Five Challenging Vegetables to Grow

  • 01 of 05

    The 5 Toughest Vegetables to Grow

    Close up of colorful carrots
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    Even seasoned vegetable gardeners will admit there are some vegetables that are simply harder to grow than others. Vegetable gardening should be an enjoyable and rewarding task. There's nothing like picking your first homegrown tomato or watching a pumpkin fill out. Most vegetables are pretty straight forward to grow. You plant a seed or seedling, keep it watered and it eventually matures into something delicious. Other vegetables take a bit more finesse.

    The 5 vegetables discussed here all pose a different challenge to gardeners. Some never seem to fill out and others grow but don't taste good. I hope you won't have problems with all of these vegetables, but if you are struggling to grow them, here are some tips to get a better harvest.

    1. Carrots

    Carrots can be easy to grow or they can give you endless grief. Here are some common carrot growing problems and how to avert them.

    The Seed Never Germinates: Carrots won't break through encrusted soil. Make sure you keep the soil moist, but not soaking wet. Don't let it dry out and crust over. An old trick for keeping the soil loose is to plant radish seeds right up next to the row of carrots. The radishes will germinate first and keep the soil loose.

    Another trick is to cover the seed with sand or vermiculite. These won't make as hard a coating as garden soil.

    Plants Go Right to Flower and Seed and Never Develop Roots. Don't put your seed out too early. Carrots are biennials and low temperatures make them think they've already gone through winter and it's time to go to seed.

    The Shoulders of the Carrots are Green and Bitter. This is an easy one to fix. Just make sure the whole root is covered with soil. Exposure to sunlight will cause them to turn green from developing chlorophyll.

    Skinny Carrots. This usually is caused by nearby weeds that compete for nutrients and water. Keep the area weed free.

    Short, Stumpy Roots. The soil is probably too warm. If the soil heats to over 70°F, the roots become stunted. Use a mulch and keep the soil well watered during hot spells, to keep the soil cool.

    Deformed roots. Forked or bent carrots are the result of something getting in the way of the developing root. Either the soil is too hard for them to grow through, or they hit a rock, or maybe there's another carrot planted too closely. Make sure the soil is tilled and soft at least a foot down, before you plant. And thin your carrots early.

    If you've done all that and you still get forked roots, the problem could be root-knot nematodes. If that's the case, you will need to solarize the soil by covering it with clear plastic and letting it fry in the summer sun. Definitely remove the carrots before you cover it.

    Roots Crack Done the Side.  Cracking is caused by inconsistent watering. Carrots that are left dry for a period and then given a lot of water will swell up and crack. Give them water every week and mulch the area so the soil remains moist. Also harvest when the roots are mature. Leaving them too long is another cause of cracking.

    Carrots have Lots of Tiny Roots All Over Them. This is caused by too much nitrogen. Don't over feed your carrots and don't you a high nitrogen fertilizer.

    Bitter Carrots. Carrots like cool soil. If the temperature never cools off at night to at least somewhere near 60°F, they will use up some of their stored sugars to acclimate. Keep the soil moist and mulched and maybe hold off planting carrots in the middle of summer.

    Continue to 2 of 5 below.
  • 02 of 05

    What to Do About Problems Growing Celery

    Celery Plants
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    2. Celery

    The flavor of fresh celery is more intense than the bunches we get at the grocery store. Some people love it and others find it over powering. I like the punch it gives to soups. But I don't know of any gardener who considers celery easy to grow. I've started growing celeriac, or celery root instead. Some great flavor and much, much easier to grow. But if you'd like to give growing traditional celery a try, here are some of the problems you may encounter and what to do about them.

    Lots of Leaves, but No Stalks. This happens when the temperature swings back and forth in early spring. Don't put your celery plants out when nighttime temperatures are still slipping back into the 40s F. or colder.

    Plants Bolt to Seed. Once again, cold temperatrues are to blame. A prolonged period of temperatures below about 55°F makes the celery think it's time to set seed. If you've already planted, cover your celery with a row cover, when the temperature dips.

    Inner Stalks and Leaves Die. If they turn a dark color, it's Blackheart. A lack of calcium is the culprit. Insufficient calcium inhibits the uptake of water. Water regularly and mulch. Have your soil tested and if calcium is the problem, add some lime and try growing celery varieties that are resistant to Blackheart, like 'Emerald' and 'Golden Pascal'.

    Cracked, Brittle Stalks. This time it's a boron deficiency. A balanced fertilizer should help and you could also try resistant varieties like, 'Golden Self-Blanching' and 'Giant Pascal'.

    Bitter, Tough Stalks. Cultural problems add up and cause tough, bitter celery. It's usually a combination of hot weather, dry soil and a lack of nutrients. Keep your celery watered and mulched, feed the soil with organic matter, if necessary, and try to plant so that your celery will mature when the weather is cool. If your celery needs 100 days to mature, plant it in mid-summer, so it will mature in the fall.

