15 common problems in your summer vegetable garden and how to fix them

Story by Darren Sheriff

Growing your own fruit and vegetables has become more popular due to the organic food movement. The concern over chemicals, bacteria, and other issues are pushing folks into growing their own produce. This is on top of the concept that homegrown just tastes better!

There can problems when growing edible plants, but if you know what to look for, most can be easily taken care of. Here are 15 different problems and the best ways to prevent or control them.

1. Sanitation: Even though not a problem itself, it is the solution to many common problems. Clean up all diseased foliage and damaged and/or rotten fruit. Rake up the leaves. And throw this stuff away! Do not compost it. The problems that you are trying to eradicate could very well survive in your compost, and then when you use it, you’ll just reintroduce the original problem.

2. Pale leaves, lack of vigor: Pale green leaves usually indicate low nitrogen. The problem is that nitrogen leaches out of the soil with every watering, especially container-grown plants. The way to solve this is to make sure you stay on a regular fertilizer schedule and apply according to the label.

3. Fungal issues and other diseases: Like I said before, sanitation is your biggest asset when controlling disease and fungal issues. The next thing on the list is airflow. Make sure that you keep your plants properly spaced and pruned. If branches start to cross each other, or the plants are starting to grow into each other, it is time to either move the neighboring plant or prune out some growth. Try to save using fungicides as a last resort. The problems can eventually develop a resistance to whatever product you are using, and then you will have an even larger problem on your hands.

4. Holes in the leaves and fruit: Usually this indicates some kind of a bug or other pest issue. Grasshoppers and caterpillars love chewing on leaves. Birds will pick at ripe fruit. Depending on the crop and the size of the plant, netting will work for some of these pests. You can also plant predator-loving plants around your crops to invite ladybugs, lacewings, and other good bugs in to your garden. Depending on what pests you have will determine what kind of pesticide to use if the infestation gets to be too bad. Start softly, such as insecticidal soaps, neem oil, and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a commonly used biological pesticide for caterpillars). If the damage is still above an acceptable threshold, then you can start using approved pesticides; if so, make sure you follow all labels and directions. 

5. Disappearing fruit, large bites taken out of produce: This is caused by much larger pests – such as deer, rabbits, and/or neighbors. Fencing is your best bet against all of these. There are also different products out that will deter these pests, however, many, if not most, will need to be reapplied after a rain event or irrigation. Some of these really have an offensive odor to them, so be warned, your neighbors might really be upset.

6. Wilting plants: Usually caused by a water issue, be it too much or not enough. Both can cause this. The remedy is to stick your finger in the soil, if it feels wet all the time, back off on the watering. Plants can develop root rot, which essentially kills the roots. If the roots die, the plant cannot take up moisture or nutrients. If it is dry constantly, water more often. The stems, leaves, and fruit need water, just as we do, so if there isn’t enough, they wilt to conserve moisture.

7. Scarring: The wind can wreak havoc on the fruit. It blows the fruit against branches and such causing the scars. Creating a windbreak would alleviate this issue so your fruit stays unblemished.

8. “Burned” leaves: May be caused when they are suddenly exposed to more sun. Or it could be a plant that does not like full afternoon sun and would like a little shade. Building a lean to or moving the plant to a shadier spot should help.

9. Undersized fruit: Many different things can cause the fruit to be much smaller than it should be. Water, or lack there of, is usually the main culprit. Improper feeding would be next on the list. Poor soil, wrong pH, and even the amount of light it gets can cause this problem. If it is getting too much or not enough light, the fruit will suffer. You will have to put on your detective hat and figure which of these, or which combination of these is at fault, then you can adjust accordingly.

10. Lack of fruit: Many times, the exact same issues that cause undersized fruits also cause a lack of fruit. However, the shift is usually more of a lack of light for this problem. Planting at the wrong time could also cause this. If you planted too late, the heat of the summer will not allow pollen to be produced. Tomatoes are the biggest example of this phenomenon.

11. Tall spindly plants: This is another one usually caused by lack of sunlight. The easiest way to fix this, as I am sure you can figure, is to move it into more sunlight. The plant is stretching to gather more light. You may notice larger leaves than normal and much more space along the stems between those leaves in an attempt to absorb as much light as it can get.

12. Lack of space: Are you discovering that there is just not enough space for the fruits and vegetables that you want to produce? You can try and find dwarf versions of your favorites. They produce normal-sized fruit on a much smaller plant. You can also do combination plantings. Plant string beans next to your corn. The corn will provide the beans with something to climb and the beans will fix the nitrogen in the soil for the corn. The same will hold true for a tomato/corn combination.

13. Plants that just won’t grow: Many of the reasons discussed already will make a plant not want to grow. Be it water, sun, lack of sun, disease, etc. If you grow them in containers, especially black containers, there is a problem with heat. The root zone in those pots can easily reach 120 degrees. Plants do NOT like that kind of temperature! You can try to shade the containers some, use a different color, or you can spray paint them with a paint designed for plastics. Plastic pots will tend to get a little hotter than terra cotta pots, so keep that in mind.

14. Timing is everything: This one is actually learned from hands-on experience. If you want to have pumpkins for Halloween, check your package for how long it will take to maturity, then count back from October 31 to determine when they should be planted.

15. Overabundance: This is what would be considered a good problem, but one that, at times, can be a major problem. You hit all the wants and needs of the plant perfectly. It was in the exact spot that it should have been, got plenty of water, and it rewarded you with a huge mound of produce. You can eat just so many tomato sandwiches, or just so much fried okra, and then what? You can do things like check with local churches to see if there is a need at a food bank. Many cities have companies and programs that connect people that have excess produce with local restaurants to use in their daily fare.

Well, there it is, 15 of the most common problems that you could possibly encounter in your summertime garden. Hopefully you will only see the last one, but if not, you have some information to create a tasty harvest you will never forget.

Happy Growing!

Feature Photo ©johnbraid/

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