6 Reasons Your Vegetables Stay Small & What to Do About It


The thought of waking up to a delicious omelet that’s loaded with homegrown vegetables seems heavenly, doesn’t it? There is something so tasty and delightful about a homegrown vegetable, and it’s unlike any flavor or texture you would find in the supermarket. But if you’re trying to indulge in these tasty veggies, you might run into some snags – like vegetables that aren’t growing or coming out way too small.

There are six primary reasons why your vegetables stay small, which are luckily reasonably simple fixes for the gardener. These six reasons include:

  1. The plants are over- or under-fertilized with too much or too little nitrogen.
  2. Your plants have too much water, followed by not enough water.
  3. You are using poor quality water.
  4. The temperatures fluctuate too often or aren’t compatible with the vegetable you are growing.
  5. You’re planting in the wrong area.
  6. The plants are situated way too close together.

If your vegetables are coming out looking like miniature versions of themselves, you’re likely to panic. But don’t worry! Many of the reasons as to why your veggies are staying small can be fixed quickly and efficiently to avoid the problem in the future. This article will discuss why your vegetables are so small and what to do about it, as well as why your plants might not be growing at all.

Why Are My Vegetables So Small?

Tiny tomatoes aren’t enough to make your grandmother’s famous spaghetti sauce, and miniature bell peppers and carrots aren’t going to relieve your hunger pangs in the afternoon. If you’re noticing that your veggies are coming out far too small, there may be several reasons behind it. 

Look over these common reasons for tiny-sized veggies and decide which problem is present in your garden. From there, you can make the proper changes necessary to build a healthy, luscious garden that is overflowing with delicious veggies.

1. The plants are over- or under-fertilized with too much or too little nitrogen.

Seeing your vegetable garden overflowing with vibrant greens yet little to no vegetable production can be confusing. After all, one would imagine that a plant that is healthy and green should also produce beautiful and robust vegetables, too, right? But that is not always the case.

As described by Lynn Doxon, who has a Ph.D. in Horticulture, in “What Are the Causes of Large Vegetable Plants But Small Vegetables?” one of the main reasons why your vegetables are so small while the rest of your plant is flourishing is because of an imbalance of macronutrients, commonly caused by fertilizers.

An imbalance in macronutrients caused by fertilizers is the most common cause of small vegetables. This imbalance happens because many gardeners know the importance of fertilizer and douse their plants with it in hopes that it will make their garden big and strong. While fertilizers are beneficial in many cases, using too many of them can be a bad thing.

There are two ways in which fertilizer can be harmful to your vegetable garden:

  • Too much nitrogen without enough phosphorus will cause your plant to grow leafy and green, but your vegetables will be small.
  • Additionally, too little nitrogen can cause your vegetables to be small. Although in this case, the vegetables will also have a yellowish appearance and may be spindly.

How to Fix a Garden With Too Much Nitrogen

So, what can you do if you have overpowered your vegetable plants with far too much nitrogen and not enough phosphorus? It’s a relatively simple fix that you can do before it’s too late. “How to Increase Phosphorus & Potassium in the Soil” by Ellen Douglas gives a few handy tips and tricks for increasing phosphorus levels, as well as potassium, in your garden.

  • You can add bone meal and kelp meal to the first 8 to 12 inches of soil.
  • Place rock phosphate on the top of your garden soil, followed by a treatment of granite meal or greensand. Again, this should be worked into the first 8 to 12 inches of soil.

By adding a mix of these materials, you ensure that the nutrient levels will return to normal. At this point, you should also decrease the amount of nitrogen-rich fertilizer you are using on your vegetable garden for optimal results.

How to Fix a Garden With Too Little Nitrogen

But what happens if your vegetables are small because of a lack of nitrogen? If this is the case, you will notice your plants are smaller than usual and may also have a yellowish appearance. At times, these vegetables may also appear spindly. A lack of nitrogen will make your veggies look anything but appetizing.

If you believe that a lack of nitrogen in the garden is to blame, then there are many ways you can fix the problem. “12 Best Ways to Add Nitrogen to Soil” by Brit Haines shares 12 incredible tips and tricks on how to add nitrogen to your garden bed for better vegetable production. 

