Why its great when things don’t work out

With regular patrols it usually not difficult to keep on top of slugs in the container garden, but if you forget.....

Do you sometimes look at all those images of lush containers on Pinterest and Facebook and wonder why your own containers are, um, not quite so perfect?

Of course, unlike on Pinterest, in the real world, lettuces DO (almost always) get eaten by slugs, seeds DO often fail to germinate, and tomatoes DO regularly get blight.

But because images of crop failure are rarely shown on social media, maybe you feel that you ‘can’t grow’ when it happens to you? The truth is that these things happen to EVERYONE, even the most experienced growers.

It’s the best way of learning

I do wish that more pictures of pest damaged or unhappy plants were shared and talked about. (Note to self: need do more of this myself!). Why? Not just because it would give a more realistic impression of what really happens in growing, but also because we often learn more when things go wrong than when they go right.

The trick to learning from growing mistakes is firstly not to worry about it – one failure (even, to be honest, lots of failures) – does NOT mean you can’t grow so don’t let it make you lose heart. Secondly you need to enjoy getting curious about it. Why did that crop not do well and what would you do differently next time? Even if you don’t find the answer immediately, thinking about it, asking others about it, and experimenting will, in my experience, always deepen your knowledge.

When I started growing, I had precious few successes. I have a few more now, but I enjoy my fare share of learning each year, too. Here are some of the things that did not go as planned last year.

Learning from 2013

Being too relaxed about slugs

Because I was growing in a new concrete space, there were few slugs when I started. I got blasé about this and got out of the habit of the regular slug patrols. Big mistake. The slugs multiplied and made a big dent in my salad production this year – probaby reducing it by 50%. Learning (again!): keep on top of slug patrols!

Some lessons need to be learned several times! It doesn't usually take a lot of time to get on top of slugs in a container garden but it does take persistence.
Some lessons need to be learned several times! It doesn’t usually take a lot of time to get on top of slugs in a container garden but it does take persistence.

Failing to keep sowing

I sowed my carrots and chard early in the season. Often this is a good strategy for an early and productive crop. But the late cold weather stressed them, checking the carrot growth and the chard bolted. They never really recovered, and I had nothing to replace them with. Learning: if there is cold snap in spring, re-sow any crops that might have been damaged as soon as warmer weather returned.

Chard is a biennial which means it does not usually flower until its second year. But if it gets stressed by cold (or heat) it may bolt in year one.
Chard is a biennial which means it does not usually flower until its second year. But if it gets stressed by cold (or heat) it may bolt in year one.

Strawberries prefer water from below

I made a strawberry planter out of plastic bucket. To begin with it worked well and I even managed to share a nice picture of it on Facebook J. However, towards the end of the season the lower strawberries started to go yellow and look unhappy. I later learnt that strawberries do better if they are watered from below than above – so I’ll need to redesign my strawberry planter for next year.

They look OK but later in the season the lower strawberries began to look quite unhappy. Strawberries do better when they can take water up from below.
They look OK here, but later in the season the lower strawberries began to look quite unhappy. Strawberries do better when they can take water up from below.

Lack of sun (again)

I started my runner beans in a spot that got just a couple of hours sun (I knew as they climbed they’d start to get more). But as a result they started to grow weak early in life. Weak plants are more prone to pests. These were attacked by aphids that the plants just couldn’t shake off (despite my sons best efforts at squashing them!). Luckily, as the sun got higher, the beans got stronger and eventually produced quite a good yield – but nothing like their potential. Learning: don’t grow beans in the same spot next year!

Your turn

Did anything not go as expected in your growing last year? Please use this excuse to celebrate and share pest eaten crops, wilting lettuces, forgetful watering and everything else we can learn from!


46 thoughts on “Why its great when things don’t work out”

  1. By far anything I have planted has died and this makes me sad 🙁 they grow pretty nice at first but as soon as they hit 60 days of growth, all of a sudden they turn yellow and die! I haven’t given up yet tho! Still trying!

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    1. Hi Emirca, my pleasure! Yes, I’m doing some winter growing – chard, tatsoi, rocket and a few other greens – although not as much as usual as we’re about to move house again but we’re not quite sure when so growing is slightly on hold at the mo. Are you?

