On why our vegetable garden is such a disaster this year . . .

One of the front beds–soil problems, I think, are causing the gap in the middle of the bed.

I’m having my annual gardening-caused mental meltdown. When it comes to vegetables this winter (the best time to grow them here in Los Angeles) if it could go wrong it did. Vegetables are needy, fussy plants and we’ve not had much luck with them recently. So I thought I would list the factors, natural and human that went into this year’s lackluster veggie garden in the hopes of preventing future bouts of veggie neurosis.

The aesthetic disaster that is the new keyhole bed. And let’s not even talk about the skunks.

Acts of Nature

  • Bad weather—a freakishly hot fall planting season–lost the first round of seedlings despite using shade cloth.
  • Soil issues–clearly time to do a soil test in my raised beds or just bite the bullet and get some new soil. Something is out of balance.
  • Mammals–I’ve never had so many midnight skunk raids. Someone tell me if skunks are edible.

Looking better than last year, but the backyard still needs some design help.

Oh, the humanity

  • Fatigue and frustration–the double knockout punch of skunks and the hot weather left me on the ropes with little enthusiasm for ongoing gardening maintenance.
  • Ego–forgetting that urban homesteading is not about self-sufficiency—to chase self-sufficiency is a fool’s errand. I should be happy just to have a few good salads and be thankful that I can buy good vegetables at a local farmer’s market. I don’t think self-sufficiency is a good goal even on a large piece of land. We humans are meant  to work together, hang out in groups and share goods and knowledge. I’ve got some talented vegetable growing neighbors. Perhaps it’s time we put our heads together and help each other garden. We’ve talked about it in the past, but somehow never got around to it.
  • Lack of engagement with the garden. For me this is the most critical issue and I think it is related to dissatisfaction with the design of the garden, particularly the backyard. I don’t want to hang out in the backyard because it just reminds me of how much work I’ve got to do. This becomes a vicious cycle. I then don’t put in enough work to get plants going. Time to come up with some new design ideas–perhaps the neighbors can help here to.

So how are things shaping up in your gardens? If it’s winter where you are, what are your plans for the coming year?

Leave a comment


  1. Whew! Thank you for baring your soul; now I can cut my garden guilt in half. I’ve had exactly the same troubles and trials myself this winter, yet what I enjoy most about this post is the potent reminder that we need to work together and hang out. Such great advice. Thanks, Eric.

  2. It’s midsummer here now and my garden is pathetic and feeble. The chard I planted 2 years ago is still going and there’s one lonely butternut trailing along. There’s grass and weeds everywhere. I planted lots of seeds, had lots of seedlings which I left too late to plant. When I finally got around to planting them it was already hot and I didn’t water them enough. I get terrible hayfever so there’s 3 months from late August to late November where I just can’t be outside without dying. Perhaps gardening is not for me :(. I so want to be a good gardener but nature seems to be against me.

  3. That’s the wonderful thing about gardening in the northeast – I’m forced to take a break for the winter. (I will never, ever, take a Coleman workshop on hoop houses to extend the season!) By spring time I’m over-eager to get into the garden and by fall I’m silently muttering “die, plants, die.”

  4. In the UK it’s winter (obviously) and about 0 degrees centigrade today. I have chard, kale, parsnips, celeriac, leeks and lettuce still going well, (the lettuce under cloches) and the garlic is sprouting and over wintering onions too. Terrible, terrible summer though, so much rain that things didn’t fertilise, like fruits on trees and bushes and a slug infestation of mammoth proportions also the soil was so wet that things just rotted. Hoping for better things this year.

  5. So sorry to hear of your travails!

    Regarding the skunks: years ago a local beekeeper advised me to attach those nail-entrusted strips used to hold wall-to-wall carpeting to my hive stands to dissuade skunks from nosing around. We’ve never had a skunk problem, but we do have large sheets of scrap plywood embedded with roofing nails (facing up) all around the hives to keep out the local bear. Seems to be working: we’ve seen the bear in the yard, but since the initial attack last July the hives have been untouched. Perhaps this idea might somehow work for you? It would depend on how the skunk is getting into your garden – you don’t want your yard looking like a maximum-security prison.