Some ways to add nitrogen to your garden include:

  • Banana peels. Instead of ditching the peel after eating a banana, consider chopping it up and placing it in your soil. However, this method is best done before planting your garden, so it may not be the best solution.
  • Coffee grounds. No longer do your coffee grounds have to be destined for the dumpster! Adding coffee grounds to your soil comes with a slew of benefits for your plants. Not only does it add a hefty dose of nitrogen, but your plant will reap the benefits of potassium and phosphorus as well. It also works to keep pests away while encouraging plant-friendly earthworms.
  • Grass clippings. When you find yourself tending to your lawn, why don’t you double-down and fix up your garden while you’re at it? Let your lawn work for you – add grass clippings to the soil of your garden to give it a good dose of nitrogen. Don’t use clippings from any treated lawns as they might contain herbicides that can harm your plants.
  • Manure. Did you know that you can use the stool from some of your animals, such as rabbits, horses, and cows, to make a nitrogen-rich material? However, keep in mind that the manure will be too nitrogen-heavy at first, so you need to wait at least six months before adding it to your garden. Also, you should only use the manure of grass-fed animals. Again, it’s very important to know the source as pastures may have been treated with broadleaf weed killer that can be transferred to the manures and stay in the soil for several years – weed seeds can also remain viable for several years. Pathogens are also a concern that should be considered and, at the time of this writing, the FDA is considering requiring manures be aged for at least a year for organic certifications. In our opinion, the negatives of manures outweigh the positives in food production areas and they should only be used if you don’t have anything else.
  • Nitrogen fertilizer. If you don’t want to go the do-it-yourself route, you can always head to your local garden store to purchase a nitrogen fertilizer. These fertilizers work quickly to solve the problem but can fade off just as fast. One advantage of bagged fertilizers is you know exactly how much nitrogen much it contains – making adjustments to your soil less of a guessing game.

The good news is that many of these solutions to nitrogen problems are simple to use ingredients you likely already have at home. Some of them, such as coffee grounds and grass clippings, will also provide some much-needed phosphorus to your garden. Bear in mind, it’s much better to feed plants smaller controlled doses more frequently over time, than all at once in large quantities.

How to Test Your Soil

If you are unsure if your soil’s nutrient levels are to blame for little vegetables, then you should consider testing your soil for nutrient levels.  We highly recommend sending soil samples to your local county extension service for analysis if possible. Ours is through Utah State University – their reports are very thorough and they do an excellent job of detailing issues and solutions specific to your situation. 

If you don’t have a local county agriculture extension or prefer to do it yourself the Luster Leaf 1601 Rapitest Test Kit (available on Amazon) is effortless to use and provides results for pH balance, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash, all of which are important for a healthy vegetable garden. With detailed instructions, even the most amateur gardener can figure out how to use these test strips. From there, you will be able to provide the nutrients your garden needs for proper growth. 

2. Your plants have too much water, followed by not enough water.

If you live in an area where there is plenty of springtime rainfall, this may work to your disadvantage at one point or another. If you are struggling with a vegetable garden that is overflowing with leafy goodness but your vegetables continue to appear dried up and miniature-sized, then you might have the rain to thank for this issue.

Let’s break this one down: if there is a surplus of water during the beginning stages of your garden’s life, it may grow at a more rapid pace. Of course, while this might sound like a benefit to your plant, it’s doing far more harm than good. This is especially true if a lesser amount of watering follows large amounts of watering.

Since your plants had the opportunity to drink up tons of the water so early in life, the plant – or ‘green portion’ – of your vegetable garden was able to be fulfilled and grow quickly and healthily. However, a sudden decrease in the water meant that your plant’s growth was suddenly stunted, and there wasn’t enough water to help your veggies grow big and strong.

Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about this problem. Perhaps the best solution, if you live in an area where rainfall is abundant, is to grow your garden under a structure or inside of a greenhouse. This way, you can control the amount of water that your garden is receiving. 

So, How Much Water Does a Vegetable Garden Need?

By now, you know that moisture control is crucial to the health of your vegetable garden, but just how much water is necessary? How can you tell if you are watering too often or too little, and does this also impact your plants? The simple answer is yes. Overwatering and underwatering can both have negative impacts on your vegetable plants. 

The big issue with underwatering a vegetable plant, or any plant for that matter, is that it’s likely going to die. On the other hand, watering too often can have negative results, including rotting, which impacts the ability of your plant to absorb vital nutrients. This, of course, leads to – you guessed it – miniature-sized vegetables.

