Answers to the Most Common Gardening Question

Reader Contribution by Don Abbott and The Snarky Gardener

As the Snarky Gardener, I’m asked gardening questions all the time. Before, during, and after gardening presentations, on Facebook, at work, at business meetings, and during evenings out with friends. Sometimes the questions come at the beginning of the season (“I started tomatoes from seeds and now they look bad. What’s wrong?”). Some are during the season (“My tomatoes have black spots on the end of them. What’s wrong?”). And other questions come after the season is over (“My tomatoes produced poorly this year. What’s wrong?”). Of course, people ask about vegetables other than tomatoes, but since they are the most popular, that’s what I generally get asked about.

What’s the Most Common Gardening Question?

What I have noticed over time is the questions I receive seem to be bunched up, meaning I hear the same question over and over again. It’s not the same question from year to year, but just the same for a specific season. For instance, this last fall, I had several people ask about their tomato production. Most either had only a few green unripe tomatoes by the first killing frost, or they had like one tomato all season. So in this instance, the question was, “Why didn’t my tomatoes produce?”

The Answer May Surprise You!

The answer I gave every time was, “Yea, it was a bad year for tomatoes. I think the drought and other weather conditions here in the area slowed growth down.” What I didn’t tell them (because it would sound like bragging and make them feel bad) is that while I had lowered production, my garden still produced plenty of tomatoes.

Being an experienced gardener means you have gardened for multiple seasons, enough to know that each year is unique. The novice has no past to recall as a reference and believes it’s just their bad gardening skills. But you are probably wondering, “Why did the Snarky Gardener’s garden produce so much more?” Are his mad gardening skills that much better?

Here’s the Actual Answer

Because I have all this experience, I’ve learned much through the school of hard knocks. The lesson I’ve been taught above all else is that if you want a certain level of production, plant more than you think you should. The gardening philosophy I have developed is what I like to refer to as “Prepare for the Worst. Hope for the Best.”

As a gardener, losses are pretty much guaranteed. Weather, bugs, errant lawn mowers, and groundhogs are all gunning for your produce. Building these losses into your expectations will go a long way to keeping your sanity.

The Secret to a Productive Garden

Taking the extra production idea and building on it, your next step should be to plan an overarching design to your garden. This should include a wide variety of vegetables from all (or most) of the plant families. Don’t be one of those gardeners who just plants tomatoes and peppers. I know, those both taste great fresh out of the backyard garden, but tomatoes and peppers are from the same plant family, the Nightshades. They both like the same conditions (hot and relatively dry) and have the same pests (like the tomato hornworm).

In case you didn’t know, some common vegetable families are: nightshades, alliums (onions), brassicas (cabbage), legumes (peas and beans), spinach, mints (oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, basic), grass (corn), and carrot (including parsley and dill).  

Add on One More Layer

So now you have all kinds of families planned for your garden. It’s the time to think about timing. Many people believe (or care to believe) that gardening starts around Memorial Day and ends after the first frost near or into fall (at least that’s how it is in my part of the world here in Northeastern Ohio). You till up the garden, plant everything at once, then sit back and watch the vegetables pour in during July, August, and September.

What happens if you get a frost after you plant? Or a deluge of rain in June? Or little to no rain during the summer than a whole bunch in September? Again, you need to build this into your plan. You should be planting something every month from spring to fall. I start my planting in March (peas, onions, and potatoes) and stop around September (spinach, lettuce, and turnips).

The Spice of Life

They say variety is the spice of life. For the garden, varieties are the spice of life. Different varieties of the same vegetables help to spread to risk. The second reason my tomato production was better than others was I utilized many different varieties.

I grew four different types of cherry tomatoes (Snarky Orange, ‘Sweet 100,’ ‘Husky Cherry Red,’ and ‘Chocolate’). I also mixed in hybrid tomatoes with my open-pollinated ones, including one called ‘Fourth of July’ from Burpee that was developed to produce early and often. In total I had a dozen tomato varieties. Some did better than others, but most importantly, I had plenty of tomatoes to eat.


There are two takeaways here. One is don’t think your gardening problems are necessarily caused by your lack of experience. Ask people who are close to you physically, like your neighbors or local experts. If others are having the same issue, then you know you are not alone. And if you find someone who is not having the same problem, ask questions to find out what they did different. Gardening is certainly a learning experience.

The second takeaway is plant much and often. The more you mix things up, the better your overall results will be, both in gardening and in life.  

Don Abbott (akaThe Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he’s a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. Don is the author of The Snarky Gardener’s Veggie Growing Guide: Create Organic Abundance By Embracing Your Garden’s Wild Side. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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