  3. Well Mark, thanks for all the tips. Good to know other people suffer disasters like I do. I thought it was just me. I noticed a couple of mentions about growing carrots in cartons. Where I am in Kuala Lumpur, organic carrots cost an arm and a leg. I was thinking of attempting to grow a few in the fruit juice containers that I have been hoping to find a use for. Trouble is, ain’t got a clue where to start. If anyone can give me a clue I’d be grateful. I’ve looked on Youtube but there doesn’t seem to be anything about growing carrots in the tropics. Carrots here are mostly imported, which is why they are so expensive. As regards carrot fly, I’m on the 9th floor, do these things fly that high? No other insects come up here despite being right on the edge of the rainforest. Except for the odd million blood sucking mosquitoes that is. Anyway, any advice is good advice. Thanks mate.

    1. Hi Alex, people do grow carrots successfully in fruit juice containers although I personally prefer to use something a little larger – an old food bucket or similar – as it is less likely to dry out. I’m not sure how carrots will do in your climate, growing in hot places is something I need to learn more about :). But good news: you’ll most certainly not have to worry about carrot fly on the ninth floor! The general way to grow carrots in containers is to sow them about an inch apart in a general purpose compost (soil based is best if you can find it but definitely not essential), and keep the compost moist (not wet). They can sometimes be a bit slow to germinate (2 – 3 weeks). And you want to make sure you have fairly fresh seeds, just a year or two old as this is one variety that does not keep as well as others. I don’t go in for a lot of the mini veg sold for container growing, but I’m quite partial to mini carrots – fit lots in the container! Good luck Alex, do let us know how it goes!

      1. Hi Mark and Alex,

        It’s my first year gardening, despite wanting to do it for a while, i now have a balcony, yay. I also want to grow carrots, and succession plant them on a balcony. I came up with an idea – old Box files. Most homes or offices have ones with broken sides and i can stand them in a line to save space and move them as the sun moves. I took the top edge off and the lever thing out, duct taped the lid on the other 2 edges and broken corner, drilled the bottom, and planted them up. I am just waiting impatintly on my first seedlings to rear their heads 🙂

  4. Hi all,
    My big annoyance is the paltry strawberry harvest I get If they are pot or container grown. however those planted in my ‘forest garden’ at the bottom of my plot do brilliantly! My complaint? Pesky woodlice in every beautiful huge strawberry rendering them inedible!!! The strawberry bed is overrun with them and even the container grown ones have some woodlice! Help!!!!!!!

    1. Poor you Paula. Woodlice are most often totally harmless in the garden but just occasionally they can get a liking for something and become a real pest! I once helped out at an organic garden where the woodlice kept eating through the stalks of the cucumbers and killing them. What they did at this garden was to provide bits of wood for them to crawl under and chew on – and it seemed to help. Maybe worth a try?

      Anyone else got experience of woodlice or advice they can offer Paula?

  5. I have very limited growing space in our flat. About the equivalent of one windowsill’s worth.

    I am a total newbie to growing things. I started with some ginger from the supermarket. It had started to sprout & I planted it, but it got spider mites. I didn’t know what they were until the leaves were pretty skeletal in places. It’s now had a good wipe down with diluted red thyme oil. I only planted it in October (the wrong time of year) so I’m waiting until the leaves die off before I see if any useable ginger root has grown.

    I experimented with planting some lettuce out of growing season (I only wanted baby leaves, so I thought it was worth experimenting.) It germinated well but the seedlings grew very tall and floppy, eventually succumbing to what I now realise from Google must have been ‘damping off’ fungus.

    My oregano seedlings also fell foul of the damping off. Probably partly due to my tendency to over-water, & partly to using an all purpose compost.

    My chives, however, seem to repel the fungus – even though they were planted in the same soil & watered just as frequently. I’m guessing there’s something in them that works as an anti-fungicide.

    I think I’ve over-sown the chives, but I hope to be able to split them into bunches & re-plant if they get too crowded.

    Currently waiting to see if I have any luck with basil, and psyching myself up to brave trying to grow parsley from seed.

    I seem to be gardening the same way I cook – experiment to see what happens if I do something I’m not supposed to do, like plant out of season, or over-sow, etc.

