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Five ways to kill your vegetable plants

“There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder.”

— Alfred Austin, English poet, novelist and gardener (1835-1913)

Although I agree with Alfred Austin that Mother Nature sometimes throws curve balls to gardeners with her weather and pests, I have found most “egregious blunders” are committed by well-intentioned gardeners without any help from outside forces.

A case in point: The other day, I asked my daughter to help fertilize the tomato and pepper plants. One of the joys of gardening has been to introduce my passion for plants to my children, the same way my dad sparked his love for growing things in me. I have been happily teaching Kerra some of the things I’ve learned about gardening, but it didn’t occur to me to be more specific about how to fertilize.

A little while later, I found her enthusiastically fertilizing the plants as I’d asked, only she was fertilizing the plant itself rather than the soil around the root zone. Sure enough, the next day the plant leaves showed signs of fertilizer burn, and they subsequently shriveled and dropped off, along with the flowers.

Kerra was horrified by her mistake, but I had to laugh. I’ve been there, and done that. In fact, over-fertilizing (or fertilizing all over) vegetable plants is a common way to kill them. Gardeners also damage their plants by fertilizing during the heat of the day instead of in the morning.

The best way to treat fertilizer burn is to spray off any residue from the foliage and give the soil a deep watering. I also recommend skipping the next scheduled fertilizing session. We’ll wait a month before fertilizing the tomatoes and peppers again — I mean fertilizing the soil around the tomatoes and peppers.

Fertilizer faux pas aren’t the only way to kill your vegetable plants, though. A second common error is planting the wrong plant at the wrong time. Cool weather crops, such as beets, carrots, cabbage, parsley, radishes and spinach, don’t grow well in our hot summer heat.

On the other hand, warm-season crops, such as beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant and melons, need warm soil to thrive. They will die from frost if planted too early.

Gardeners are usually worried about their vegetable plants not getting enough water, but a third common way to kill plants is by overwatering them. Automatic irrigation is a beautiful thing, except when the watering schedule is not adjusted for weather changes. We’ve all seen sprinklers energetically watering lawns during a rainstorm; similarly, drip irrigation for vegetable gardens must be modified as needed.

The trick to effective watering is to test the soil beyond the top layer, which dries out quickly and tempts gardeners into watering more. A simple way to test is by sticking your index finger into the soil second-knuckle deep to determine whether the soil at this level is dry, moist or wet.

Based on the second–knuckle test, water according to the specific needs of the plants you’re growing. For example, my tomatoes and peppers need moist soil, whereas my onions and herbs, like rosemary and lavender, prefer drier soil.

A fourth sure-fire way to kill veggies is by allowing them to fry in the hot summer sun. After making this mistake several times, I now try to check the weather forecast every day. If temperatures soar past 95 degrees, I provide some shade during the late afternoon. Umbrellas work best for me because afternoon winds usually blow the row cover off.

Pets are a fifth way to send vegetable plants to their doom. I love my two dogs, but I don’t love the way they use my vegetable beds to sun themselves. The other day, I asked my daughter to let the rabbit out of her cage to get some exercise, but I didn’t specify where. Kerra let the bunny in the backyard, and all the lettuce was gone within a few hours.

Alfred Austin was right; there is no gardening without humility.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.