One evening last week, I wandered aimlessly pre-bedtime through my Pinterest home feed: recipes from the Great British Baking Show, green kitchens, herbaceous perennial garden design, Harry Potter memes.
I stopped mid-scroll and snorted in appreciation at a quote: “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” The quote was attributed to Yoda, but I later found that it is actually from Stephen McCranie, a writer and cartoonist. I’m not familiar at all with the author or the context in which this quote was written, but the first thing that came to mind was gardening. Essentially, the garden master has killed more plants than a beginner’s “black thumb” can fathom.
Gardening is a science and an art, and learning that science is step one to becoming a gardener. But, to become an experienced gardener, you have to garden. Even with preparation, you are going to make mistakes, learn new insects and diseases each season, and kill plenty of plants along the way, like everyone else who gardens. So in that spirit, I thought I would share some of my garden failures, in hopes that you can go out and make, well, different mistakes.
I planted my first vegetable garden as a youngster. Four pepper transplants, gloriously planted in full shade. I knew plants needed sun, and I was warned this spot was not sunny enough. But, I had strong feelings about my garden design, and I thought they should grow in the spot I had picked out for them and be happy about it. And they did get some light, surely enough. They did not grow. I harvested nothing. It turns out that good gardening recommendations are only helpful if you follow the recommendation. Most folks don’t like to backtrack once they’ve already formulated a plan, but if your plan is contrary to basic gardening principles or recommended conditions for a given plant, you are decreasing your chances of success. Take time to learn gardening recommendations, to understand the science behind them so you will know where there might be some wiggle room, and then follow the recommendations.
The first time I built raised beds was for my classroom when I taught middle school agriculture education. I got a grant. I bought materials. I spent hours online researching the absolute best raised bed design. It was a disaster. The borrowed drill gave out long before my build-day volunteers could bore even one 1-inch hole through the corner of stacked 8x8 timbers and put a metal stake in it, much less three beds worth. We ended up just stacking the timbers unsecured instead. And after the drill gave out, the bit stuck in the hole, leaving a good foot sticking out the top. For two months it sat that way because I was so thoroughly annoyed.
Later I went to a workshop and learned, and practiced, a simple and sturdy way to build raised beds, which is the method I still use and teach now. Sometimes it isn’t just about doing the research, but the right research; talking to successful gardeners, or me, your agriculture and natural resources agent (I promise I have come a long way since that first failed veggie patch), can help you sift through information to find what is relevant to your skills and resources.
Likewise, your information source is important. A perfectly well-written and accurate vegetable gardening article written for California may not be relevant to Georgia. California has a magical climate for gardening that Georgia frankly does not possess. And as much as I enjoy perusing Pinterest garden posts, I’ve seen blogs and recommendations that are cringe-worthy in the scope and volume of their inaccurate information. Take advantage of knowledgeable growers and professionals to validate and ground truth what you’ve learned.
Last summer, I attempted to layer a hydrangea, a propagation technique where you use a branch of a shrub to create a new plant. I say attempted. I completed all the steps and left it to grow roots, which it did. The problem was what happened when impatience and eagerness overran good judgement. I want to see the new baby roots growing for myself, and in the process of pulling back soil, I accidentally dislodged the rock I was using to hold the branch in place while it rooted, the branch snapped upward instantly breaking the newly formed, tentatively creeping roots, and effectively undoing all the work I had started weeks before. Gardening is often a slow process. Take time to do it right, and give it time to grow.
The trick to becoming a good gardener isn’t a magical green thumb. It is in learning from experience. Give yourself your best chance of success by learning a bit about the new gardening skill you are trying and talking to folks who have done it before. Try what you learned, and if it doesn’t go well, figure out why, and do it better next time. Essentially, that’s what all gardening is on repeat. Just throw the dead plant on the compost pile and keep on planting.