    I’m practicing, and experimenting for that day when I hopefully get my hands on an actual garden!

    I should maybe mention that, I’m using cut-off 2 litre mineral water bottles (with drainage holes at the bottom) as plant pots. They seem to do a good job. Plus, the teeny-tiny greenhouse I bought from IKEA will fit eight of them in it quite nicely!

    Here’s wishing everyone a bountiful harvest.

    1. Zelah, I love your experimental approach, combined with observation, its a great way to learn. Damping off can also be due to the compost – if it continues to be a problem, you might want to buy a new bag of commercial multipurpose or seed sowing compost – this should be sterile and free from the fungus. Also, anything you can do to improve air circulation (eg opening windows if appropriate) can help. And, as you’ve spotted, not too much water. Good luck with the basil and other crops!

  6. True – all of it! I wrote a similar post, a while back, about the REAL life in my garden. Funny how we rarely think about sharing our failures, and you are right that we should share failures more — that’s how we learn! Besides, the moments of perfection are fleeting. I’m so happy when my garden behaves and I can get that perfect pic to share, but – truth be told – if I took another pic of that same thing a few weeks later, it would look anything but perfect. http://myhappyhomestead.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/successful-gardeners-persevere/

  7. Dear Mark
    Thanks for all the advice you have shared , I have turned a pretty flower garden over to raised beds and have had limited success, seem the slugs and snails love new compost and my beds were full of it, my beans grew huge as did the tomatoes and cucumbers, but my salad was slug food, have pear trees I grew from seed which are usually very productive I pruned at the wronge time so no fruit at all last year, but lessons were learnt from it all.
    Have become the compost queen of my street by making a big 3 bin system and also a few worm bins, all in all I have learnt lessons and enjoyed my garden here in Wales. Ihope to have a better year, thanks for the advice and pics .

    1. Dear Dawn
      Thanks for sharing your learning. Were you using homemade compost? If so, one possible source of the slugs might have been slug eggs in the compost? Might be worth keeping an eye out for them next time you put down fresh compost – small, round glutinous things – just squish if you find!

      How wonderful that you getting your street involved in composting, brilliant.

      Thank you for writing, and good luck with 2014, particularly with those pesky slugs!


  8. Hi mark, love this post! So true about the slugs! I had a similar experience this year with caterpillars. “What harm can one cute caterpillar do?” I thought to myself. Next time I looked my tub of salad was just a tub of stalks! V useful tip about strawberries. Explains my pathetic crop in the last few years. I was given a fancy terracotta pot by a friend which I’ve been watering from the top. Would sitting it in water work best, or should I try growing something else in it instead? Thanks again for the inspiration!

    1. Hi Vicky, I also had fun with caterpillars last year, very similar to you! You could try sitting your terracotta pot in water, although don’t leave it in water for two long or the soil can get waterlogged. Some people swear by terracotta but personally I find it quite hard to grow fruit and veg successfully in – particularly the smaller sized pots dry out very quickly. So I tend to grow the Mediterranean style herbs – rosemary, thyme – etc in my terracotta pots as these don’t mind drying out so much. Happy growing for 2014!

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  10. Happy New Year and all the best for 2014. I was so excited with my brinjal plants which I managed to keep over from the previous year.. They have given me beautiful copious brinjals. I only have 4 plants in my pot. Oops I now see they have I think a mealy bug on some of the fruit. My dear little grandson of 3 was helping me sow radishes when the packet ‘accidentally ‘ spilled. I had loads of radish plants and found out that they do not transplant well. The ones which we did transplant have grown in weird shapes. My tomatoes which I planted with crushed eggshells around have started bearing fruit. Hold thumbs they ripen. I have 12 red cabbages on the way at present. Thanks for all your help. Valerie Cape Town south africa

    1. Hello Valerie, so I never knew until now that brinjals could produce fruit for more than one year! Thanks so much for sharing this information. I enjoyed your learning about the radish plants and how you learnt it- it seems that few of the root crops like being transplanted. Just in case it happens again, radish does make a tasty micro green – just pick the baby shoot and add to salads. I’m feeling envious of your tomatoes, it’ll be at least six months before we can pick our own again here – I hope they ripen well for you. Very best, Mark