    To Terry Golson: as a fellow northeasterner I totally agree!

  6. My winter garden did well. I got enough tomatoes in December to replenish my canned tomato supply and I’m eagerly watching the brussel sprouts fatten. My greens were a big disappointment though. Normally my spinach and lettuce grow abundantly in the winter, but this year they’re anemic laggards that still aren’t ready to harvest. This weekend I’m building raised beds with a covering system to prevent the neighbor’s cats from sitting on my young seedlings.

  7. I’m in Zone 10. My collard greens, tree collards, mustard, sugar snap peas, mesclun, lettuce, parsley and swiss chard are all doing well. My only losers are spinach and kale.

    • I’ve never had luck with spinach here–gave it up a long time ago and, personally, I think swiss chard tastes better anyways. Good to hear that the rest of your garden is doing well.

  8. Try bartering with your neighbors. Product or skills like eggs or canning up some food for them in exchange for some of their veggies. If you grow great greens and they grow great tomatoes, see if everyone would agree to you growing all the greens in exchange for them growing all the tomatoes.

  9. The crazy hot September did a job on my winter garden too–and the Bagrada bugs finished off everything but the carrots, scallions, and chard. So, yup. That’s all I have. I had never had Bagrada bugs in my garden before–they are HELL. And so small, especially the instars. Little walking red dots that suck everything dry. The chickens think they are yummy, but they also think seedlings are yummy.

    And usually we have cilantro come up all over the back and front yards. Not this year–none! I think that must be a result of September as well.

    • Sorry to hear about the Bagrada bugs. They made an appearance here too, but went away when I cleaned up the afflicted plant. But I heard about one SoCal farmer who has given up growing all brassicaceae because of this nasty imported bug. Seems like a problem we’ll have to deal with until things go back into balance.

  10. I guess you could always raise your beds more, for the skunk issue. We had a “de-skunked” pet skunk when I was a child and I seem to remember he was not great at climbing. So raised beds (like, 24 inches) might be the way to go! I know how frustrating it can be when troubles set in though, but you are absolutely right in not expecting complete self-sufficiency. I think, for anyone, believing that’s possible is magical thinking (because, after all, even the most self-sufficient person is fine until they break a limb, get pneumonia or just get old). Civilization has always thrived with people living in communities.

    • Good idea to raise the beds a bit more–and it’s a good thing that skunks can’t climb!

  11. my garden looks terrible, with the dead skeletons of tomatoes past and lots of frozen weeds never cleaned out. One bed was planted with lettuce and chard and under covered hoops, but am afraid this freeze spell did them in totally. Greenhouse (in Arizona?) is doing okay. cold in there at night, but not enough so to kill the lettuce and chard (yet). have not gone round to see how the onions and garlic are doing – just too damn cold. and since I can’t keep up with the work of the garden as it is, am adding a bee hive this spring!! We must all be mad

  12. Sorry to hear of your garden guilt and despair. I’m from Southern California and no live in North Dakota, so even though you may think it looks terrible, there’s at least one person out there (me) who’s seriously jealous of your winter garden.

    I agree other commenters who encouraged you to swap and leverage your garden with others. We get corn, carrots, and beets from the in-laws since they grow better at their place than at ours. We also get strawberries and raspberries at a friends house who has too many and can’t pick them all. In exchange we offer a few things that we grow really well like cherry tomatoes, currants, and blueberries. We’re all about leveraging our respective competitive advantages.

  13. You might try a motion detector sprinkler for the skunks. I used one with great success a few years ago after my cat died and the neighborhood cats thought my raised beds were, well …
    As for garden malaise — I completely redesigned my vegetable garden last year, and it made all the difference. It’s much easier to get in and out of now, and I enjoyed gardening again in a way I hadn’t for a couple of years.
    Now if I can just learn how to accomodate our new season — six weeks of 100+ temps, no rain, high winds, no humidity (and massive forest fires). When I went to turn beds last fall, after soaking them, I found all the earthworms tucked up in tight little hibernation balls in the baked soil.

