Gardening Vegetables

Why Is the Second Year Vegetable Garden Nearly Always a Flop? The Sad Story Behind Almost Every Vegetable Bed!

Since 2020, our lives have changed enormously. There has been a resurgence of interest in self-sufficiency, an exodus to rural areas, the discovery of hobbies in natural settings, etc.

And many people have taken up gardening! If that’s your case, you may well be in the second or third year of your garden right now. And you’ve probably noticed that the results are average compared to the first year.

Did I say average? They’re more like catastrophic!

What’s going on with your beautiful vegetable garden? Why was it doing so well, yet now bugs have taken over the tomatoes, the peppers aren’t growing, and weeds dominate everything?

If ever you wondered why, this article is for you!


The First Year of a Vegetable Garden

Cheering Minions

This year, you’ve decided to grow your own cucumbers!

And it’s so easy! You buy new soil, you put it in a new container or a new garden frame, you plant new seeds with your new gardening tools, you visit every single day to water and to admire and to watch your magnificent vegetables grow. You give them lots of love, lots of money and lots of time.

Huge ‘Banana Pink’ squash
Huge ‘Banana Pink’ squash

The results are often staggering! You harvest your cucumbers and lots of others. You eat good fresh produce all summer long. You even discover that—well, who would have thought! —, you actually love salad … at least, as long as it is home-grown! You give your extras to the neighbors because, as you despondently tell them: “We’ll never be able to eat all these vegetables in such a short time!”

But you aren’t really despondent. Instead, you’re so oh so proud of yourself!

With summer over, you do a bit of canning, you put away your tools… But you’re already thinking about next summer, about the new vegetables you’ll try and you can barely wait!

Two salad baskets full of tomatoes.
The first year I planted tomatoes, I grew too many of them! I harvested two salad baskets full of them … per day! Soon, I couldn’t even give them away anymore: no one wanted my tomatoes!

The Second Year of a Vegetable Garden

OK, the garden has lost the appeal of novelty, but the results of the previous year were so exceptional that you still plant your vegetables with a great deal of optimism. As in the previous year, you add new varieties, and you let them grow.

You give your veggies a perfunctory visit … maybe twice a week…

You water them … when you think about it…

After all, last year was so productive, even if you only have half as many soakings; surely that will be enough!

And then comes the horror. Nothing seems to be going well. The plants are small and fragile, infested with insects, weeds invade, and half of the seeds didn’t even germinate!


So… What Happened?

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It’s very simple: nature has done its job and now must find its balance in your garden.

1. Soil Composition?

It isn’t natural to grow so many hungry plants so close together.

Think about those beautiful tomatoes: they didn’t just appear by magic! Each cell of those tomatoes is made up of elements taken from the soil … and they already took a lot of them the year before! The rich, new soil you purchased is now depleted of its nutrients; it must be fertilized so that it can again offer these nutrients to your plants.

Manure, compost, shredded fall leaves: which should you use?

Why not some of all of the above?

It would be hard to supply too much organic matter to the soil in a container! Personally, I haven’t added actual soil to my garden boxes for years. Instead, I put a fair amount of aged horse manure, a little chicken manure and compost distributed by my municipality, as well as my own home-made compost of the year: still a bit young, but which will end up finishing its decomposition directly in the garden.

Trash can that was converted into a composter.
I transformed two old trash cans into compost bins that I empty every year early in the spring directly into my garden. I have two, because in the fall I like to put the full bin aside to let it decompose before going to the garden. I start the 2nd can during the winter and it will in turn have a break the following winter before being added to the garden in the spring.

Why so much? It’s not a miracle recipe, it’s just what I have on hand and it works!

Take what you have and improve your soil with lots of good things!

2. Life in the Soil?

Have you seen Julie Boudreau’s excellent blog on life in the soil, published just a short time ago? You can read it here: Soil Is Alive!

 I strongly urge you to learn about and understand your soil.

Worms, insects, fungi, bacteria, spiders and hundreds of other living organisms are essential for good soil quality. It’s thanks to them that your soil is aerated, that it’s recycled, that it drains well, indeed, that it becomes the living organism it should be!

Fresh soil doesn’t yet contain the full range of life, but it’s been developed to be perfect!

The Following Year’s Results

But the year following your first garden, you’ll find the perfect soil of the previous year is much less so. You’ll discover that it has been compacted by the roots of the previous year, that it no longer retains enough moisture to give the new plants their fair share of water, and that the tiny animals needed to aerate it aren’t yet in full function.

What should you do? My answer may be a little boring, but I say … don’t do anything! You have to give nature time to create its balance in this new environment that is your garden, and that can take two or three years. Let the insects settle in and learn to recognize them; several are very useful and you will be happy to see their number increase over the season.

3.   Undesirables?

3.1 Weeds were so rare in the first year! But now look at them! What happened?

Wild plants from all around the garden produced seeds previous year and the wind or animals carried them onto a nice bare patch of dirt, with no lawn or covering to keep them off the ground: your garden! An amazing chance for them to settle in easily!

Framed vegetable garden overgrown with weeds.
This year, I enlarged my garden … and I ran out of time to take care of it! Look at this beautiful box full of life: I had planted garlic in it. I had a very good harvest last year, but then, without mulch, without weeding, look what my box has become in two months. (I do accept any volunteers who want to come and weed it, by the way!)

Solution: I suggest you mulch your garden. Larry has written several posts extolling the merits of mulching (try this one: The Benefits of Mulching) and honestly, a little weeding is fine. However, there’s no point in getting too obsessed with weeding. There will always be a dandelion sending its seeds somewhere they don’t belong!