So, how can you know if you’re providing your plant with the right amount of water? The best thing to do is to know your vegetables. The water requirements will likely be stated somewhere on the seed packaging, or you can ask one of the knowledgeable workers at the local nursery about how much water your specific vegetables need.

One general rule of thumb, provided by Emergency Essentials in “Why Won’t My Garden Grow? 5 Mistakes You May be Making” is this: “Check [your soil] regularly, and if it’s dry and crumbly (or especially rock hard!), it needs watering. If you can form it into a loose ball, then it has enough moisture.” 

This is just one of the reasons why it is so important to keep an eye on your garden. Not only will you be able to check for moisture levels in the soil, but you can also find other problems as soon as they start and fix the problem for better success. 

Irrigation System with Smart Controller

You do have the option of putting all the guesswork behind you. If you are willing to shell out a few extra dollars, you might consider opting for an irrigation system with a smart controller, such as the Rain Bird ST8I2.0 Smart Indoor WiFi Sprinkler/Irrigation System. This handy gadget will make watering your vegetable garden easier than ever before.

Some of the top features included with this product include:

  • WiFi timer and signal so you can take the gadget on-the-go.
  • Easily programmed and can be used around the world.
  • Compatible with all your favorite electronic gadgets, such as Alexa.
  • Complete a daily watering schedule that will adjust based on the season, weather, temperature, as well as humidity. 
  • Notifications about your garden, even while you are away.
  • Unique watering delay feature stops watering anywhere from 1 to 14 days.
  • EPA WaterSense is certified and ensures that you are getting 20% in water savings.

As you can see, this gadget ensures that your garden is taken care of no matter where you are or what the weather is doing that day. This will, overall, help your garden to be more successful with less chance of pesky miniature vegetables popping up out of the ground.

3. You are using poor quality water.

Did you know that the kind of water you are putting into your garden can impact its growth? Many people think that they can toss whatever type of water on their plants, and they will grow automatically. While this is somewhat true, there are also plenty of factors you should look out for when it comes to watering your vegetable garden.

  • Avoid ‘extremes.’

What does this mean, exactly? Well, according to Kate Wisialowski in “Growing Concern: How Water Quality Impacts Your Fruits and Vegetables,” “Exceedingly cold water can lead to root shock, while excessively hot temperatures can burn the plant.” Neither of these is good news for your growing garden, and can ultimately lead to small veggies – if your garden produces any, at all.

  • Avoid saltwater.

Saltwater is probably one of the worst things you could ever give your vegetable plant – or any plant, for that matter. Salt creates a very toxic environment for plants because of its high levels of sodium. Saltwater can steal water from the plant roots, leading to dehydration and death, as explained by “Do Plants Grow Better in Saltwater, Sugar Water or Tap Water?” by Danielle Hansen.

  • Use filtered water.

Many people are curious if tap water is safe for plants, and for the most part, it is. However, there is always some potential that tap water contains contaminants that can be harmful to your growing vegetables. The other concern is chlorine, and while it’s not a significant threat to plant growth, too much of it is never a good thing. 

If you are concerned about heavy metals and other toxins that can be found in tap water, the best solution is to use filtered water. Filtered water ensures that your plants are receiving pure, clean, and adequately fresh water that is free of harmful ingredients that could ultimately lead to small veggies and plant death.

  • What about bottled water?

Unfortunately, people tend to trust bottled water a bit too much. There are not many tests that are performed on bottled water (less than tap water, even), and sometimes bottled water is nothing more than tap water placed in a plastic container. You are better off opting for tap water or filtered water to water your vegetable garden.

4. The temperatures fluctuate too often or aren’t compatible with the vegetable you are growing.

No plant is going to be happy when temperatures are fluctuating out of control. Unfortunately, this is a common concern in many parts of the world. The temperatures might start chilly in the morning, only to end up ablaze in the mid-afternoon. If you are in an area where temperatures tend to fluctuate immensely throughout the day, you might be better off using a greenhouse. Checkout this article how we built ours.

Greenhouses will ensure that you can control the temperature your plants are exposed to, even though you might wake up needing a heavy coat and end the day in a pair of sandals and a tank top. You may also want to keep a small vegetable garden inside of the home as well.