  11. I have learned…Tomatoes do best if they have 3 gallons of dirt at least. I can sneak a large/and a cherry in together but they need the rootspace and consistent moisture.
    I have a wonderful senior in the garden next to mine. She plants 3 foot x 2″ pipes in beside her tomatoes, etc. 1 foot sticking out of the dirt.You wander down the row and shoot the tube full of water.
    Your strawberries might need lower PH dirt. I have mine in below the blueberries and they get a diluted vinegar bath every few weeks. The strawberries love it. Especially if it is when I add Epson Salts to the water. Every month or so a tbsp per gallon in my compost tea.
    Recipe… a couple of shovels of manure, a 1/2 cup molasses, 1/4 cup expired yeast I always seem to have around. Percolate in the sun for a few days until it just about stops bubbling and use a 1/2 cup to a gallon of water. Dump the sludge on the raspberry roots.
    Lessons… always put a drainage hole in your pots. Climbing beans do great in pots. Use old telephone extension cords for climbing string. It doesn’t rot, stretch, Easy to tie or granny loop onto hooks. They like it.
    Don’t water peas or pumpkin leaves. The leaves get Powdery mildew on them. Really watch the plants in nurseries for spots and walk away. Grow your own.
    January is a great time to go to farmer’s markets and buy late season keepers. Harvest the seeds if you like it.
    I like Australian Blue. Most vine plants put out a dozen male flowers before a female. so just enjoy the flowers that put it on the Bee route.
    I plant 4 x everything I need. One for the bugs…one to give away to a friend, one for the food bank and one for me. That seems to be the magic number.
    Plant pennyroyal for ants in a pot. It gets invasive and a pot you can move around as needed. Plunk it on a nest and a few days later they are gone.
    Do not try to start/grow plants near a wireless router. http://www.globalresearch.ca/student-science-experiment-finds-plants-wont-grow-near-wi-fi-router/5336877
    I learned that Broccoli and most root crops are triggered to store/flower when the days get shorter. That is why you plant early and they bolt, late and they fruit.
    I don’t want to talk about my Hydroponic in January adventure… 6 foot Broccoli with no flowers.
    I learned that Cabbage and Broc (and many other plant leaves) taste like the head. That it is sheer idiocy to throw away most of the plant for the commercial core. The whole thing gets picked down to the stump LOL
    Anyone know a good recipe for Cabbage root?
    Nola from Western Canada

    1. Very nice to hear from you Nola – and thanks so much for sharing your great growing tips and learning! I love your rule of thumb for planting four of everything – brilliant. And so many great ideas here – the watering tubes, telephone cords, really useful for us all. Funnily enough, I’d recently been thinking about the acidity of the soil for my fruit crops, I’ll try the strawberries in something more acidic this year, thanks for the vinegar idea. Very best, Mark

  12. Pirjo Sundqvist

    My cat Sunny is a real lover of micro greens, so next season I´ll have to grow my greens a bit higher somewhere safe, before putting them out on the balcony 🙂

  13. This is going to be my first year of growing crops in pots so reading all your messages is a great help and hopefully I will be able to have more successes than failures. It also interesting to see where everyone is from. I’m in Yorkshire.

    1. Hello Elizabeth, just wanted to say very good luck with your first year of growing. I’m in Newcastle so only a little further north than you. Do let us know how it goes – and feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions as you start out. Mark

  14. Hi Mark,
    Thank you so much for all the tips & great info! I am now successfully growing organic lentil sprouts indoors! Soooo much fun & great nutrition. I live in Canada in the country. I have ample space for a garden (which I have one, fenced in otherwise my forest friends get to my food first)! But I also choose to grow in pots & containers. My mistake, this past year, as our weather is unpredictable was to leave a hot pepper plant outdoors too early in the season. When I returned to my country home 3 days later… it was not looking good at all & most of the plant had frozen during a night. I decided to cut it down quite a bit & give it some TLC & WOW!!! I have an amazing hot pepper plant that is still in bloom in January, (now indoors in a southern window). I also brought in my Eucalyptus plant that had not done so great all summer & by pinching it’s tips, I now have a much fuller & cascading plant from which we make a great winter tea. I am truly enjoying this journey! THANKS

    1. Hello Michelle, thank you for sharing the highlights of your growing journey – and so glad to hear it is giving you so much joy. Congratulations on reviving your pepper plant – and how brilliant that is still in bloom now, that’s so rewarding. Good luck with the growing in 2014, particularly with the frosts!