Photo: Parsnip plants with a dandelion as a neighbor.
My parsnips have a dandelion neighbor … and I’m all right with that.

3.2 Leaf Diseases, Yellowing Leaves, Dying Plants… and Wriggling Critters Everywhere?

So, flea beetles found your radishes. They were so beautiful the first year. Beetles didn’t really do any damage worth mentioning that time, but the second year, it’s a different story. Not a single radish is harvestable! Each one was damaged by mysterious larvae … baby flea beetles! The first year flea beetles laid eggs near this new garden treasure and now the eggs that overwintered in your garden have hatched. As a result, baby flea beetles ate all your radishes (plus your turnips and cabbages!) just as soon as your seeds germinated!

Well, that’s just the way it is!

Many insects that found this new food source will return to it, or lay their eggs there. That’s how nature works! I mean, if you could find a grocery store with better vegetables than anywhere else, and they were free to boot, wouldn’t you get yours there too!

Looking for Balance

The solution still isn’t simple: until nature’s balance settles in, you may still have surprises! To help, try crop rotation. Or hope pest-eating predators take hold quickly. And learn more about your insect enemies. You may have to remove some o them by hand picking and you can use aromatic plants to repel others. Putting floating row cover over crops as a barrier can also be a big help in insect control. And sometimes, inevitably, you do have to consider using pesticides. But do you really want to risk killing the predators that are just starting to take hold as you try to kill the harmful ones?

Ladybug hiding in corn flower.
When I found insect droppings in my corn tassels, I figured all was lost. I simply stopped taking care of my corn. But to my surprise, a few weeks later they were beautiful and in full bloom! Do you see my special ally in this photo? Yes, ladybugs are great insect predators and they arrive all on their own!

4. Seeds?

Seeds aren’t eternal and it’s normal that they germinate less and less well if you keep them from year to year. Take a look at this article to learn more: Test Old Seeds Before You Sow.

Also, you need to stay well informed. If you are growing new varieties this year, be sure to do your homework! Eggplants, Jerusalem artichokes, melons, ground cherries… These vegetables that are less well known than carrots, cucumbers and radishes may have different needs from the varieties you tried the previous year.

Beware too: just because cantaloupe is in the squash family doesn’t mean it has the same needs as your zucchini!

5. Diseases?

As a laidback gardener… I don’t always wash all my pots and tools like I should. However, I am vigilant: if I’ve had a sick plant, I won’t reuse its pot the following year. If my gardening tools have come into contact with any disease, I wash them well with soap, quarantine them for 14 days, make sure to avoid close contact, put on a mask, cough into my elbow, and…

OK, I’m just kidding about the last bit! But you get the idea: don’t contaminate your gardening equipment if one plant becomes ill.


Conclusion to This Long Article: Perseverance, Consistency, Patience … and Research!

Gardening changes every year. You have to keep in mind that you have to adapt to several factors and that it’s not because you have never had slugs in the past that you will never have them. The weather, the cyclic emergence of insects, climate changes, the varieties of plants you add to the mix … everything modifies this beautiful living organism that is your garden!

Chien qui mange des tomates
Do you have any pets? Well, let me present my assistant gardener: Sayanel. He LOVES tomatoes! He’s so eager for them, I had to teach him not to plunge his paws into the tomato plants to get them. Also, he eats the big grasshoppers that used to be such a problem. He has become a factor in the balance of my garden like any other!


Tips Galore

  • Learn to understand nature before you give up or start spraying chemicals every which way.
  • Do your research. Sometimes the cause of a problem is not what you think. For example, an insect attracted by boggy soil may not need a pesticide: simply water it less.
  • Go to the garden often to detect problems and act quickly.
  • Nature is strong. Sometimes you have to trust her and tolerate a flea beetle or two.
  • Feed your soil and don’t plant your vegetables in the same spot every year.
  • Keep a journal of your gardening experiences.
  • Take for granted that nothing can be taken for granted!
  • Patience is the key to success: learn to persevere!
With the right tools, the right sources of information and patience, you will have great harvests in coming years!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

5 comments on “Why Is the Second Year Vegetable Garden Nearly Always a Flop? The Sad Story Behind Almost Every Vegetable Bed!

  1. Karen Penfold

    It’s common sense that what you take out of the garden you have to replace with nutrients to feed the soil for your next garden. I put into fresh soil a mixture of compost, triple blend soil, and hardwood wood ashes from the winter wood stove burnings. My compost is a mixture of crushed egg shells, used tea bags, coffee grinds, scraps of old vegetables, fruits and any greens that are leftover, rather than throwing them out. I start my compost in early spring in a rolling barrel and three times throughout the season I layer the rotting compost with peat moss. Its important to roll the compost around once a week to tumble the decaying vegetation. Also keep the compost damp so it breaks down easier. After the winter is over I add alot more peat moss and tumble it into the composted vegetation and by warm spring it is ready to put in the gardens.

  2. Linda E Fisher

    OMG – so true. Except that I gave up to the four hooved rats until I have time to build a proper fence and gate…. and they are really cute. I have a herd of six!

  3. Please, would you be willing to share your method of creating and maintainig your compost bins? The ones I have been contemplating seem cumbersome compared to yours. Thank you!

  4. claire sullivan

    great stuff. thanks. esp like grasshopper-eating puppy .

  5. Thank you for this article which answered many of my questions. We are supporters of Nature Conservancy of Canada as well. They do great work.

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