Having an off year in the vegetable garden. Highlights and lowlights

Over the previous two summer growing seasons, I have blogged about my non-expert experiences building and growing my vegetable garden while attempting to put into practice a lot of things I’ve learned via osmosis working here at the Home and Garden Information Center (view past posts I’ve written to see my progress).

I didn’t write about my exploits during this year’s season since my ambitions were not particularly great or new, as I expected we would be too busy with our baby to put more than a large amount of effort into the garden. My wife started some seeds last year, but was too busy to do so this year, and we wanted to have a permanent rodent fence and gate, so that building project bumped back my direct-sowing and planting schedule.

The year turned out to have more lowlights than highlights, but put all together in one blog post here, I think there’s enough to provide some interest and learning.

Highlight: permanent garden fence and gate constructed

If you’ve tracked my blog posts over the last few years, you’ve seen me go from two store-bought raised beds stuck in the middle of the yard, to what I’ve built now: 3 total beds (one built from scratch), a gravel surrounding space, hand-crafted collapsible trellis and tomato support, and new for this season, a permanent rodent fence with gate.

Gravel garden area with wood fence
New, more secure and better-looking wood fence.

Our previous fencing, which I took down each season, was just garden stakes with wire fencing around the perimeter of our gravel area. This type of fence allowed a lot of grass to grow into the inside of the area via the base of the fence, making things look sloppy. The construction of the wood fence fixed the junction of the wire fence to our gravel base border, eliminating this problem, and making the whole garden look more like a designed, permanent fixture, rather than something sloppily put together.

I’m happy to report that we had 0 notable creature infractions in our garden since the permanent fence has gone up!

Lowlight: direct-sown green beans did not sprout

A favorite of mine to grow are green beans. I had more seeds that did not get used from last year, and I didn’t think they were that old, so I planted them in one of the garden beds. None sprouted. I think this was just bad luck or misremembering how old this pack of seeds was.

Here’s a photo showing the green bean growth we had this year.

Lowlight: Compost-sprouted freebie watermelon plant was a dud

Last year, we had grown watermelon which only really made one fruit that we left on the vine too long until it turned out it was rotting where it was sitting on the ground when we went to pick it. That partly-rotten melon was tossed into our new compost pile with the rest of the garden waste.

This year, as I was going to the compost pile to re-up our beds with compost, I saw several small watermelon plants growing in the compost! I hadn’t planned on growing watermelon this year, but the novelty of having a free watermelon plant from the compost was enough so I decided to plant three of them and see if they took.

Watermelon seedling that sprouted in compost
Watermelon seedling that sprouted in compost

Two did not make it far, but one took root and was growing well for a time. It died in the heat before it could grow any fruit.

Highlight – Cucamelons!

Years ago at the Derwood Demo Garden, I had seen them growing these little cherry-tomato-sized watermelon-looking things called cucamelon or mousemelon. When you pop them in your mouth, they actually taste more like cucumber, but a bit more tart. I wanted to attempt growing cucamelon for the novelty of it, and to have something growing up one side of my nifty folding A-frame trellis.

I ordered some seeds, popped them directly in the soil (about 10 of them – way more than I needed, but I was worried many may not make it), and they slowly grew. I had about 8 little plants coming up, so I gave a few to a neighbor before they got too crowded. These took a while to fruit, but it was fun having these micro-cucumbers climbing up my trellis.

I substituted cucumber with cucamelon in a greek chicken with cucumber and tomato in tzatziki dish, and it was good enough, but not worth the effort to pick and chop dozens of little cucamelons vs just using cucumbers.

I’m not sure what cucamelons are good for beyond the novelty. I gave a ton to my neighbor who is into pickling, so we’ll see how those turn out. I hear pickled cucamelon could be a good cocktail garnish.

