by Learning Lead – Caden Hebb & Lily Barraclough

As with anything outdoors, our hügelkultur garden was subject to the elements, which brought with it many diverse challenges. Some of the challenges were due to our inexperience and failure to organise the veggies in a way that ensured there was enough space for all of the plants to properly grow; some challenges were more difficult to surpass because of our ecological gardening goals (not using pesticides etc); and some were completely beyond our control. Although these challenges were at times frustrating (we just couldn’t completely get rid of the earwigs!), we learned many valuable lessons and have some ideas of what we would do next time to avoid these issues. We hope that these blogs might serve as helpful tips and stories if you should encounter similar challenges in your gardening journey!

Challenge # 1 : The wrath of the cucumbers

Photo of our garden at its peak, when it was overrun by cucumber vines. Photo credit to Caden Hebb

We were so excited to have our own cucumber plants. Being avid consumers of cucumbers, the thought of a constant supply of locally grown cucumbers in our own backyard was thrilling! We did get a very frequent supply- but first, let’s discuss some of the issues that arose. First, as we mentioned in our last blog, we purchased the cucumber plants as seedlings from a fundraiser for Veith House and we didn’t know what type of cucumber plants they were. There are two kinds of cucumber plants: 1) vining cucumbers – the most common kind that typically grow up a trellis or a fence 2) bush cucumbers – less common but are easier to grow in limited spaces¹. We had been under the impression that we had bush cucumbers, but it turned out that we actually had vining cucumbers, which was a bit of a problem! We planted our cucumbers in the middle of the hügelkultur, nowhere near the trellis or the fence where they could have grown more easily.

The cucumbers started growing very quickly and were some of the first vegetables we could harvest in abundance from our garden, but while that was exciting, they began wrapping tightly around and strangling some of our other plants. They started to overcrowd and overshadow many of the small seedlings, completely took over our garden bed and our neighbour’s fence, then started spilling out of the garden bed onto the lawn. Our cucumber plants were very successful, but they did hinder the survival of some of our other vegetables.

Challenge #2: Bolting seedlings

“Photo of our Romanesco cauliflower plant after it began to “bolt”, or go to seed. Although still edible, it was not as large, tasty or beautiful as it ideally would be.” Photo by Caden Hebb

The seedlings of many of our greens that we grew from seed; including kale, spinach, and multiple types of cabbage; were overshadowed by the larger vegetable plants bought from the Veith House fundraiser, which had a head start. When they were overshadowed, they didn’t receive enough sunlight to adequately grow, and many either died, bolted, or had stunted growth and never reached a mature size. “Bolting” is the process by which plants go to seed, often earlier than ideal and before they have produced much that is harvestable². Bolting is most common in leafy greens, which is what happened to us! Once a plant bolts, it doesn’t produce anything that is desirable for food consumption. Our leafy greens bolted when they were still very small plants, and this meant that we barely got any kale or spinach out of our garden before they went to seed, which was frustrating! It also happened at about the same time, so we only got very small amounts of the leafy greens before they were all gone at once.

Although we were too late to prevent the bolting, there are some ways that you can help prolong the growth season of the plants and delay bolting including: planting bolt-resistant varieties of the leafy greens or other vegetables, sow seeds for the leafy greens at frequent intervals throughout the gardening season so that there are always new plants that are growing, harvest the leaves regularly, grow them in partial shade, ensure that your garden is receiving enough water and nutrients, and pinch off flower buds if you see them start to develop on the plant². Our cauliflower bolted too, as shown in image 2, but we harvested and ate it anyway.

Challenge #3 : Extreme weather and fragile seedlings

We live in a coastal area, here in Kjipuktuk (Halifax), and we get lots of inclement weather year-round. This makes it very challenging when seedlings are first starting to grow, because they are very fragile and the heavy winds and rain that we get, even in the summer months, can be enough to completely flatten or break small seedlings. Although most of our plants survived, we did lose some to hurricane Elsa in July, when the vegetables that were just starting to sprout from seed were knocked over and flattened.

