12 Common Tower Garden Problems (and How to Avoid Them)

"Common problems" may seem like a strange topic to tackle—it's a little negative, right?

"I thought Tower Garden was supposed to be easier," you might be thinking.

Don't worry. It is (much easier)!

But there are a few small mistakes I see new Tower Gardeners often make, a handful of questions I regularly hear. And I thought it would be helpful—as we approach a new growing season—to address (and explain how to prevent) them so that you have the best Tower Garden experience possible.

After all, the best offense is a good defense.

So here are 12 common Tower Garden problems, along with instructions for fixing them.

Water leaks around growing ports or section seams.

Let's begin with one of the easier problems to fix (or avoid altogether). To function properly, Tower Garden must be on a level surface. If your Tower Garden is leaking, make sure it's level.

If you verify it is level but it still leaks, you may need to simply push the growing sections together more tightly.

For more tips on finding the right location for your Tower Garden, read this post on garden planning.

The pump suddenly stops pumping.

If you're about halfway through a growing season and your pump quits working, plant roots may have jammed it.

To fix this:

  • Unplug the pump.
  • Pull the pump up through the access port.
  • Remove the pump filter cover.
  • Flush the filter with water to remove any debris.

If your pump still has problems after you complete these steps, reach out to Tower Garden Customer Care.

To prevent roots from clogging your pump in the first place, trim those that grow down into the reservoir. (It's pretty amazing how long roots can get—I have Swiss chard in the top of my Tower Garden, and its distinctive red roots reach all the way into the reservoir.)

You can trim roots up to half their length without harming your plants. For further instruction, reference this post on garden maintenance.

pH constantly drifts out of the recommended range.

As you probably know, Tower Garden doesn't use soil. Instead, it grows plants with only minerals, oxygen and water. So the quality of the water you pour into your Tower Garden is pretty critical.

If you use chlorinated, hard or softened water, you'll likely have problems. Fluctuating pH is just one.

Here's what you can do:

  • For hard water, fill your Tower Garden using an RV water filter. If you're not sure whether you have hard water, check this water hardness map.
  • For softened water (i.e., water from a home softener system), fill your Tower Garden using a reverse osmosis filter system or buy distilled water.
  • For chlorinated water, which includes most tap water, leave the water out in the sun for 48 hours. Alternatively, run the water through your empty Tower Garden for a day or two.

Tower Garden smells like a (dirty) fish tank.

"Ew… what's that smell?"

It could be rotting plant material—another side effect of not regularly cleaning out your pump.

During the growing season, roots and other plant debris will likely find a way into your pump's filter. If left there, it will begin to decay. And decaying plant material can make the water inside your Tower stink.

Fun fact: The stuff also has the potential to spread disease as it circulates through the growing system.

Just another reason to clean your pump on a monthly basis.

Algae grow on rockwool.

Ever notice slimy green stuff growing near the base your plants? Well, good news—it's not actually a problem.

In fact, algae growth is relatively common (since you're supplying nutrients, water and light—everything necessary for survival). And it's typically harmless to plants. But I'm including it on this list because many new Tower Gardeners assume it's a problem.

That said, if you do notice something growing on the rockwool, make sure it's algae and not one of these plant diseases.

Pests infest your indoor Tower Garden.

When growing indoors, many gardeners want to bring outdoor plants (both seedlings and mature plants) inside. But doing so could be a regrettable mistake, as outdoor plants often bring bugs inside with them.

Even if plants appear to be healthy and show no visible signs of problems, you should still reconsider bringing them inside. They might be harboring aphids, small caterpillars—both surprisingly hard to spot—or even the eggs of certain pests on the undersides of leaves.

Pests are troublesome enough outside. But once they get inside? It's worse.

Without natural predators indoors, pests multiply by the minute. (OK, maybe not that quickly, but it does seem like it!)

Luckily, reducing the risk of an indoor infestation is fairly easy: just start all your indoor plants fresh, and regularly check your plants for signs of trouble. The earlier you catch a pest problem, the easier it will be to control.

Speaking of control, here are some pointers on controlling pests without pesticides.

Seeds won't germinate.

Sprouting seeds can be a little tricky. There are a number of reasons seeds may not germinate. Let's look at three of the most common:

  • Poor seed quality. For best results, you should start with the best seeds. The seeds that ship with Tower Garden are of top-notch quality. But if you're buying new seeds, take care to source them from a reputable provider. (Here are a few sources I recommend.)
  • Old or expired seeds. Some seeds have shorter shelf lives than others. The germination rate of spinach and onion seeds, for example, tank after about a year. So when in doubt, try using new seeds.
  • Temperature. Like plants, most seeds have temperature preferences. Generally, the seeds of warm season crops germinate best in warmer environments, while those of cool season crops prefer cooler ones. In fact, some gardeners refrigerate spinach seeds—which are notoriously stubborn—to encourage germination. (If you try that, just be sure to move the seeds out of the fridge as soon as they sprout.) For seeds of warm season crops, consider using a heating pad.