    If growing celery trumps you, you may have more success re-sprouting the base of a celery bunch, after you eat the stalks.

    Continue to 3 of 5 below.
  • 03 of 05

    What to Do About Problems Growing Cauliflower

    Extreme close up of raw cauliflower head
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    3.    Cauliflower

    Cauliflower may be known as a cool season vegetable, but don't be in a rush to put out seedlings. Mature plants can handle cold, but cauliflower seedlings actually like temperatures in the 60s F.  Cauliflower is a biennial and if the plants experience enough cold weather early in the season, when the weather eventually warms, they will think they have gone through winter and are in their second growing season. Hold off setting out seedlings until at least 3 weeks before your last expected frost and have the row covers handy, just in case.

    Bolting is the least of the problems facing cauliflower growers. It's getting those beautiful curd heads that give us the most trouble. Watch out for these cauliflower problems.

    Tiny, Button-sized Head. Once again it is fluctuating temperatures that cause those tiny head. There's actually a term for it - "Buttoning". You can't correct it once it happens, but you can avoid it by waiting until the weather moderates, before planting.

    Browning Curds. Discolored curds are a sign of boron deficiency, which is more common in alkaline soils. Test your soil pH and add sulfur, if necessary. You should get enough boron by using a fertilizer that says it has trace minerals.

    Loose Heads with a Yellow Tint. Yellowing heads signal too much sun. Use those large cauliflower leave to shield the heads. You'll need to tie them in place. Cauliflower grown in the fall usually does not have this problem.

    Continue to 4 of 5 below.
  • 04 of 05

    What to Do About Problems Growing Heading Lettuce

    Young man picking lettuce from wooden trough, close-up
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    4.    Head lettuce

    Leaf lettuce is fairly easy to grow as a cut-and-come-again crop. Head lettuce can be a good deal more challenging. You have to allow a lot more time for lettuce to mature and form a head. While it's getting there, the weather can foil your best attempts.

    Lettuce reacts to both heat and day length. Prolonged hot weather not only causes lettuce to want to bolt to seed, it also makes the existing leaves bitter. Keeping your lettuce watered and partially shaded can help offset the effects of heat.

    The length of sunlight is much harder to control and this is what actually triggers lettuce to send up flower stalks and go to seed. Setting out seedlings as early as possible in the spring - and hoping for a long, cool season - is one workaround.

    You could also start new plants in mid-summer, for a fall planting. (In warm climates, you would start seeds in fall for a winter planting.) Starting the seeds in containers and them transplanting them in a shady spot generally works better than trying to direct sow in hot summer soil.

    A Few More Tips:

    Transplant lettuce seedlings in late afternoon and water them in well. This gives them the whole evening and night to settle in, before the sun shines on them.

    Add a lot of organic matter to the soil, to retain moisture, and give the regular does of a high nitrogen fertilizer, like bone meal or fish emulsion, to encourage speedy growth.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    What to Do About Problems Growing Melons

    Close-Up Of Watermelon Growing On Field
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    5. Melons

    Most melons grow on sprawling, space hogging vines and many gardeners shy away from growing them.  That's a shame because fresh melons can be incredibly sweet and juicy and your variety options are enormous. However, flavorful melons are not the easiest things to grow. From no fruits to bland tasting fruits, there's a lot that can go wrong. Here's some help.

    Lots of Flowers, No Fruits. This is a common complaint of both melons and squash. Both plants have separate male and female blossoms. The male blossoms tend to start blooming first and they wither and fall of the plant. Once the female flowers start opening, the male flowers will still wither and drop, but the female flowers should develop small fruits where the flower attaches to the stem.

    Even though these tiny fruit appear, they may not make it to maturity. The female flowers need to be pollinated multiply times and it is only open for one day. That means there has to be enough pollinators in the garden to get the job done. Rain, wind, and pesticides can all keep pollinators away.

    Misshapen Fruits.  Oddly shaped fruits happen for a couple of reasons. The first is inadequate pollination, as mentioned above.

    Another cause of oddly shaped fruits is uneven watering. Melons like even moisture while the fruits are developing. You can't let them sit in hot, dry soil and then try to make it up with a deluge. Don't keep the water dripping wet, but make sure it doesn't sit dry for more than a day.

    Bitter Fruits.  Bitter or bland melons can be the most frustrating problem, because you don't know about it until you bite in. Bitterness is caused by temperature swings, especially heat spells. Keep your soil mulched and watered to prevent stressing your melon plants. Amending with organic matter prior to planting will also help conserve moisture.

    Few Fruits per Plant. This could just be the type of melon you are growing. They don't all load up with fruits. Other possible causes are planting too closely together, so the plants are competing for water, sun, and nutrients. It could also be planting too far apart, causing poor pollination.