtain the calcium they need from the soil. Consistent irrigation – not allowing the soil to frequently dry out in the summer – will allow help. 

13. Pickle A Plenty 
Cucumber beetles know how to ruin a good time in the garden. These black striped or spotted yellow beetles collapse cucumber vines quickly once it is infected. Good and bad years seem to vary. Delayed planting by a couple weeks, row covers, and trap crops, such as blue hubbard squash, are all effective in combatting cucumber beetle. Garden dusts are also effective, but problematic to pollinators. 

14. Wise Watering
Drip irrigation is one of the best methods of preventing problems in the vegetable garden. There are many drip irrigation systems available for home gardeners. Most consist of a pressure reducer, simple header hose, and a couple lengths of drip tape. Drip irrigation reduces not only water waste, but also fungal pathogen spread and hours holding a hose! 

15. Beat the Bolt
Herbs offer their best flavor before flowering. Basil, cilantro, and parsley are all quick to bolt, resulting in bitter flavors. To slow bolting, grow leafy herbs in cool, light shade locations.

Bolted herbs become bitter when setting seed heads.

* Bessin, Ric. “Flea Beetles and Other Insect Pests of Spring Vegetables.” Kentucky Pest News. April 18, 2017. View online here.




Side-dressing is simply digging a furrow next to the row or plant and spreading the appropriate fertilizer 6-8 inches away from plant stems. Rake and water in fertilizer at time of application. 

Tomato: Two weeks after planting; again just before first harvest; and again two to three weeks after first harvest.
Pepper: Three weeks after planting; again when fruit sets.
Eggplant: Three weeks after planting.
Corn: Three weeks after planting; again when plants reach 8-10 inches tall; and again when tassels appear.
Cucumber: When they first begin to run; again when blossoms set.
Melon: When they begin to run; again when blossoms set; and again three weeks later.
Potato: When plants bloom.
Pumpkin: When plants run; again at blossom set.
Summer Squash: When plants are about 6 inches tall; again when plants bloom.

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