For the Apollo moonshots, failure was not an option. In gardening, it’s a requirement.
And if not strictly required, messing up is certainly inevitable. When you’re dealing with dozens of plant species — each with its own growing preferences — an ever-shifting pattern of weather and climate, and your own lack of knowledge, the errors will mount.
Ideally, the mass of mistakes is confined to a few early years, and, with experience, the ratio of successes to flops grows to a point where both the garden and gardener take shape.
One of my callow missteps was in planting a formal hedge as the pretentious backbone of my first garden. This consisted of 22 evergreens named Irish junipers. From a design standpoint, this forced formality in a suburban backyard was all wrong; from a horticultural perspective, it was a disaster. This prickly beast is not a plant for hot, humid regions. I thought that, because a local nursery sold it to me, it was suited to my area. Silly me.
I’m thinking of early mistakes for a few reasons. The pandemic has brought many newbies to gardening, and with them, I imagine, a lot of frustrating moments as plants refuse to grow or live.
Stick with it and take heart. A wise old gardener once told me that we are all just at different places along the same path.
Admittedly, some green thumbs are way ahead. The best gardens tend to be created by obsessive perfectionists. This is because they are intensively planted, and the layers present themselves in both space and time. The owners tend to be torn between a deep sense of pride and a constant vexation. The visitor delights in the garden, while the ace gardener cannot sit still.
I am more of a plodder, believing that if I keep at it — planting, sowing, grooming, weeding — that wonderful effects will present themselves, as long as the framework of the garden has been created first.
Failures are par for the course, additions struggle or die, plants that seemed happy for years decline, the rabbits arrive. With each passing growing season, you figure things out. Pansies planted in April will soon grow faint from the approaching heat. Pansies planted in September will last to the end of the year — and perhaps to the following spring.
A mophead hydrangea is at risk from spring frosts, an Annabelle hydrangea is not. A shrub that has outgrown its space can be chopped back or moved. Fava beans planted in October will do better in hot regions than those sown in March.
In time, you don’t think of the garden as some sort of ledger, with advances in one column and setbacks in another. The whole business is simply one of observation and adjustment.
But is it possible for a gardener to lose mojo, like a songwriter all written out or a blocked artist paralyzed by a blank canvas?
The spring now ended was not my finest. In October, a long-awaited order of tulip bulbs arrived: 250 bulbs of three varieties of parrot tulips. These are the big, flamboyant tulips of late April. I do a tulip bash like this every year, typically in a color combo that takes my fancy. By picking like tulips — all single lates, lily-flowered or, in this case, parrots — I figured I could count on them flowering together. I picked a purple-black variety, one that was a saturated red with purple feathering, and a pink-salmon variety that I thought would look suitably dramatic.
By February, the leaf tips were poking through the soil, but only a scant few. I waited for the others to catch up, but they never appeared. About 1 in 10 flowered, and when they did, they were early and distorted. Were the bulbs moldy, virused? The bed was not excessively wet. This tulip bust has never happened to me before.
(Naively, when I asked the bulb company for a refund or credit, I thought my years of being a customer would bring swift remedy. The customer service department asked me to poke around in the soil and send photos. I still await the verdict.)
In early April, I prepared a long and fertile vegetable bed to receive one row of arugula seed and another of lettuce seed. The arugula sprouted on schedule, but the lettuce did not.
You need to be patient about spring germination, but after three weeks of complete vegetative inactivity, I decided this was another bust. So I resowed the entire 20-foot row, again with fresh lettuce seed. Again, nothing happened. I am not talking about spotty germination, but absolutely none.
I wondered whether the bed was too free-draining — it was during a dry spell — but this seems unlikely. I did soak the seeds well a few times.
I couldn’t fret for too long, because I had another disaster to address. Looking for a quick, easy display along another narrow bed, I sowed two packets of gomphrena seeds. This is a summer annual that is supposed to be, ahem, foolproof. Once more, nothing but crickets. Well, cicadas, anyway.
In another corner of the garden, I excavated a 5-foot-square patch of rich soil and put in a load of elephant ear bulbs, which I had overwintered. They all looked solid and heavy — that is, not rotted and ready to go.
By then, the soil had warmed, it was watered and I anticipated a rapid result. After one week, the weeds started to appear. After another, the wire grass arrived. By the third, the elephant ear was still a no-show.
In the place of the gomphrena, I have sown the little wiry seeds of cosmos, scratched into the soil and watered. I wait, feeling in my bones that the summer garden will perk up. It will, won’t it?
Gardening tip: Add washed, crushed eggshells to your tomato and pepper beds as a source of calcium to help prevent blossom-end rot of the fruit. Shells can be added in the planting hole or as a top dressing, worked slightly into the soil.