Some people are said to have a green thumb, all of their plants thrive under the care of their hands. But in reality, even an experienced gardener can have problems with a crop or with the whole garden. Any number of factors can, individually or in combination, cause your garden to fail. This prepping and survival blog post offers 6 suggestions on how to revive a garden when the plants fail to thrive.
1. Dig Deeper
You might want to apply this remedy in stages, one section of your garden at a time. If plants fail to thrive, loosening and amending the soil to a greater depth can help immensely. The double-dig method loosens the soil down to two feet.
First, dig out a one-foot deep trench. Next, add some compost to the bottom of the trench. Then use a spade or spading fork to loosen the soil down another foot or so. This also has the effect of working the compost deeper into the soil. Then fill in the trench, not with the soil that you removed, but with the next section of soil (i.e. what will become the next trench). When that second trench is dug out, by moving the soil to fill the first trench, repeat the process of adding compost and loosening the soil. Continue until the entire section of your garden has been double-dug.
The double-dig method allows plant roots to reach deeper, pulling nutrients and moisture from a larger area. This can help when the weather is dry, since the deeper soil tends to retain moisture longer. And amending the soil, deeply, with compost keeps the soil loose and adds nutrients.
2. Fertilizer, the artificial kind
I’m a fan of organic gardening and organic foods. But I make one exception for gardening: fertilizer. A good commercial artificial fertilizer can double your garden’s yields. NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) are the three nutrients needed in the largest quantities by various crops. I would shun chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. I don’t want traces of those chemicals in my food. But it seems to me that NPK fertilizer is a different issue. You want your food plants to contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and I don’t think the source matters. You might be able to get high yields with entirely organic fertilizer. But if that fails, a compromise that uses artificial fertilizer, but only organics to control plants and plant diseases is a practical alternative.
The best commercial fertilizers are NPK, with sulfur (N-P-K-S) and some trace minerals. You can work some fertilizer into the soil when you are preparing the garden bed. Make certain that it is dispersed within the soil, so that it doesn’t burn the roots. You can also top-dress a crop by adding fertilizer to the topsoil after the plants have started to grow.
3. The right watering schedule
We all know that both too little water and too much water can reduce yields or even cause complete crop failure. But there is a school of thought that says you should not water your crops continuously — neither with drip irrigation, nor with a daily watering schedule. The idea is to water the soil thoroughly on one particular day. Then allow the soil to dry out for a few days. This drying process lets air reach the roots of crops. Most plants do not thrive if their roots are always entirely submerged in water. Even rice, which can grow with the soil submerged has shown higher yields with this process of watering and drying. Once the soil is entirely dry, water again thoroughly, and repeat the drying process.
4. Give each plant plenty of space
Plants that are crowded together do not produce as much food. Give your plants generous spacing to provide the roots of each plant plenty of room to spread out. You can actually get more food from fewer plants in this way. And although many gardeners simply place the plants in “rows and columns”, you make better use of limited space if you use a hexagonal spacing. So in one row, the plants are, say, a foot apart. Then in the next row, offset the placement of the plants so that they don’t form columns. So the second row will still be a foot apart, but beginning half a foot into the row. The effect is like a hexagon:
If you direct-seed your plants, some seeds will not germinate, or some seedlings will die early on, reducing yields. But if you grow your seedlings in trays, and then transplant those seedlings that are the strongest, you will get higher yields for any given area of garden space. Transplanting is more work, but it offers higher yields and helps get seedlings past the earliest and most vulnerable stage of growth. If plant diseases, or weather, or pests are killing off your plants while they are still seedlings, try transplanting instead of direct seeding.
5. Choose the best cultivar
Sometimes the problem with an unproductive crop is not the soil or the growing conditions, but rather the choice of cultivar. Almost any crop you would care to grow in a survival garden is available in a myriad of different varieties. Each variety does best under a certain set of conditions. Some tomato varieties thrive in cool weather, others need hot weather. Some cultivars tolerate frosts, and others do not. You can do some reading about different cultivars, to find the ones you think will be best suited to the conditions of your area. But ultimately, you may have to experiment with several varieties to find the one that thrives in your garden.
6. Save seeds for the next crop
If only there were a variety of each crop that was particularly designed for your garden: for the exact altitude, climate, soil and other conditions of your little corner of the world’s biosphere. Is this too much to hope for? From a commercial seed company, yes. But there is another way.
If you save seeds from a crop that is relatively successful in your garden, and grow those seeds in the next crop, over time, you can develop your own cultivar, uniquely suited to your particular microclimate and soil conditions. This type of local version of a cultivar is called a “landrace”. It takes more than a few crops to develop a new landrace of a cultivar. And you have to be careful to select seeds only from those particular plants that are the most productive, or that have whatever features you wish to emphasize in each successive generation. But the advantage is that the crop will eventually become well-adapted to your gardening conditions. A landrace can produce higher yields; it can tolerate harsh weather better than other cultivars. It can thrive in soil that would otherwise be less then favorable for that crop.
To save seeds from a crop, you need an “open pollinated” variety — not a hybrid or “F1″ type of plant. The hybrid plants will not come true to type in the next generation. The open pollinated plants (often termed heirlooms) have been grown in many successive generations by seed saving, so the variety is stable; you know what you will get in each generation of a crop.
More on seed saving here: Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, 2nd Edition