Skip Richter, based in Houston, is a popular speaker for garden clubs, Master Gardener programs, and other gardening events across Texas. He has...Full Bio


May vegetable beds shouldn’t look sickly

Last weekend on the GardenLine radio show, I suggested that if your veggie bed looks sickly right now, you've been doing everything wrong — starting with soil. Then, I got a flurry of calls, texts and Facebook messages from listeners and friends wanting to know why their tomatoes and vegetable gardens weren't looking so hot.

They all went something like, "Randy, I'm using your idea of two parts potting soil and one part compost, but my tomatoes look bad!"

Ugh ... potting soil is not rose soil!

Photo: GardenLine listener

In some cases, the soil and mulch were of poor quality.

Low-end bulk garden mix with very little organic matterPhoto: GardenLine listener

Another listener said they had purchased a blend that employees at a soil yard assured them was "just fine on its own." A picture was attached that showed it was mulch blended with loam. 

Loamy mix, which would need compost and sand to be a decent rose soilPhoto: GardenLine listener

Another caller complained that he used a “brand-new soil technology” but it worried him that it smelled bad, not like animal compost but more like human waste. I did a little research and found that the bedding mix was from a company I've never recommended, it was not at “all new,” and it was laced with a high level of biosolids (human poo), something I would NEVER, EVER, EVER use on a vegetable bed. To learn more about biosolids, read this article. I've known about this stuff for years, but recent studies are finally shedding the appropriate light.  And they leave behind what are known as “forever chemicals."

I also got an email with pictures that showed dyed mulch was probably the culprit.

A raised bed with the right mix and the right mulch will work infinitely better than poor soil and poor mulch. For years on GardenLine, I've tried to make it as simple as this: Make a raised vegetable bed with two parts rose soil and one part compost. I also dedicated an entire chapter on proper soil in my recent book, “New Decade Gardening.” 

Rose soilPhoto: Randy Lemmon

Standard rose soils will likely have a decent amount of humus (compost) built in, because they should be equal thirds soil, sand and humus. Any rose soil that isn't made from that recipe should be avoided. I've seen people succeed to some extant with just good basic rose soil in a veggie garden. But that additional high-quality compost can really make a difference along the Gulf Coast.  

It's also important to remember that raised-bed building goes beyond just blending the bedding material into the existing soil. A good raised bed is locked in with stone, cinder blocks, timber or whatever. And at a bare minimum, it should be raised 6-8 inches — 10-12 inches is even better.

Finally, why in the world would anyone believe dyed mulch could be beneficial for a veggie garden? The leaching dye will do nothing biologically beneficial for the soil or roots below. And water splashed from it onto the plant will produce a negative reaction as well. Instead, use organically pure Texas-native mulches, or try mulching with compost this year. Compost as a mulch for landscaping is great, and it's beneficial for a vegetable garden, too.  

Here are my rules for successful veggie gardening in this region. (A financial advisor friend of mine uses the first one as a starting point when helping clients prepare for retirement.) See how many you can check off. If your vegetable beds are sickly, stunted or completely unproductive, I’ll bet you can’t check many.

  • 'Tis better to plant a 25¢ plant in a $5 hole than a $5 plant in a 25¢ hole. (In other words, build proper beds.)
  • You’ll never find the quality soils and composts I suggest at big box stores or mass merchandisers.
  • Compost, humus or organic matter - You say tuh-may-toe, I say tuh-mah-toh. Whatever you call it, it's a wonderful thing. Use it!
  • Avoid biosolid-based soils, especially for veggie beds.
  • Potting soil is for pots or containers, not raised beds.
  • Ensure good drainage - With our feast-or-famine rainfall, you'll eventually see why this is so important. Or you'll drown your first attempt in a gully-washer.
  • Let the sunshine in - Pick a spot that can provide up to 6 hours of sunshine. Filtered light won't cut it.
  • Pick proven plant varieties - Be sure it's approved for our growing region. In fact, check with your county extension agent for proven varieties.
  • Cheat Mother Nature - Because of our heat, if you can start 'em early, more power to you ... especially if you're willing to protect them on late-freeze nights.
  • Control your appetite - Don't overplant. Rein in that desire.
  • Feed me, Seymore!!! - Vegetables are heavy feeders (Just ask the Audrey II). Compost is a good start and a nice addition throughout, but amend it with some kind of fertilizer, granular, liquid-organic or water-soluble.
  • Keep your shadow in the garden - Get out there on a consistent basis, looking for insects, weeds and diseases. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
  • Consistency, consistency, consistency - Regular watering and repeated feedings are critical. Don't ever allow things to dry up before you water.

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