  15. Barbara Mullally

    We tried musk melons in our grow boxes on the roof deck of our workshop. We bought plants at a nursery, and planted them in late June. We noticed at the end of July that although the plants were flowering, they were not being fertilised, so I undertook the bee job myself with a paintbrush. I had limited success, and we got five small melons, but our season was far too short (Ontario, Canada) for them to ripen. We will try again but I will start the plants myself and get them out around the 10th of June (our frost-safe date), and we’ll plant some flowers that will attract more pollinators. The marigolds we had on the roof did not seem to attract the right insects. On the other hand, we had huge success with bell peppers; our roof boxes yielded far better than the plants in our land garden. We had a very wet summer and we were surprised at the peppers, as our tomatoes in the roof garden did not fare as well as last year when we had a lot of sun.

    1. Hi Barbara, lovely to hear about your growing exploits in Ontario! And thank you for sharing your interesting piece of learning about fertilisation. Gosh, 10 June for last frost does give you a short season, that must be quite a challenge? Congratulations on your bell peppers, that is a super achievement, particularly in a wet summer. Good luck for your growing in 2014, particularly with the melons! Mark

  16. Hi Mark – a great idea to share calamities. I tried carrots in milk cartons with dire results. I think I started too late and couldn’t work out how to water them. Next time I shall pierce the boxes and then stand them in a tray and keep it topped up so they drink from the bottom; maybe you could do something similar with your strawberry planter? It looked so beautiful early in the season! All good wishes for 2014.

    1. Hi Chris, yes, I guess carrots in a small container like a carton will be tricky for watering. Do let us know if the tray trick works. As you’ll know, one thing you’ll want to be careful using this method is that the soil doesn’t get too waterlogged, as this can often happen if containers are left sitting in water for any prolonged period. Very good wishes to you in 2014.

  17. Started 26 cabbage plants for our church garden. They were looking good until one morning I went to check on them and something ate all the baby leaves off. They all died. 🙁

  18. Hi Mark,
    This is my first comment on your site.I just wanted to say what a great idea it is to share crops that didn’t go so well. I started growing carrots in tubs a few years back, with the tubs about 4 ft above the ground in shelving (it really was vertical veg!) I got fairly blase about carrot fly in the last few years as I’d had no trouble with them and grew the carrots lower and lower without any other carrot fly protection. This year the tubs were on the ground and I lost nearly my whole crop to carrot fly before I realised what was happening. Anyway, I’ll try again next year; I’ve heard that aside from fleece, growing chives around carrots masks the smell from the flies. Do you know if this is true??
    Tom – Cumbria

    1. Hi Tom, very good to hear from you – that’s a fabulous example of learning. I’ve always grown carrots fairly high up and so remain in blissful ignorance about carrot fly! As far as I know most of the onion family – chives, leeks etc – are supposed to be good at repelling carrot fly. I think they find the carrots by smell and the oniony smell helps mask the carrots. Other crops that are recommended to repel carrot fly include rosemary (this is good one to grow, not just for its use in the kitchen but because the smell repels other pests, too), and, more surprisingly, lettuce. In my experience, companion planting like this is rarely a foolproof remedy (nothing like netting for example), but that it can offer some useful protection – definitely worth trying. There’s a useful list of companions on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pest-repelling_plants. Cheers, Mark

  19. Hello Mark,

    I first found your blog about a year ago – you’ve inspired me with my first veggie garden.

    I’ve got quite a big garden in Melbourne, which seems to have been used as a dump by the previous owner, Neville, I keep finding bits of glass, tiles, bricks and metal sheets in the ground, so it took me a long time to dig over a little patch. My neighbour says Neville actually dismantled and buried his old car in the garden. I haven’t yet found a tyre, though.