If you address these factors and still have problems, here are a couple tricks to try:

  • Soak your seeds. Initially soaking seeds overnight often speeds germination, as it helps moisture break through a seed's outer coating.
  • Germinate using the "baggie" method. Rather than start my seeds in rockwool, I often sprout them using the baggie method—which, in my experience, tends to yield higher germination rates. The process is simple: distribute seeds on a dampened paper towel placed in an open sandwich bag. (This creates a sort of miniature greenhouse.) Check the bag every few days—moistening the paper towel as needed— and, as soon as the seeds germinate, transplant them to rockwool cubes.

Seedlings wilt after transplanting.

Though wilting can be a symptom of various problems, one cause concerns Mineral Blend concentration.

When you're starting a fresh Tower Garden (i.e., one full of small seedlings), you should fill it with a half-strength nutrient solution. That ratio is: 10mL of Mineral Blend A + 10mL of Mineral Blend B per gallon of water.

If you're using full-strength nutrients and your seedlings are wilting, try diluting the solution. Your plants should perk up.

After you've been growing for a month or so, you can increase the solution to full-strength (i.e., 20mL of both A and B per gallon of water).

By the way, another time you should be using half-strength nutrients is in hot weather. Heat evaporates the water more quickly, resulting in a more concentrated solution.

Plants grow slowly.

As soon as your seeds sprout, they need light. Without it, they'll grow lanky and weak, spending all available energy to search for light. That means they won't have the resources they need to develop strong root structures.

As a result, when you put them in your Tower Garden, your seedlings will likely struggle to grow (if they even survive).

So, for healthy, happy seedlings, give them light. (This "germination greenhouse" comes with a grow light.) And once they're about three inches tall and have roots protruding from the rockwool, you can transplant.

But the need for light doesn't cease post-planting, of course. Outdoors, most plants require at least 6–8 hours of sun. Indoors, they need about 14 hours of artificial light.

Many people assume light from a south-facing window is all indoor plants need for proper development. But the light that filters through windowpanes is rarely enough.

To ensure your indoor garden grows to its full potential, use grow lights. I recommend this Grow Lights Kit. It's designed for Tower Garden, and I've been using it for more than a year with great success.

But if you'd like to consider other options, you can find a breakdown of grow lights types here.

Tomatoes (or other plants) take over.

If I didn't know better, I'd swear some food crops were actually weeds. Indeterminate tomatoes, squash, pole beans and mint come to mind.

Given free reign, these plants and others like them would probably overwhelm the world. They're voracious growers, sending out vines, tendrils and roots to help them ever expand.

This characteristic makes them pretty easy to grow. Unfortunately, it also makes them bad neighbors. If you don't keep a close eye on things, one day you may find your squash plant's hungry tendrils strangling a nearby basil plant, tomato vines sprawling everywhere, mint popping up in unexpected places, beans scaling…everything—you get the idea.

It can get crowded. And when plants grow together so thickly like that, they create the ideal conditions for leaf fungus diseases.

To prevent all of the above, just do a little pruning here and a little harvesting there. This will help keep your plants' growth in check (with the added benefit of making them healthier and more productive).

Plants don't produce.

The first year I tried to grow zucchini, I think I harvested one. (Maybe two.)

What a disappointment!

With declining pollinator populations, many gardeners are finding they must "be the bee" to ensure a consistently hearty harvest. I learned that the hard way with the zucchini. (To be fair, it was my first attempt at gardening, and pollination wasn't the only thing I was getting wrong.)

If you're growing indoors or if you don't see many bees or other pollinators around your garden, you'll probably want to consider hand-pollinating your plants.

Don't worry. It's not as weird as it sounds.

Crops taste bitter (or turn black and die).

There's a time for everything. But it's not always time for everything. Certain seasons are perfect for growing certain crops. Others? Not so much.

Lettuce is refreshing and delicious in the fall and spring. But try growing it in late July, and—depending on your growing zone—it will likely bolt. The result is a bitter harvest even my dogs refuse to eat. (The list of things my dogs refuse to eat… it's pretty short.)

Likewise, if you try to grow tomatoes in November, they may not even make it past the seedling stage. And as soon as a little frost hits, they'll look like death. (Because they'll be dead.)

So be strategic about what plants you decide to grow each season. To learn what grows well in your area now—and any other time of year—reference this planting calendar.


What about…?

Though these are the Tower Garden problems I hear about most often, this list certainly isn't exhaustive. Are you struggling with something I haven't mentioned?

Here are a few things you can do:

  • Leave a comment below, and I'll help if I can!
  • Call (or email) Tower Garden Customer Care at 866-235-0414.
  • Seek help from other growers in the Tower Talk forum.

Happy growing!

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