More on our gardening disasters

We need to put the heart back into our garden. (Our Heart of Flax from way back in 2011)

I thought I’d chime in on the subject of this year’s garden failures. Before I do, I’d like to thank you all for your kind advice and commiseration that you left on Erik’s post.

First, I will agree that it really, truly has been a terrible year in the garden. Sometimes Erik gets a little melodramatic when it comes to the crop failure (e.g. the Squash Baby adventure) but the truth is we’ve never, ever had such a sorry string off disasters and non-starters since we began gardening.

And I think that’s something to keep in mind. This is unusual. When things are going wrong, it’s easy to forget how often they go right. That’s why it’s good to keep a garden journal, or a blog, or even just a photo collection to look back on, so you can track your progress more objectively.

So when I look back on this blog, and through our old photos, I can see the successes far outweigh the failures. Disasters are inevitable when gardening–that’s part of the game– but they are usually balanced by good times. This year, though, it seemed nothing went right.

What went wrong?

Well, the crazy weather, the skunks and–holy climate change–frost!–have played their part. But my gut on this is that it comes down to our lack of true engagement with the garden. In short, it’s an attitude problem.

Ever since we learned we have lead in our soil, the garden has been all about containment and management and safety and compromise. And none of those things say “fun.”

I think the best gardening comes about through curiosity and joy. We should all be like little kids in the garden, excited to plant those seeds, out there every day to see how much they’ve grown.

I remember one the first vegetables I ever planted in our garden was cabbage. I don’t know why I planted cabbage. Now I’d recommend that newbie gardeners in this climate plant start with something a little less risky, a little more climate appropriate, a little less time invested. Like arugula! But back then, I was blissfully ignorant and wanted to plant cabbages in our first proper vegetable bed because storybook gardens always grew cabbages.

I’m glad I did. It was so much fun to watch the cabbages grow. I’d just hang out with them, watching their huge, gorgeous purple, blue and green leaves unfold (and dutifully picking the slugs off said leaves). I’d never seen cabbages in their natural state before, and they were a wonder and a marvel to me. Somewhere we have a fourteen year old picture of me holding my first cabbage, grinning my head off.

That, folks, is why we should garden.

Not to get woo-woo and people  away, but I think there’s  a spirit to the garden, and it responds to our intentions. This is not to say that good intentions alone can make a good garden. You need knowledge, the cooperation of the elements, and the willingness to put in the work. But I think that the spirit of the garden is the grace note that helps ensure success.

To appease the spirit, I need to become an excited, engaged gardener again. Erik may not agree with my diagnosis, but I’m applying  it to him as well. To me, it’s clear he’s not having any fun either. We need to approach our land with the joy and wonder we used to have.  There’s a huge difference between hopeful expectations and dull expectations–or worse, cranky demands (Grow, damn you!).

How do we find that spirit again?

I can’t speak for Erik, but for me,  it starts with curiosity. Along with the standard edibles, we should plant some unusual things this spring, stuff we’ve never grown before, or plants that attract me for some idiosyncratic reason. Fun plants, in other words.

Above, I re-posted that picture of the heart-shaped flax bed I created planted back in 2011. Planting a few square feet of flax was not the most practical act in the world, but it was fun. I’d never seen flax growing before, and I wanted to get to know its ways, because it’s such an important plant– the source of linen and linseed oil and of course, flax seeds. I considered it a privilege–I don’t know any better word– to watch it grow tall and bloom. At the end of the season, Erik threshed the heads and collected about a pint of flax seeds.

In conclusion, as we race toward the spring equinox, which marks our next round of planting, I think Erik and I need to plan a Fun Garden, complete with strange elements. Maybe I’ll advocate for cotton. Or loofa vines–it’s been years since we last grew those, and they are fantastic. Or sweet potatoes. I’ve never grown them for the tubers, only the greens.

The skunks can have the lettuce.

Leave a comment


  1. You are so right. It is easy to get jaded about it, and focus on the failures. But I think you’re on the right track; focusing on the failures is being too perfectionistic, and perfectionism takes all the fun out of gardening. You get thrown a set of challenges, you learn from them, and next season you get a whole new set! I was heartbroken last month because I had blue aphids on my broccoli, but then we got hit with a very hard freeze and low and behold, the aphids are now gone! Sometimes things work out, and sometimes things don’t, and it often has nothing to do with our skill set as gardeners.

    • Thanks, Diane.

      Your aphid story reminds me of our artichokes. We used to be plagued by aphids between the leaves–had to hose them out every day. The following year we were hit by a plague of pincher bugs in the artichokes. Ick! But then we figured out that the pincher bugs were eating the aphids–or at least driving them away somehow. And pincher bugs are much, much easier to get out of artichokes than aphids. They’ve become a fixture. Thus I learned to love pincher bugs.

  2. So true that we can lose the joy of gardening. I try to grow something different most years too so it keeps me coming back to the garden to watch it grow! Growing something different is actually how I learned how to love different vegetables. I grew Swiss Chard for 10 years I think before I ever ate it! But I grew it because I liked its colors and it was easy to grow. Glad I did, because we eat lots of it now. 🙂

    • That’s so true. We eat lots of crazy bitter Italian greens now, mostly because they grow so well here. 😉

  3. Somewhere I read that carrots take up all the lead in the soil. How about a garden of carrots? Then you would have to toss them out, I guess. Or maybe the skunks would eat them?

  4. Remember when it was “Global Cooling”? Then it was “Acid Rain”. Then it was “Global Warming”. Now it is “Climate Change”.

    Why haven’t any of these things through the years affected that I go to work without freaking out about things that don’t really apply to anyone other than pushing an agenda?

  5. excellent point – mostly I grow the same things year after year, but am sure to add at least one new or fun thing. Last year it was Loofa. This year, am going to try to get my first Amyrillas to go through its cycle and bloom next year. Still, a successful garden, even if its the same old, same old, is a lot more satisfying than one that is not.

  6. I am realizing the importance of aesthetics and gardening with room for the humans and the critters as well as fun experimentaion and change. This year i planted a keyhole garden using wattle for walls to try and deal with the problems wooden raised beds cause in this hot dry climate. Bill and like to sit outside and admire it. The cats love to scratch the wattle and the chihuahuas enjoy basking on the walls. It isn’t a permanent fixure, though. It may only last a few seasons and reveal its own set of problems, but for now it is giving us a great deal of joy and seems to be producing very well. Because it is not permanent it is giving my fickle future self the gift of redesigning my little yard. So my thought is beware of permanent design solutions. Our urban gardens are places to experiment. We each have our little lab and blogs like yours help us all compare data. I want to plant dye plants, too. Whats on your list? Look forward to postings on this- and sharing seedlings!

  7. I love the part about getting the joy back and bringing good intentions to bear in the garden. I totally agree! Plus, it’s super fun to grow what I call “the ridiculous plant” – whatever I haven’t tried before falls in this category. I allow myself one a year. Sometimes it’s common (last year it was Fava Beans – spurred on by Sir Anthony Hopkins) this year it’s cutting flowers from seed in my veggie beds.
    New is fun. And veggie gardening should totally be more fun than work!(Although sometimes I guess that get’s flipped around….)

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