Our ten biggest failures (or close calls) in this summer’s vegetable garden

In my previous post I outlined our ten biggest vegetable garden success stories from the 2022-23 summer season here at Greatrakes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all beer and skittles – this being our first year in our new home, and a totally different climate to what we’ve been used to, we were bound to make some mistakes. Not to mention Mother Nature stepping in on occasion to lend a not-so-helping hand with the situation. So here are our ten biggest failures for the summer, along with a few close calls that were technically slight wins, but somehow felt like failures all the same:

#10 Straw bale garden beds

This is one of those situations where, although I really want to chalk it up as a win, there’s just been too many speedbumps along the road to success to feel overly enthusiastic about it at this early stage. The idea of growing vegetables in straw bales initially came about, with this being our first year in our new home and raised garden beds being so hideously expensive to buy, we needed to find a cheaper alternative that would use the space we had to its full potential.

Straw bales prepared for planting

After studying all of the instructional YouTube videos on the subject that I could find, I ended up buying a bunch of straw bales at our local feed & produce store. I set them up in double rows, and prepared them by adding a high nitrogenous fertiliser. I then soaked them every day for a couple of weeks until they had started to break down in the centre, at which time I added a layer of garden soil to the top, before planting them with my chosen crops – tomatoes in some, and beans in others.

The right side bale in the foreground here inexplicably collapsed within a few weeks of planting

I guess I should have realised at the time, but planting a nitrogen fixing crop such as beans into something that’s been treated with a high nitrogen fertiliser is probably not the smartest move I’ve ever made, and it probably also explains why some of the tomato crops were a lot later to start fruiting than their brethren in the raised garden beds. That being said, I don’t think that’s the full story – it’s a lot more complicated than that, and has a lot to do with the watering regime that we first employed, as well as the root structure of the plants involved.

The first tomatoes that we produced from straw bales all ended up with blossom end rot, a condition caused by a lack of calcium. The natural instinct here is to simply add more fertiliser, until you realise that the real cause of this lack of calcium is not the absence of the mineral in the soil, but a shortage of water needed to transport it up to the fruit.

Collapsing bales caused these bush tomatoes to sprawl over onto the topsoil below

It dawned on me one day that even though I’d been watering the bales every day alongside the raised garden beds, I hadn’t really checked to see how deeply or how well that water had penetrated. Sure enough, when I dug down into one of the bales, I found that although some parts were moist to the touch, a lot of the bale was completely dry, even though it had been watered that morning. This wasn’t such a problem for the tomato plants, which by this stage had managed to develop a strong root system that ran right through the bales, but for shallower rooted plants such as beans, it meant that there was a lot less margin for error. In fact, it was only much later in the season, after we’d switched to deep soaking the bales regularly using water from the bore, that the climbing beans we’d planted really started to flower and produce beans, by which time it was too late in the season to get a useful crop.

One of the other issues with straw bales that we encountered is that some of them ended up collapsing completely. These just happened to be ones that had determinate (bush) tomatoes growing in them, which hadn’t been trellised or staked, meaning the plants ended up sprawling along the ground, and in this environment, with its overwhelming numbers of slaters, slugs, beetles and earwigs, that pretty much spelled doom for any fruits that touched the soil.

After a full season, the bales are ready to be broken up and used as mulch or compost

Given that we plan to expand the vegetable garden this season, I’m sure we will end up using straw bales again, however this time around we’ll only use them for deep rooted plants (such as tomatoes) and we’ll make sure that even the bush varieties are well staked and well soaked. Plus we’ll make sure that there’s a much higher fertilising regime using a better balanced mix while the plants are getting established.

#9 Chillies

The failure of our chillies to crop this year I attribute wholly and solely to a couple of rookie errors I made. The first one was starting them off too early – I figured that even though it was the middle of winter, the greenhouse was warming up into the mid twenties (Celsius) each day, so they’d be fine. Of course, what I wasn’t taking into account was the nights, which were getting down to around -2 or -3 each night (even reaching -6 one morning). When you’re getting a frost inside a closed greenhouse, chances are you’re not going to have much luck germinating your summer crops.

A surviving Jalapeno

The few plants that did survive really struggled, and the later lot that I established in early spring fell fate to the overwatered Jiffy pot scenario that’s outlined in failure #6 below, so I really only had a handful of spindly seedlings to plant out in November when we returned from our overseas holiday.

Mini capsicum plant

My next error was to plant those spindly seedlings into one of the few garden beds that still had any space available, rather than waiting for the correct spot to open up. Given that we were still waiting to harvest the majority of our winter crops, I chose a bare patch in one of the original raised garden beds that the previous owners had built around the base of a nectarine tree. Of course, having never seen the tree with foliage at this stage, I hadn’t really thought about how much shade it would throw onto the bed. To make matters worse, the soil in the bed seemed to be mostly commercial potting mix, rather than a proper raised garden soil mix, so it drained far too quickly and completely dried out within an hour or two of being watered. The fact that we managed to get any chillies at all was a miracle in itself.