    Anyway I bought tomato seeds, courgettes, bell peppers, rocket and salad leaves and lovingly tended them all. The rocket and salad grew like the clappers, courgettes went mouldy, tomatoes never grew at all, however, I found a special place in my heart for the early bell-pepper sproutlings that were coming up. I watered morning and evening, fertilised, de-slugged and soon the whole garden was growing with little bell-pepper plants. I used to sit back last summer in the evenings with my feet up, having a nice sav. blanc surveying my land, thinking of all the recipes with bell peppers I could make: ratatouille, some nice chicken kebabs with peppers, garlic, onion and tomato etc. Bell pepper liqueur, even.

    They did not grow into bell peppers – they were toxic black nightshade which grow in building sites. Unfortunately, I gave some away as presents. I didn’t tell as they all died off anyway before anyone could eat them.

    This year: The tomatoes that didn’t grow last year have somehow blown under the fence and self-seeded in a different spot, I planted the courgettes out the front in the sun instead of at the back and we have a lovely crop, and I co-planted basil with new tomatoes as I read they are supposed to like each other. The first fruit are just beginning to ripen.

    Success 🙂

    Thank you Mark, it’s very special to nurture and grow something in your own garden and I wouldn’t really have had the confidence if it hadn’t been for the pictures and stories on your blog.

    1. Hello Snowy, thanks for sharing your learning and wonderful to hear that this blog helped inspire you to grow – that is really motivating to grow!

      Gosh, that is a scary story about the deadly nightshade (the same family as peppers of course), I’m so glad that no one was hurt. I wonder how the seeds could have got mixed up, do you remember where you got them from?

      Congratulations on your learning and all your harvests – it sounds like your growing is going really well! I hope you enjoy your tomatoes – fresh, home grown tomatoes can be one of the very best things you can grow in containers.


  20. I so appreciate your posts and think it is important to share what doesn’t work. It is easy to get discouraged, especially when I live in a very difficult and unpredictable climate. Every bit of information is helpful, thanks.

    1. I think that the information about chard bolting if it got stressed early is really useful – as it explains what happened to my very sad beetroot this year. They say that you can sow in March – but given how cold it was they did not thrive – and then just went leggy rather than make any round root. We may have better weather this spring but I reckon I will leave sowing later and sow with more protection. Rachel

      1. It’s always tricky to know when to sow each year isn’t it? I’m slowly hedging my bets a bit more each year, sowing a few early (to get some early harvests) and few later (to be sure of getting some!). Although some people do grow beetroot successfully in containers, your experience is very common amongst container growers, even when bolting is not an issue. I’m not quite sure why its so hard to get them to bulb up in containers but it seems to be.

  21. Mark – getting the timing of autumn/winter salad crops sowing right is difficult. I have no space when the its the right time – and then its too late to get any real leafage growing. I thought I’d got over that this year – having forced some space – but then the snails got my seedlings. Probably the lesson is to not try to grow so much in the space I have – bit of a difficult lesson to learn. Best wishes Rachel

    1. Rachel – ouch – yes, slugs and snails can be at their worst just when you want to sow for winter… And I find it can be easy to forget about them at this time because they are not doing too much damage to your more established plants. One thing you might try is to sow your winter crops in one of those seed trays with perspex lids – they don’t take up much space and the lid helps protect them for slugs. It is hard not to grow too much, isn’t it? I guess squeezing lots in is part of the fun too! Happy growing, Mark

  22. Dear Mark,
    This is the first time I send a message to you. I plan to increase the number of pots and containers this year. My experience has taken me from a large piece of land (a country house) to a large garden and then a small balcony where I live now. It has been sad to leave all my former plants and fruit trees. Nevertheless, I want to keep trying and your photos are helping me a lot to show people that one can grow vegetables within a reduced space. I have managed to harvest about a pound of potatoes grown in pots. I´m still struggling to grow healthy tomato plants. I also have cooking herbs and aromatic plants for infusions. I hope to convince my neighbors to start composting and grow a few vegetables.
    Thank you for all the information you send.
    Happy New Year and great harvests!
    Martha – Mexico City

    1. Dear Martha, lovely to hear about your balcony growing adventures in Mexico, and your plans to get your neighbours involved, too. Food growing can be a wonderful way to bring people in the community together. Tomatoes seem to like large pots, good compost, plenty of water, plenty of food and plenty of sun – but I guess you will know all this! Very happy growing, Mark

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