sick tomatoI'm such a garden enthusiast that it never crosses my mind to think that my gorgeous vegetables may actually encounter problems enroute to becoming a meal. But this week, as I glanced out the window and noticed that the spring-onions and dill were looking a sickly shade of washed-out green, that the spinach was refusing to grow and was, instead, turning yellow around the edges, and that the leaves on the cauli seedlings I'd planted out a couple of weeks earlier were actually pink, I was horrified. I waited a good few days, hoping that the problem would fix itself but, alas, that's just not how it is in the garden. Instead, in the absence of a resident botanist, it comes back to each of us to diagnose and treat our own garden ailments.

So what was the problem with my plants? I knew it wasn't fertility – you just can't pile on that much manure, compost, and seaweed and not have a fertile garden! Sure, we'd had torrential rain for over a week, but I don't live on the West Coast where soil structure is such that every goodie in the bed can be leached away in the twinkling of an eye. The plants were reasonably well spaced, so there wasn't any significant competition for food and, besides, I'd been watering on liquid fertilizer since I first noticed the problem. And we'd had loads of sunshine since the rain had finally stopped. But I know, from years of experience, that brassica leaves turning pink, spinach turning yellow, and spring onions and dill refusing to green-up is a sign of serious stress – but what stress?

Donning my detective hat didn't help a bit until, later in the week, amidst an unusual bout (for me) of house-tidying, I found myself emptying the wood from beside the fire back into the woodshed (I doubted very much that we'd be lighting the fire again until autumn) and suddenly remembered that during all that rain, it had not only bucketed down but had also been very, very cold – unseasonably so in the extreme. It was when the about-to-close- for-the-season South Island ski fields had got a reprieve, when even the hills around my seaside home had received a dusting of snow, and when we'd had the fire going all day for a week! A light bulb suddenly switched on in my head. Those poor sickly plants out there in the garden had been so busy just staying alive in the hypothermic conditions that they hadn't had a chance to upload the nutrients they needed for good health, and now, for some of them at least, it was too late. The spinach had given up and was thinking about going to seed, the brassicas were stunted at the very stage when they needed to develop quickly (I suspect that even if I had left them in the ground the hearts would have amounted to no more that a ping-pong ball), and the dill and spring-onions were going to take a lot of TLC to nurse them back to good health.

News like this isn't what a gardener wants to hear but there is a certain satisfaction in diagnosing your own problems. Once you have your head around the situation, you're then in a position to do something about it – whether it's to abandon ship and begin again rather than waste good garden space, or to put in the extra miles to assist your plants in recovering. So this season, if you notice a garden problem, stop, think, consult the internet, books, the folk at the garden centre, or experienced friends. Before you know it, it's you who'll be the expert!

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