Last year’s tomato crop a bust? It’s time to play detective, reach out for pro’s help

A famous saying goes, “A good gardener kills a few plants. A great gardener kills thousands.” When taken at face value, this is somewhat of a misnomer. Looking deeper, however, the saying is true. Trial and error in gardening can ultimately make a good gardener a great one.

Thinking back to my beginning days in horticulture, before the years of schooling or more years of toil, one of my first attempts at growing anything was a tomato garden in my parent’s backyard. Did my teenage self care much for tomatoes at the time? Absolutely not. But I was determined to grow hundreds of them, if purely for the bragging rights.

So, in my efforts, I set forth hand-tilling, weeding, planting and watering a good 200-square-foot area, and before I knew it, the plants took off like weeds. Then the weeds also took off like weeds. And when the fruit eventually developed, I had hundreds of malformed, half-bleached, bug-ridden, bitter and mushy tomatoes. My production goal was met, but much was left to be desired.

Facing the after-effects of that failure, I had to go back to the drawing board regarding my gardening efforts and note what went wrong and where. I had never tested my soil (I didn’t know of soil tests at the time), and my tomatoes severely lacked calcium, which led to blossom-end rot forming on nearly all of them. I had never learned that weeds act as hotels, harboring insect pests and enabling the consumption of my plants to be 10 times worse than it would have been otherwise. I had never learned that heavy-clay soil retains water much longer than a loam, leading to uneven soil moisture issues that would ultimately deform my fruits. Much was to be changed in my future gardens.

The steps to addressing your difficulties in your garden practices, be they vegetable or ornamental, are the same. What has the climate and weather been like in that specific spot? Was there recent construction nearby? Did a neighbor apply any chemicals recently? Did you acquire a new pet recently? Ultimately, to learn from trial and error, we must play detective and figure out why errors happen.

Fortunately, you don’t have to face these challenges alone. Alongside a vast community of knowledgeable gardeners, ready to share their wisdom, you can always access reliable, research-based information from your local Extension office’s horticulture agents and Extension master gardeners. This network of support is always there to guide you in your gardening journey, providing reassurance and valuable insights.

Mark your calendars for an upcoming opportunity to meet Johnson County Extension master gardeners. A Public Garden Tour on May 17 and 18 is just around the corner. Don’t miss out on this chance to discuss your gardening experiences and learn from others. Find more information about the tour at or 913-715-7000.

Anthony Reardon is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Need help? Contact the Johnson County Extension gardening hotline at 913-715-7050 or email