I was driving to work recently, feeling disappointed about my gardening failures this past year, when a segment on National Public Radio lifted my not-so-green-thumb spirits. A scientist was talking about how most of his ilk actually embrace failure because it always offers new data and, most importantly, raises new questions (and what is a scientist if not someone who always wants to know Why?).
It occurred to me that that attitude toward failure is a great mindset for gardeners, because let’s face it, pests happen, plants die, and one way or another, Mother Nature always seems to have the final say. Better to accept the fact that gardening is, and always will be, a trial and error undertaking. Best to focus on what you can learn from this year’s disappointing bounty or another year’s curious blight.
Here are a few gardening failures I learned from (or relearned) this year:
Deer-proof, schmeer-proof. I live on a third of an acre that is largely unfenced. My attempts to protect veggies and ornamentals from the huge, adorable deer families frequenting my yard were marginal at best. Liquid Fence? Sure, it works for a few weeks, until the deer catch on and munch away anyway. Wire cages? Yes, if you anchor them down as if you were expecting a tornado (or a big buck’s insistent nose), and if you NEVER forget to put them back on after tending to the plant underneath. And as for “deer-resistant” plants, my experience is that there are maybe two: the toxic foxglove and some iris. If deer are hungry, they will eat almost anything.
Lesson: In my neighborhood, you really, really need to have a strong eight-foot fence if you want to keep the deer from decimating your garden.
“Natives“ aren’t always foolproof. For one thing, many gardening books and online sources define native plants broadly as those that are indigenous to the U.S. Problem is, a plant that is native to the Florida wetlands, the humid-summer Midwest or the cool-summer, foggy California coast is probably going to fail miserably in the Mother Lode.
Lesson: To reduce gardening failures, choose plants that are native to the foothills or areas with similar growing conditions, such as some Mediterranean plants.
Don’t rely on nursery plant tags. The labels that accompany nursery plants, especially at big-box stores, are often very nonspecific (“sun to part shade”). My guess is that those overly generalized tags are simply a cost-effective way to stay in some vague, safe range of growing advice for vast inventories of plants. I have tried and failed more times than I can count when trusting plant tags that don’t address the specifics of my locale.
Lesson: If you aren’t familiar with a plant’s ideal growing conditions, look it up first in Sunset’s Western Garden Book or the UC Extension website at http://www.ucanr.edu before buying it.
When life gives you lemons . . . Because much of my large front yard is not landscaped, the trees and shrubs I have planted enclose mostly bare land. Read: weeds. Vast swaths of weeds that I battle spring through summer, mostly by pulling. At the end of this summer, though, I got smart. I bought an affordable, lightweight weed whacker. After the first Saturday of “mowing” the weeds down to about an inch, I stood on the front deck, looked down at all of that controlled greenery and finally saw it: a free lawn! Without the endless watering and fertilizing! Okay, so it didn’t look like fescue up close. But it WAS a nice, flat green covering instead of bare dirt, or worse, unkempt weeds that produce foxtails and burrs that plague my dogs.
Lesson: Until I finish my years-long work of landscaping, I will treat myself to a free “lawn” by timely weed whacking.
If you want it, never give up. As in, tomatoes. I swear, I swear, I swear, I watered my five tomato plants in half-whiskey barrels deeply and consistently this past summer. Still, half of them got blossom end rot (from inconsistent watering, say the experts). But I absolutely refuse to give up on my dream of growing so many tomatoes each summer, I have to give away the excess.
Lesson: Try again next year. Failure schmailure.