    • Erik – another critter deterrent that I’ve read about recently is called a “nite guard”. It is a solar powered motion detector that emits a flash of red light that mimics the eyes of nighttime predators. I’ve read a couple of posts where it is very effective in deterring raccoons and neighborhood cats. It may even work against skunks. They’re pretty inexpensive. Here’s the link:


  14. If you have to do raised beds because of your lead issues, why not transition to all SIPs? I have that because of space and soil issues. The height of the SIP deters most critters and the soil mix is easy to keep moist and hydrated.

    Also for mammals try spraying plants with water w/hot pepper or cayenne because they will not like the spicy. Unfortunately it doesn’t work against birds (or greedy chickens) because they don’t taste spicy.

  15. Oh, dear. I know how it is to be down in the mouth about ones garden. I can’t believe you don’t have a few scoops of chicken manure to dig into those garden beds. I know they say it’s “hot” but in a few months time it should be good. We have insufferably hot summers here in Austin, TX. My favorite garden time is winter as well but we’ve had quite a few freezes this year.
    NPR had a wonderful piece about Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. He gave failure a lot of thought. I thought you might benefit from reading this:

    • Thanks for that article! I love this passage from it: “The use of the word ‘failed’ is repeated throughout [Jefferson’s] garden book, and one wonders if any gardener has written about failure as much as Thomas Jefferson. He once also wrote that if he failed 99 times out of 100, that one success was worth the 99 failures.”

  16. OH MY, I feel your pain! I have gone through the same feelings over and over in my life but by spring I jump in again like a crazy person anxious for green. I grew up in Pasadena where I had NO problem growing things. Ended up in Tujunga where it froze, burned, or blew away. Everywhere I have lived since have been the same old thing. A struggle. And I think ‘gee if I could live someplace where I did not have the extremes.’ Thus your garden looks pretty good to me. I am here in Apple Valley- high desert-now and struggling to figure out what will survive. The guava that was suppose to freeze did not. The fig that was suppose to survive to 10 degrees appears dead. If I could just keep things alive, I’d be happy. Gardening is such a gamble. Good luck. Things will get better for us as we learn more from all our mistakes. I hope.

  17. last summer was pretty difficult – with the drought we were hauling water to the garden to have enough tomatoes and cukes (for pickles) and let everything else go. Tomatoes have been acting weird in this area for the last 2 yrs – 2011 they didn’t start ripening until late Sept. In 2012 we had a burst of productivity in late July, and then very little until late Sept again. I grow mostly indeterminants. I talked to lots of people who said the same thing.

  18. I live in the Phx, AZ area and we have 4 4×8 raised beds in a pleasing arrangement in the backyard. They’re doing great despite the last 4 nights of sub-freezing weather. We use PVC to make 4 arches over each bed, then drape plastic over the hoops to make little hoop houses. We staple the plastic to the wooden raised panels and it held up pretty well even in the nightly winds. If we ever got our act together, we could use the same hoops to drape sunshade cloth over in the summer but we usually give up by that time because it’s so darn hot. I’ve often imagined your garden is wonderful and always productive, so I’m surprised to hear of your frustration, but I like the focus on community to take advantage of different people’s strengths. You and Kelly have so many other talents, skills, and knowledge that you have plenty to contribute.

  19. We are in Minnesota and unlike Terry, I am trying to extend the season a la Eliot Coleman. Last year was our first year with high tunnel greenhouse and it was a rip-roparing success, abundant greens and scallions all winter, and a burst of growth in March. I have plenty to sell to the co-op through November and never had a day without a beautiful salad. I just came in from a demoralizing trip through the greenhouse after chores. Rabbits got inside and nearly all the greens are eaten down to the ground- just a few sprigs of chard left. Which I am sure they will get tonight. It wasn’t doing nearly as well as last winter anyway. We got a late start planting because we couldn’t bear to tear out the tomatoes. Maybe the soil needs major amending (we only added a thin layer of compost this fall.) Maybe we were lulled into false expectations because last year was unusually warm in MInnesota and this is more typical. Oh well, seed starting begins in a few weeks!

