Problems you can solve in your warm-season vegetable garden

Story and Photos by Kate Musso

Every vegetable gardener starts the growing season with starry-eyed hopes for a bountiful, blemish-free harvest. It doesn’t take long, however, for reality to set in. Perhaps it’s a failure of seed to germinate or the sudden death of a healthy-looking plant; whatever the reason, disappointment follows. The good news is that you can take several preventative steps at the start of the season to avoid significant problems later on. Also, many tried and true solutions exist for common problems once the growing season is under way.

A jalapeno pepper plant suffering from insect damage on leaves, nutritional deficiencies, and fungal or viral disease.

The fundamentals of pre-season preventatives focus on the health of your soil and seeds. Alabama is home to five very distinct geological areas. This means that someone gardening in the eastern coastal plain typically has fast-draining soils, a Birmingham resident contends with red clay, and in Athens, the Limestone County seat, gardeners face naturally alkaline conditions. With so much variation throughout the state (and from one part of the yard to another because of previous soil disturbance) it is essential that gardeners test their soil to correct the pH, if necessary, and understand what organic materials should be added for optimal drainage. When the pH is out of balance, a plant may be unable to take up nutrients. Poorly draining soils may cause rot while fast-draining soils may wash away fertilizer.

Crop rotation is key to reducing diseases in the vegetable garden. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes should not be planted in soil that grew previous crops from the same family in the preceding two years. Next, make sure that the growing area receives at least six to eight hours of full sun daily. Lastly, choose your seeds wisely. Many varieties are developed with resistance to diseases that plague Alabama gardens. Lastly, make sure to use fresh, current season seed. If you’re like many enthusiastic gardeners, you may order too much seed and then hold on to it for several years. Why not plan your seed orders with some like-minded friends and share fresh seed and try something new?

A 2-inch cardboard cuff helps protect seedlings from cutworm damage.

With the planning out of the way, let’s look at some of the specific problems and their fixes.

1. When seed fails to germinate, the soil might not be warm enough. If the seed hasn’t germinated after soil temperatures increase, check that the seed hasn’t rotted. If it has, start with fresh seed after amending the soil with rotted compost to improve drainage.

2. If seed germinates but the seedling dies, you are likely faced with damping off, the result of fungal disease, or cutworm damage. Sterile soil mix and fungicide application should protect the next set of seedlings from damp off. Prevent cutworm damage by placing cardboard collars (cut from paper towel rolls) at the base of the seedlings, blocking insect access.

3. When a plant wilts, you may think it needs water, but wilt is just as likely to be the result of overwatering or fungal disease. If you practiced crop rotation and selected seeds with that all-important “VFN” on the label, adjusting the watering and applying a fungicide are the likely fixes.

4. A leggy, “96-pound-weakling” plant can be attributed to any number of problems. Possibilities include insufficient sunlight, too much nitrogen fertilizer, or overcrowding. Back off on nitrogen (the first of the three numbers on a fertilizer package) and thin plants so they have room to grow properly.

5. Pale green plants may have the same problems as the 96-pound-weakling or could also be suffering from overwatering. Make assure the soil is draining properly and adjust the watering schedule.

6. The same poor growing conditions can also cause pale yellow leaves. If you’ve eliminated those issues, and applications of insecticide and fungicide do not produce results, you may have a viral disease that requires removal of the plant. For viral disease resistance look to tomato cultivars labeled like “Dixie Red Hyb. VFFFNAStTsw” or “Amelia VR Hyb. VFFFNtS1.”

7. Brown leaves and stems are signs of disease (particularly in the form of brown spots) or fertilizer burn. Back off fertilization and apply a fungicide.

8. A mosaic pattern of yellow and green is a sure sign of virus. Plants must be removed and make sure to practice crop rotation the following seasons.

9. Distorted leaves could be caused by a variety of reasons. The first suspect should be aphids. Look for these tiny green villains on new growth and apply insecticidal soap to reduce their damage. If aphids are not present, it may be herbicide drift from nearby. Plants will typically recover if the damage is not too extensive.

10. There is probably nothing more revolting than encountering a 4-inch-long tomato hornworm on the underside of a leaf. Their voracious appetites result in considerable leaf and fruit damage. Applications of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can be used to reduce the population but can also affect desirable butterflies and therefore should be applied carefully. Knocking worms into a can of soapy water is a satisfying alternative.

11. Slug damage is easily diagnosed by the slimy silver trails they leave behind. Iron phosphate pellets are available and are generally pet and kid friendly. An old-fashioned method of slug control is a ration of beer poured into an old tuna can set at soil level. You’ll be astonished at the number of slugs you can collect from one of their midnight drinking sessions.

Save that last sip for an effective beer slug trap.

12. Bird damage will be evident from holes in fruit rather than leaves. Birds can be deterred by use of netting or floating row covers,

13. Blossom-end rot is the blackened end of a tomato or pepper that has seen too much rain and not enough calcium. Apply calcium to the soil regularly. Blossom-end rot cannot be reversed in the fruit itself.

14. If a plant is not setting fruit, it may bee too hot for pollination of that variety. Attract pollinators by growing bee- and wasp-friendly flowers. Protect plants with shade cloth during the hottest hours.

15. When fruit drops from a plant, the plant is signaling distress from heat, a lack of moisture, or a lack of nutrients. If you’ve corrected the watering and fertilization, use shade cloth and hope for cooler weather.

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