Garden: Fail

Ilona Erwin

That is not a promising title for a garden article, is it? Fails are part of the gardening experience.

Sometimes you can learn from garden failures, and since I have had a lot of experience with that… you can probably learn a lot from me! Sure, everyone wants to see the successes and vicariously ride the coattails of the ‘Green Thumb Wonders’. But believe me, even the best of them have had plenty of failures under their belts, and that is one great way to learn how to master gardening: learn from others mistakes and be encouraged to, like them, to live and garden another day.

Chamaecyparis obtusa dying

My dying vergreen

Some failures are just not your fault. Nature is a fickle mistress they say (I don’t know, somebody says it). There are droughts and storms and high winds, the odd cold snap, a plague of blight… numerous things can go wrong in the garden, but so much goes so right that gardening remains a passion for millions of people despite all that. Maybe some of it is the challenge of man against the elements, but I really believe it is because nature also generously blesses the garden with so many spectacular beauties and fruitful bounties.

Winter Ash Trees

These were my Ash trees, now gone due to the Emerald Ash Borer

You don’t have to be a stickler for the rules, but many garden rules are simply good use of science from the school of experience. Read all the garden tips, follow the recipes for building good soil and nurturing healthy plants. Your garden will reward you. And don’t be afraid to fail. You never know when something might succeed despite the odds!

Some of my more spectacular failures

Planting bare root trees, lots of them, in a year when we had one of our worst droughts. What I learned: Perhaps I couldn’t foresee the drought coming, but I could have prepared the planting hole the previous year, and amended the soil with conditioners.

Losing My Chestnut Tree and Roses to Winter

Ignoring the climate lows for this area and losing all my hybrid teas, and the Chinese Chestnut trees I had hoped would grow well here. They did for about three years, but then the below zero lows got them in the end. What I learned: Either plant only oak hardy roses or else cover the “zone 5” stuff with rose cones. Do not experiment with iffy hardiness in trees. It breaks your heart when a sturdy tree is lost. Some smaller trees might have made it in a mini climate close to the house, but large trees need to be hardy for your area.

Suffocating the Perennial Border in Weeds

Allowing the weeds to go too far. I had a gorgeous front perennial border once. I am now faced with pulling out what good plants are left and redoing the entire thing from scratch.What I learned: Beds on your property that take lots of time to develop are worth the time spent weeding-no matter what. And there is something, sometimes, that is too far gone.

Tomato Blights

Losing all my tomato crop this year to blight. What I learned: it is OK to have some heirloom tomatoes (the ones I exclusively planted), but if you want a sure crop go with those resistant hybrids. Next year: ‘Better Boy’ again.

OOPS, Too Many Plants

Buying something wonderful, just to have it die because I didn’t plant it. What I learned: I now only buy what I have time and energy to plant ( most of the time) and I ,furthermore, make my own rule to not buy any more until the ones already purchased are safely in the ground and growing.

Watering a New Plant During Summer’s Heat

Starting a new plant and then neglecting the all important “Keep moist” rule. I have lost so many plants to the crass act of letting them dry out. It is a matter of surveying the yard often to see “The State of the Garden”. What I learned: Pay attention at the beginning just like when I was a novice gardener. Not to take my new little plants for granted. Barring that …planting only in the best season -early spring so the new plants get the benefit of the spring rains to settle in or early October for the fall rains.

A few heartwarming anecdotes

My pine tree is probably one of the greatest surprises of my gardening career so far. I have more than one pine, but this particular one has been an illustration in the ability of nature to astonish. To look at it, as a garden visitor to my property, it wouldn’t seem strange at all, it looks like one of a healthy group of assorted pines, two Red pine, one Scotch, and this one, which I don’t know exactly the type because it was given to me by mother in one of those little 6 inch pots that stores, probably some grocery store or other, sell during a growing season. They all grow staggered across one side of the property. I didn’t have a lot of money in those days and every gifted plant was a real boon. If I got each and every thing planted to grow and thrive I had hit a jackpot, as far as I was concerned. So you might imagine the care I used in planting my little tree.

The pine protagonist of my story

The pine protagonist of my story

I prepared the three dollar hole for the fifty cent plant ( just about literally!) and cleared a circle of soil, marked with little flags of yellow tape, for the off chance that someone other than myself might mow there. But what I didn’t foresee was the way rambunctious boys maraud over even the far sides of the landscape. And I had rambunctious boys!

Anyway, I can’t remember how it happened, but my carefully nurtured little tree got broken. I’m talking bent right over in half. It looked dire, and I probably yelled some. Yes, I’m sure I did… but again that isn’t the part of the story I remember so well. What I do remember is that I splinted the little one and half foot tree with string and a stray piece of scrap wood from the woodpile.

And since this is a heartwarming story, you can probably guess the outcome. It grew and straightened out and became quite a tall and healthy specimen. It must be a good twenty to twenty five feet tall … I’m not so good at estimating such numbers, but you get the picture! (Or you can look at the photo yourself and guesstimate from the four foot fence to the right).

I really only had half a hope when splinting that tree, and it was more just not being able to give it up without some rescue effort.

That taught me more lessons than how to save a bent and broken little tree. It taught me not to give up on something that seems lost. To hope against hope, but most of all, to recognize the strength that is in growing things, all kinds of growing things, and how just given a little chance big beautiful things can come of of that.

I learned that little boys can break things and it isn’t the end of the world. And I also learned to splint things that are broken. Just plain good stuff to know.

It’s hard to believe that strong tree with the straight trunk (fairly straight, anyway) is the same little seedling pine that was mauled in some game so long ago. But it is, and I appreciate the life illustration its history gave me.


Time for one more? I’ll make it short.
…In which I talk about anemones

Anemones Just Look Dead

The anemone bulb story has some of the same theme. Early in my garden career, when living in the city, i was so new to gardening and so eager. I bought things because the labels looked pretty and didn’t pay much attention as to whether it would grow well, or be hardy, or anything like that. I had the cavalier attitude and the chutzpah of the new gardener with a few successes under my belt. I could grow anything.
I didn’t always account for time, though. In the frenzy of fall season, when the aisles were full of bins of bulbs from Holland, I picked up a package of Anemone coronaria de Caen. Yes, the ones with those impossibly gorgeous colors. Anyway, somehow they got tucked away somewhere or another, and didn’t get planted. For the entire winter, in a heated house. And if you have ever seen these little corms in the best of times, you know how wizened and unpromising they look. Imagine after a good seven months or more, because when I found them in June, I was about to throw them out and decided on a whim just to throw them into the bed of mixed annuals I was planting that summer- so off in a corner they went, covered in earth.

I sort of forgot about them, to tell the truth, because I really didn’t expect them to grow. Low and behold, though, one day the little leaves curled out of the ground and I will never forget the wonder and amazement I felt. I had given them up for dead, and more buried than planted them. But life revived… and I took away an indelible impression on my mind of the power of a living thing…even deep inside a dried out old corm. I suppose this seems pretty mundane to most people, and I’m not so easily impressed these days, having seen how powerful a thing the lifeforce is. But then, it was an epiphany, and I am sure it helped to lead to my experience with the pine tree so many years later.

So, there you have it… a roundabout type of explanation of how a gardener can have so many obvious failures and yet still find the hope and optimism to plant in another season…because as all gardeners come to hope: Next year it will always be better.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.