#8 Ram’s Horn tomatoes

These tomatoes promised so much, and unlike a lot of my tomato seedlings, they didn’t suffer from overwatering while in Jiffy pots, however it seems that the early start to the season may have been too much for them anyway, as for most of the summer they just grew a thick cover of leaves with hardly any fruit, even though they were growing in the same bed as Thai Pink Egg and Roma tomatoes that were heavily laden with crops.

Rams Horn tomatoes

What fruits did appear would almost instantly start dying back and dropping off the bush prematurely thanks to blossom end rot. From all accounts they are a heavy, reliable cropper in the right conditions, but it sounds like that’s not what we have here in Axedale.

‘Rams Horn’ produced abundant foliage, but struggled to produce much in the way of quality fruit

#7 Celeriac

Not a true failure as such, but another crop that we ended up growing over a long period for very little return. I planted half a bed of celery and the other half with celeriac – both are heavy water users, so I made sure to keep the water up to them throughout the summer, but while the celery was ready to harvest in a reasonably short amount of time, the celeriac seemed to take forever to develop its customary root swelling, and when it finally did, the bases were small and quite stringy – making for a not very pleasant texture the one time we tried to make celeriac mash. In the end I pulled the lot out and fed them to the sheep. At least they seemed to like them.

Celeriac in the foreground, lots of lush green foliage, but very poor root development

#6 Overwatered Jiffy Pots

Jiffy pots, the little discs of pressed coir that swell into little self-contained planters when water is added, were an absolute godsend for someone keen to get their summer vegetables off to a head start in weather that was more suited to growing icicles. After raising my first lot of tomato seedlings in Jiffy pots indoors during July and August, I was able to transplant them into pots to grow-on in the glasshouse as the weather started to warm slightly in September.

A tray of Jiffy pots planted up with several varieties of tomato seeds

However, with an overseas trip lined up for the entirity of October, what wasn’t so smart was starting a second lot of seedlings in September that were still too small to be planted up by the time we left. Instead I transferred the Jiffy pots and their self watering trays into the greenhouse, and in the last minute rush, I forgot to let my mum know that they needed to be watered separately. As the days started to get sunnier, and the temperatures inside the greenhouse started to rise, the watering became more frequent, and over 70 tomato, chilli and cucurbit seedlings slowly began to stew in a stagnant pool.

By the time we returned in November, most were beyond saving, and ended up on the compost pile. What was still alive got potted up or planted out into the garden, but none of them flourished, and apart from one California Wonder capsicum and a solitary Jalapeno, the rest eventually joined their brethren on the compost heap.

Jiffy pots are a very convenient seed starting medium – provided they aren’t overwatered

Sadly, this included the majority of my indeterminate tomatoes, and most of my cucumbers, zucchinis and pumpkins, so I ended up having to purchase a heap of advanced seedlings from Bunnings to get us through.

#5 Sweet potatoes

Another crop that promised so much, but failed to deliver – I raised a number of slips from a single orange sweet potato, and purchased an individual plant of a purple skinned variety from Mitre 10 in Bendigo, planting them into beautifully rich soil in a 700mm high circular raised bed. Throughout the summer the vines grew thickly, seeming to thrive, but as the nights started to get colder, I started to turn my mind to what sort of harvest we might get.

As I turned over the soil, I was anticipating bunches of big, fat tubers, but alas, for the most part they were tiny – if they had developed at all. I wondered if I may have been too early (they had been growing for over 4 months), however the two tubers that had managed to grow to a decent size told a different story – both were riddled with black beetles that had gouged deep tracks right through the skins – in the end the vines ended up on the compost heap and those two mangy orange tubers ended up being donated to the dogs’ dinner. We ended up eating the purple one (it was actually all white, and hadn’t even developed any purple skin) – it was pretty ordinary, and certainly not worth the effort or the space we had dedicated to them.

Sweet potatoes planted into a deep circular raised bed. The Turmeric plant in the centre was equally disappointing and produced no useable tubers.

#4 The Greenhouse

On June 9th 2021, we spent a terrifying night inside our former home at Mount Dandenong as all around us we listened to the sound of giant messmate stringybark trees toppling to the ground. The following day, as we surveyed the damage, one of the first casualties we noticed was our Maze greenhouse, which had received a direct hit from one of the fallen eucalypts. Thankfully, our insurance covered us for the damage, and we were able to order a replacement kit, however by the time it arrived, plans were already in place for us to sell the house, so it stayed boxed up until we arrived here at Axedale.