  20. It’s winter in Southern MD – 40ish, foggy and WET. I didn’t manage to get a single green going for the winter. All my kale got infested with some tiny red bug and I had to pull it all up. None of my Chard seeds came up. It’s my first winter without greens in awhile. I did acquire a greenhouse that I need to get set up and hope to get some salad greens going in that soon….Had a bumper crop of gigantic turnips, though, and I’m rocking the broccoli!

  21. I have moved from a home to an apt this year, so no garden. I have been planning my container garden for this summer. I may have lost my garden, but i won’t be without fresh cukes and tomatoes if i can help it!

  22. So sorry to hear about your gardening woes…The surefire way to rid your yard of skunks is to have a male relative (preferably a small one who will think this is hysterical) pee along the perimeter of your garden beds. Mark end points with a stone that you move each time. I cannot believe I am posting this, but it is a tried-and-true method. Several local farmers gave me this tip after we moved here. My 4 yo son did it, and it worked. Good luck!

    • We used to have a doberman who provided this service. It think we have more skunks since he passed on. Now I’ve got to step up to the plate, so to speak.

  23. I love your observation about engagement with the garden, and making it a place that’s fun to hang out….a leave-the-guilt-at-the-gate space.

    For me the equivalent, somewhat malevolent dynamic is garden envy, which starts close and wraps a wide swath of weirdness around my gardening project. I have two raised beds, and one of them is cultivated by my son and his herbalist girlfriend…a bed which is lush with calendula, lettuce, beets and herbs. My raised bed is a feeble assortment of volunteer tomato and squash plants that came up during the heat wave and have frozen, plus slow growing peas and beans…and empty space. My envy then marches on over to the most recent Sunset magazine – oh why do I persist in reading it? – with a spread on a refurbished tool shed and charming garden path. So now I must burn the magazine and focus on what brings me joy in my garden and renews my spirit, which is where the problem actually resides. Thanks for listening!

  24. Pingback: More on our gardening disasters | Root Simple

  25. for your soil: what works great for me is that I have a ‘wormbox’, basically a composter but as I live in a city and don’t have a garden for a composter, it’s a bin in which we throw all our biodegradable waste and the worms digest it into super fertile soil. the stuff’s amazing.
    what also works wonders is horse-manure. Here in Germany we spread some over our soil in the late autumn, and the rain and snow washes the nutrients into the soil over the winter. Dunno when the best time is in your area… but at any rate, it’s very good for the soil.

    as for the skunks… my enemies are the snails. but I just don’t have the heart to kill them. not yet at least. I think my vegetarian heart is probably gonna warm up to the idea of murder very soon, if they eat ONE MORE salad 😉


  26. About skunks, i lived in Baja Cal Sur for a while and had all sorts of critters living off the garden convinience store. The solution is (no they are not precicesly edible)… they are glutons. So what i did was build them their very own garden, nothing fancy or complicated, just an area in the borders far away from the main garden, i gated it first so they would keep off for the next 3 weeks and i basically dumped all kinds of left over veggie roots, leaves, compost and planted some leftover lettuce roots to regrow, threw in some wheat, millet, pumpkin, alfalfa, amaranth, sunflower, tomatoes, just about anything i could come up with and that was available, i covered it with hay or leaf litter and watered it every other day. I unfenced the little snack bar and surprise! everyone went there, they somehow knew it was for them, they destroyed it and ate it completely, but they never ever touched my garden again, even after they had finished their garden. Somehow this snack bar encouraged some competition between animals and eventually even big jackrabbits didnt come by. It is just an idea, it worked great for me.

  27. We did something similar we would put all the scraps and wilted
    veggies in one area. They even like stale bread. The bread store
    gives us pet bread for free. We also put a small fence around each garden bed. The little skunkies are not real smart. So they usualy
    take the lead of the other animals. I enjoy seeing the wild life
    I live in a city and can not believe they can survive here. I hope
    your garden is doing wonderful soon.
    best of luck

  28. fences pay off. After many years. Many years of peace, and fewer animal-caused meltdowns. When I planted in SoCal, the mice, deer, ground squirrels, all could smell my wet soil from miles around and came to partake. The entire planting was gone in one night.

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