Challenge #4 : Blossom-end rot and splitting

“Almost all of our heirloom tomatoes split vertically after a rainstorm. Photo by Caden Hebb ”]

Blossom-end rot is most common in tomatoes and usually happens when there are extremely dry periods in the summer³. One day we had a whole plant of beautiful, healthy tomatoes and the next they were all falling off the plant and half rotten! It was devastating, although we were able to save some to eat. Blossom-end rot first looks like water-soaked areas on the bottoms of the tomatoes but then they quickly become sunken, brown or black, and leathery³. Blossom-end rot is most common when the soil moisture content is different throughout the growing season, which often results from rapidly varying temperatures (as are very common here in Atlantic Canada and continue to become more common as the impacts of the climate crisis worsen). Some of our zucchinis later in the season also had blossom-end rot. Although it was a frustrating and upsetting challenge, it didn’t happen frequently enough throughout the season for us to try to find a long-term solution.

If you find yourself in our situation, here are some key things that you can do to prevent it: grow your vegetables (especially tomatoes) in soil that is high in organic matter, has a soil pH between 6.5 and 7.5, and is well-drained; apply fertilizer based on the soil pH; ensure that there is consistent watering that takes into account the amount of precipitation; and remove the infected vegetables/fruits as soon as you can³. Keep an eye out too for splitting – a condition where the skin of a tomato tears, allowing bugs and other contaminants into the flesh of the tomato. Tomato splits happen due to fluctuations in the amount of water the plant receives⁴. All our heirloom tomatoes split (see image 4) right after a rain storm that was preceded by a dry spell. The more you know! We looked with them immediately in order for them to not go to waste.

Challenge #5 : Earwigs

“One of our eggplant seedlings barely holding onto life after being feasted on by earwigs. Photo by Caden Hebb”]

Our most frustrating and pervasive challenge, by far, was our frequent encounters with earwigs! Lily’s favourite vegetables are eggplants, and we were both thrilled about growing our very own, but fairly early in the growing season we went out one day to see that the eggplants were barely holding on! There were holes from some sort of pest all throughout the leaves, and some of the plants barely had any healthy plant tissue remaining. At first, we thought that the culprits must have been slugs, so we started to go out at night and try to pick slugs out of the garden with our bare hands and throw them out of the garden. While we did find a couple slugs, we definitely didn’t find enough to warrant the damage that they had done to our eggplants. We asked around in a few online local gardening groups and shared pictures to try and find out what kinds of pests we might have been dealing with and we learned that it was a really prolific year in Nova Scotia for earwigs! Finally, we spotted some of the bugs. Unlike slugs, earwigs were much too fast to remove with our hands (and also gross!). We tried quite a few home made solutions- which did mostly work over time.

“A small globe eggplant hanging from one of the plants we saved from earwigs. Photo by Caden Hebb”]
  1. We sprayed our plants with a dish soap and water solution which repels earwigs and other plant-eating insects
  2. We filled repurposed food cans with dish soap and water which earwigs and slugs fell into and were not able to swim because of the dish soap and drowned
  3. We created traps out of plastic food containers with a hole drilled in the lid, which were then filled with honey or alcohol to attract the earwigs, which would become trapped inside

The cans with dish soap and water and spraying our plants were probably the most effective solutions, and we were able to salvage our eggplants! Once the earwigs were less prolific, they were able to grow stronger and went on to produce lots of vegetables. We never completely eradicated the earwigs, and had to work to control them the whole growing season, but we did manage to save our plants.

We hope that you enjoyed learning about some of the challenges we faced and how we overcame them!

“Photo of Caden and Lily from the PowerShift: Young and Rising conference in 2019. Photo by Louis Sobol”]

Thanks for following along with our journey. Our names are Caden and Lily. We live in Kjipuktuk/Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq with our dog Anna and horse Alamar. We are both graduates of environmental programs from universities here in Halifax, and Lily is a Master’s student studying how politically-active youth experience climate grief. We are dedicated to acting upon and pushing for transformative change towards a more equitable, just, and sustainable society, and we try to do that out in the world as activists, and in our own lives through things like gardening, zero waste living, being vegetarian, and using more environmental forms of transportation.

We are lucky to be able to tackle all problems as a team, and we can’t wait to find innovative and creative ways to deal with our zucchini problem!

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