Lowlight – round tromboncino squash

Last year, I had great success with the vine-borer-resistant, trellis-climbing tromboncino squash plants. I attempted a repeat this year, and things were growing and climbing fine, but when it came to actual fruit, I got one normal-shaped squash (on the ground, so it was curved), and then about seven fully round squash. These would keep growing if I let them, and they also required clippers to cut them off the vine.

They had fairly large seeds that looked like pumpkin seeds, but weren’t as tough. I cooked slices of one with tomato slices, Italian spices, and a little cheese on the grill on foil. They turned out a bit soggy, but they tasted good. The rest of the round ones went into the compost.

One of the two major vines that climbed up my trellis got white, powdery stuff on the leaves (likely powdery mildew) and died off. As I write this, the remaining vine is starting to produce some long squash again.

I used a different pack of seeds this year, and we did not plant flowers around the garden, so perhaps the seed provider difference or a lack of pollination caused the oddly formed fruit.

Highlight – zucchini plant thrived in a new bed

After the last several years’ zucchini plants were cut down in their prime by squash vine borers, I hadn’t planned to grow zucchini, but a friend dropped off a zucchini seedling on my step, and I had the space, so I popped it in a raised bed. The one thing I did differently this year was to put it in a bed that hadn’t been used for a plant that got murdered by vine borers previously.

stacks of zucchini

This zucchini gave us so much fruit! We got so tired of zucchini and gave a lot of it away. Its main vines grew so far, they were out of the bed and far away from its roots. It gave up and died a couple of weeks ago after long, admirable service. I haven’t dissected it for vine borers like the ones that got my crop the past years, but I am curious if it just grew too far from its soil and water source roots and its stem then baked in the heat.

Lowlight – heat-tolerant tomatoes got scorched

Tomato plant with wilted leaves
You can see the main part of the plant is wilted, but the new growths coming out of the bottom to the side are greener and not wilted

I picked up a free pair of purportedly heat-tolerant tomato seedlings at work (I neglected to record what variety they were) and planted them. They were growing nicely and had a few green tomatoes coming along until we had a week or so of serious heat in the area. It got a little wilty, and the leaves curled despite my conscientious watering.

The heat damage remained on the plant, and tomatoes took very long to even begin turning orange. Green tomatoes got large on the vine and had many problems.

Some newer branches of the tomato plant grew and looked notably different from the heat-damaged branches.

We got some tomatoes, but not very many this season.

The problem could have been the high heat, the type of tomato, or potentially lower light due to my garden design; my tomatoes are in a bed right next to the tomboncinos that climb up the A-frame, which I imagine provides some shade at certain times of the day. In the future, I will place the A-frame and tomatoes further apart.

Just keep on truckin’

This season was ups and downs, with a few more downs. But that’s ok. Sometimes we hit a patch of bad luck. For me this year, it was potentially bad luck with the draw on seeds, hot weather, and unknown issues, plus things I can do better next year like plant placement, pollinator attraction, and planting schedule.

I’m going to keep growing next year! I’ll try tromboncino squash from a different supplier, tomatoes again, cucumber, green beans, and maybe one or two novel (to me) things, like okra.

Dan Adler
HGIC Web Support and Video Production

3 thoughts on “Having an off year in the vegetable garden. Highlights and lowlights

  1. GEORGE LAMBERT September 19, 2022 / 9:00 pm

    At least you didn’t have any mammal or insect problems. Hope you buried some fencing below grade to prevent burrowing. As for wilted tomato, if you watered slow and long enough, search online for other wilt causes. Now with your deluxe fence there is no turning back – unless you want to turn it into a big play pen for your kid.

  2. Kyle October 26, 2022 / 12:20 am

    When you closed it out, I like that you mentioned that there are things that you could have done better. So while there are definitely more downs than ups this year, the knowledge you’ve gleaned (and sharing with us too) is technically a win right? I’m now invested in your next year’s report. I had okra for the first time recently and they are great when steamed. The texture is not for everyone though. Best of luck to you keeping on truckin’!

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