Failures in the garden provide an opportunity to learn. My garden requires a yearly editing to keep it looking cohesive. And while the summer profusion is still fresh in my mind, I like to make a list of plants that need to be divided, thinned, moved, or pulled out. Gardens are changing constantly and before you know it one plant has strangled another or some plant isn’t thriving that you thought would. Plants are not the only things that get out of hand. We gardeners forget to do the right thing at the right time. Let’s face it: anyone who has ever planted a few plants is going to see what failure looks like.
When I was still new to gardeningI ordered some hard to find shrubs from a mail order company and was shocked to receive a few brown twigs. Impatient with how long I would have to wait for them to mature into large shrubs, I over-fertilized them in hope of exponential growth — but the plants died. Little did I know that over-fertilizing is just one of the many ways to kill plants and I would soon discover a multitude of other ways! The espalier apple tree which I forgot to protect one winter was stripped by deer and just when it had recovered and was growing nicely again I forgot to cover it again and the trunk’s base was girdled by rabbits. Last summer, a few young fruit trees I planted late in the season died because I forgot to water them during a drought. These are hard lessons to learn, but I don’t think I will make these mistakes again.
Many people blame their failures on not having a green thumb. Eleanor Perenyi in her wonderful book Green Thoughts wrote, “There is of course no such thing as a green thumb. Gardening is a vocation like any other — a calling, if you like, but not a gift from heaven. One acquires the necessary skills and knowledge to do it successfully, or one doesn’t.” She also points out that the ancients gardened without guidance from gardening books and relied solely on observation. There are so many things to observe in order to have success in the garden: whether a plant looks happy or not; knowing those areas with full sun and shade, exposed sites or windy areas; slopes that drain quickly; areas with hard pan or poor soil, tree roots, deer grazing paths; where snow banks tend to appear; where the snow is plowed; and spring runoff areas.
Not all failures can be laid at the gardener’s feet. I have friends who blame themselves for every garden disaster. I recently ordered some quince trees from a large mail order company in Georgia that specializes in growing every kind of fruit. I have been ordering mail order plants for over 15 years. Two five-foot sticks arrived six weeks early while there was still a foot of snow on the ground. I thought (like most good mail order companies) they would have checked my zip code to figure out my plant zone and mail accordingly, but no. Not knowing what else I could do I potted the trees up and stuck them in an outbuilding until the ground thawed. A squirrel broke into the building and chewed some of the bark off the young trees. Luckily I spotted the damage before it was too late and managed to put tree guards on the trunks. After planting the two trees and receiving a bit of spring rain, it set forth buds. Although there was no tragic death from the trees’ early arrival it certainly caused me some unnecessary stress. Next time I will be proactive by suggesting the correct time to ship.
A few years ago, I had some large plants delivered and the delivery boy dropped a shrub that had only recently been potted up; it died within a few weeks. Most gardeners at some point have had a plant come into bloom and then suddenly it is covered by an infestation of aphids or some other pest. These sorts of problems are not our fault. When we are at a loss and frustrated by the problems that arise we can read a garden book for help or Google the problem. But the best way to learn is from our own constant observation.
Many of the failures are caused by rodents or pets. In late winter/early spring my dogs were going crazy all hours of the day. I found Ruby, the hunter of the family, spending a lot of time on the bank of the pond near the base of a large wild honeysuckle bush. Weeks later I discovered, to my horror, that many of the stems of the plant had been rubbed bare by what I am not sure of, perhaps a rabbit or woodchuck? Honeysuckle shrubs are rather tough plants, but I will have to watch it closely to see if there is dieback. I learned a lesson, however, from this experience: next time Ruby spends time barking in an area of my garden I am going to pay attention! My dogs are pretty well behaved but other people’s dogs can wreak havoc. A neighbor’s dog came into the garden to see my dogs and made his mark by peeing on my boxwoods, which turned them yellow. It didn’t take long to realize that my neighbor had no control over the dog and, so, it was going to be up to me to stop this behavior. A friend recommended that I throw a bucket of cold water at the dog, and after a while the dog stopped visiting.
I have been attending a series of local garden lectures and all the gardeners were complaining this year about an increase in deer damage. There are cycles when the coyotes decrease the population of rabbits and the deer increase. I hardly hear coyotes these days, but there are a lot of rabbits and deer coming into the garden.
Last year we had a drought and I lost a few limbs of a Viburnum plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake.’ This spring I found the whole plant dead except for two new leads about 18 inches tall. I planted this shrub, which is my favorite, over 12 years ago and it was a major player in a key border in my garden. There is now a big gaping hole. I have decided to not plant a new shrub, but to wait and let it grow. Meanwhile, I will plant another shrub off to the side to balance out the border. These are heartbreaking failures in the garden, one I could not have foreseen. After researching the problem online, it appears it met its untimely death due to canker disease that strikes during years of drought. I spoke with another gardener and heard similar stories about her viburnum and she said after four years that her shrub had completely regrown. I find it comforting to commiserate with other gardeners who have had similar problems with plants.
In the end it’s the failures in the garden that teach us the most. I remember that in art school my professor took us around the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City to look at paintings. He said there is no point talking about a masterpiece; that is, what can you really say? In the end we would look at the paintings that didn’t make the grade and found that there was plenty to talk about. It’s the same in the garden. What can you really say about the rose that’s bloomed so well for years but when it gave up the ghost you had plenty to talk about? There is no substitution for practical experience. The eye is the best tool for figuring out some of the garden failures. When we observe these and learn from them we really make a garden that is our own. Instead of seeing failure as a disaster, why not think of it as an opportunity to learn and build on our experience of how to cope with sensitive living things.