Our first greenhouse didn’t survive a direct hit from a fallen eucalyptus tree

We moved in here in winter 2022, and one of our first projects was to assemble the greenhouse so that I could start raising seedlings. We were pleased with the end result, as this one seemed much sturdier than the last one, and with just open paddocks behind it, the chances of having it smashed in a storm again seemed fairly remote.

The replacement Maze greenhouse at Axedale, soon after construction

Skip forward to January of 2023 however, and as the blistering sun caused wave after wave of dust devils (otherwise known as wily-willies) to dance across the parched paddocks every afternoon, I guess it was inevitable that one of them would eventually build up enough energy to do some damage. What we didn’t expect though, was that the path it followed would take it straight through the middle of our greenhouse, picking it up and twisting it as if it were made of paper.

10 seconds of thermal dynamics at play

A different insurance company to deal with this time around, and a far more difficult story to sell, despite it being 100% true, but as luck would have it, the assessor they sent out was not only familiar with the Axedale area, he had himself seen a wily-willie build up enough force to destroy a shed, so he approved our claim without hesitation. This time around we were offered a cash settlement for the replacement cost of the glasshouse, plus the cost for a builder to rebuild it from scratch. This meant that we were able to take the settlement and put it towards a sturdier glasshouse from a local manufacturer, Sproutwell Greenhouses in Geelong, provided of course that we built it ourselves.

The new Sproutwell greenhouse after construction

That’s a story in itself, one that involves a lot of colourful language and some deep and meaningful discussion about whether it was truly worth it, but in the long run, what we’ve ended up with is a far superior design, with a lot more space to play with, and little to no chance of it being picked up by the wind. Although I’ve learned never to say never.

#3 Borlotti Beans

The first planting of Borlotti beans I made was into straw bales, and as we’ve already discussed, beans in bales was an idea that never really worked for us, so fairly soon into the summer I made the decision to plant a second patch of Borlotti beans into a raised garden bed. I’m not even sure now, in the cold light of day, why I was so keen to grow beans that are harvested for their seeds rather than for the whole bean, as most YouTube garden channels these days seem to feature them on their “10 plants I’d never grow again” lists, but whatever the case, I persevered. The second planting went in at the same time as I planted my bush beans, and I had high hopes that this time around they wold be a success.

Borlotti beans

This second lot definitely grew a lot leafier, pretty much keeping pace with the bush beans, however flowering was very sporadic, and whereas each bush bean would be laden down with beans every day, the Borlotti beans were lucky to have produced more than one at a time. When the neighbouring mustard plants eventually grew up and over the top of them, I can’t really say that I was overly disappointed, and soon after they were removed and fed to the sheep.

#2 Brussels Sprouts

Another crop that seems to feature fairly high on most YouTube “no-grow” lists, but given the long, cold winter we had, I would have thought that this season would have been the perfect time to grow sprouts, but alas it was not to be. Despite our success with cauliflower, cabbages and other brassicas, after more than 150 days in the ground and showing absolutely no sign of developing any sprouts, these too ended up on the compost pile.

Brussels sprouts supposedly love the cold winters

#1 Potting mix

Some of the mistakes we made this year have been simply annoying, while others have been both annoying and costly, however only one of them has been truly life threatening. For most of my adult life I have worked with potting mix, and I’ve always been aware of the risks involved in handling it, but like most people, I don’t think I’ve ever truly understood just how dangerous it can be. Even the warning label on the back of the brand of potting mix I normally use seems to understate the risk – “If dusty, wear a mask”. Well after returning from overseas and spending some time in the greenhouse using a damp potting mix that was decidedly un-dusty, I can say quite categorically that the decision to not wear a mask damn near cost me my life.

Even the warnings on the back of the label seem to understate the potentially deadly consequences of inhaling potting mix

October had been an extremely humid month in Victoria, with record rainfalls and widespread flooding. While Vanessa and I were on our overseas trip, we were constantly in touch with friends and family back home, who kept us updated on the devastating floods that had swept through our region. Meanwhile, while the temperatures outside were generally well below average for that time of the year, in the greenhouse they were reaching up into the mid to high twenties Celsius on most days, and on those days that the sun did shine, well into the 30s. All the while, a 3/4 full bag of potting mix sat under the potting bench, soaking up the moisture and steaming as it heated up – the perfect conditions for growing Legionella longbeachae, the bacteria found in potting mix that is one of the common causes of Legionnaire’s Disease.

Legionella longbeachae loves to lurk in moist, humid conditions like those found in potting mix

I’ve outlined elsewhere on this blog the full story of my experience with Legionnaire’s Disease, so I won’t go into further details here, but suffice to say that this is one mistake I will never make again – there’s always a face mask and gloves on hand to use in the greenhouse, and they go on the face and hands whenever I am using potting mix nowadays – even if it’s just to top up a pot. It’s just that simple.

Sweet potato by ivabalk from Pixabay
Borlotti beans image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay
Brussels sprouts image by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt…… from Pixabay

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