But temperature fluctuation isn’t the only concern for vegetable plants. Planting a vegetable that is not compatible with the season is going to lead to failure. Think about it this way:

  • A warm-season vegetable, such as cucumbers and squash, will stop growing when temperatures fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you try to plant these vegetables during the wintertime, they are going to be stunted. The veggies will be miniature-sized if they end up growing at all.
  • Cold-season vegetables like broccoli won’t survive in temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot temperatures can lead to failure if you are trying to grow a cold-season veggie. 

So what can you do? Always make sure you are planting vegetables in their preferred season. Otherwise, you are destined for failure or little vegetables that don’t work out. You can ask a worker at a local nursery for information on the right times to plant veggies or consult a Farmer’s Almanac.

5. You’re planting in the wrong area.

Another critical error a gardener can make when they are planting their vegetable garden is not choosing the right area. Now, this can come as quite a surprise for newer gardeners that don’t know the importance of sunlight when it comes to growing vegetables. You might think it’s best to plant under a shady tree, so you don’t have to work in the direct sunlight when it comes to planting and pruning your garden.

The fact of the matter is planning is everything when it comes to planting your garden. You need to know your vegetables. For example, a squash requires ample amounts of direct sunlight, and any portion of the day where they are left in the shade could lead to demise. Green peas, on the other hand, don’t need too much sunlight – although it is still required.

So what does that mean for the gardener? Know your plants and give them the right amount of sunlight they require. A good rule to follow is that most vegetable plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to thrive. Don’t think that you can ‘get by’ with just a few hours and expect optimal results.

The good news is, if you live in an area where sunlight might be a bit more scarce, then that doesn’t mean you are entirely out of luck. Many vegetables can grow in partial sunlight. Twenty-one vegetables can grow in partial shade, such as broccoli, carrots, radishes, and turnips, as explained by “21 Vegetables That Can Grow in Partial Shade.”

Of course, if you live in Southern California or Arizona, where there are ample amounts of sunlight, you will be happy to know that there are many vegetables that require direct sunlight. “What Kind of Vegetables Like Full Sun to Grow?” by Joan Norton shares the sun-loving plants that won’t mind the heat or the sun’s rays day in and day out, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.

6. The plants are situated way too close together.

Planning does not – and should not – stop at the amount of direct sunlight that will be found in the area you plant your vegetable garden. You also must take into consideration how much space your vegetable plants need to thrive. One thing is for sure; it takes much more than tossing a bunch of seeds in the soil and expecting a miracle.

The biggest concern when it comes to planting too close together is that the plants will be forced to fight for the nutrients in the soil, as well as water and sunlight. Of course, the plants that aren’t able to compete will be left without enough nutrients and hydration, which can lead to small vegetables and plant death altogether. 

The best thing to do is to follow the recommendations on the packet or ask a worker at your local nursery about spatial requirements. This will allow you to make sure you are giving your vegetable plants the space they need to grow healthy and robust, with proper-sized vegetables.

Keep in mind, though, that not all vegetables are that finicky. Some veggies, such as carrots, are perfectly fine with being planted closely together. This is simply because not all of the seeds will germinate and grow, and you can thin out your garden and leave plenty of room for your thriving vegetables to continue growing.

Here is a great video describing how you can adequately thin out your seedlings for better vegetable garden success.

Why are My Vegetables Not Growing?

A few other reasons why your vegetables might not be growing at all include:

  • Using poor quality soil. 

Remember that your vegetables need nutrients to thrive. They do not do well in highly acidic soil and can’t correctly grow in soil that is too dense. This means you should avoid clay soils and sandy soils. Stick to nutrient-rich soil and consider adding clean organics to enhance the structure, tilth and nutrient levels.

  • There are too many weeds.

Yes, weeds can hurt your growing garden. Weeds steal much-needed nutrients and water from your vegetable plants. The roots will proliferate and overcrowd your garden in no time.

  • Rampit disease.

Any plant – including your vegetables – can become infected by fungus, mold, and bacteria. If you don’t work quickly to get rid of the diseased areas in your garden, it could lead to destruction. “How to Get Rid of Fungus in Garden Soil” shares some quality ways to rid your vegetable garden of disease, like crop rotation and using a fungicide.

Conclusion

When your vegetable garden is producing smaller vegetables, it’s certainly a cause for concern. Luckily, it’s an easy fix. Just make sure that your garden has the right levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, isn’t being overwatered or underwatered, and ensure that you’re using quality water and planting your garden at the right time in the right spot.

Recent Posts