You know the old saying, “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs?”
I’d like to make a motion to change this to “you can’t be a gardener without accidentally killing everything you touch once or twice.”
Because c’mon. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Let’s just get it out in the open, have a brief moment of silence for every plant we’ve mutilated, and move on together.
So today, I’ve gone through all my old garden notes from the past five seasons to find the biggest mistakes I’ve made in the dirt. Everyone needs a good dose of humility every now and then, right? So let’s see what kind of scarecrows I’ve got in my closet…
Summer of 2014- Ignoring pests
2014 was the first year I really held the reins of my little community garden plot. I had complete control of what, when, and where in my plots I planted for the first time, and I got a little drunk off that power in the beginning. I felt large and totally in charge.
Then came the hornworms.
They showed up, as hornworms usually do, in the middle of the summer, just when my tomato plants were starting to form tiny green tomatoes. But they GROSSED ME OUT. I couldn’t bring myself to do more than try and flick them off with a three foot stick. I think I kept hoping these magic, beneficial wasps I’d read about would swoop in and come to my rescue if I just waited long enough.*
As a result, I lost everything to those chubby green buggers.
Solution- Woman or man up and squish those guys. This past summer, remembering my former shame, I got my gardening gloves on and plucked these guys off by hand. I didn’t even have to spend much time doing it. Once or twice a week for ten minutes was enough to hand-manage these slow moving pests and actually have a tomato harvest through the summer. (Pesticides, even safe ones like Neem oil, should be second or third on your list of pest management techniques, as they can kill the beneficial bugs you want to keep along with the garden-destroying kind.) All it took was patience and familiarity with my plants, because hornworms are excellent at camouflage.
As an added idea, this would be an excellent task to get little kids helping with in your garden! They’re right at eye level with the green beasts and I know tons of kids love all things that wriggle and can be placed in a bucket.
Spring of 2016- Gardening too early
In 2016, I was in the middle of completing my Master Gardener certification, and I was so excited! I was soaking up everything I could learn about soil, botany, pests, organic practices, and so much more.
However, in my enthusiasm, I overlooked one crucial lesson. On many packages of seeds, it notes that planting should occur “as soon as the soil can be worked.” In my naivete, I assumed that meant “as soon as the ground is no longer frozen solid.”
That would be a mistake. If soil is too wet in the spring (as it often is, with all the rain, melting snow, and still-chilly temperatures), moving the soil around too much will cause the soil structure to be DESTROYED. Instead of a nice, crumblike structure come May or June, the soil will have dried out into giant clods that turn to dust if you break them up. And nothing grows well in soil like that.
Solution: Be patient. Test the soil when you’d like to work it by grabbing a small handful and squeezing it into a ball. Upon releasing your fist, if the ball stays firm like play dough or doesn’t break apart nicely with a little pressure from your thumb, you’ll just have to find other projects to keep you entertained, because it is not planting time yet.
Alternatively, if you’ve already made the same mistake I have, the problem can take years to fix, depending on how vigorously you dug up your too-wet soil. Adding some more compost (in various stages of decomposition) and/or working in some manure to the top of your damaged soil, then seeding with some kind of “green manure” like clover or winter rye on top might help it heal faster. In the meantime, find a new patch to plant your veggies in, build raised beds on top of the damaged soil, or think about container gardening for the season if your plot options are limited.
Every year- Not thinning seedlings
I should know better. Intellectually, I know that if plants have optimal spacing, they’ll produce bigger, better, and maybe even faster. And yet some part of me always feels so guilty pulling out those little, tender carrot tops or radish sprouts.
“How can you kill us when we’re so small and cute?” they seem to cry out to me as I pluck and discard them. “What did we ever do to youuuu?”
And so I leave all four hundred carrots in the tiny patch I sowed them in, and thoroughly regret my soft heart about a month later when my carrots look more like wimpy shoelaces than, well, carrots.
Solution: It’s the same advice I give to my high school students looking to write a better short story- kill your darlings. It’s much better to have properly spaced plants produce big, beautiful fruits and veggies for you than to keep a bunch of measly looking ones. Trust me.
Fall of 2017- Not harvesting completely
Sometimes, I get so excited about finally pulling all the potatoes or carrots out of the ground, I rush. I go as fast as I can so I can run home and make soup immediately with all my delicious, fresh veggies. (Which, of course, you should never do with potatoes. Let them cure for like two weeks in a cool, dark place before cooking with them.) In my haste in 2017, I missed a few and got a big surprise the following spring when something that was DEFINITELY not a bean plant popped up in my bean patch.
Solution: Go slow, use a hoe. (If in doubt, eh, it’ll sprout.) (Pull it then, that’ll be the end.)
(Okay, I’m done now.)
What about all of you? What do you consider your biggest gardening fails? (It’s okay, this is a safe, judgement-free garden. 😉 )
*Yes, this is actually a viable solution if it happens to present itself. The parasitic Braconidae wasp lays its eggs on the backs of hornworms, and if you wait long enough, the baby wasps will hatch, feed on the host hornworm, mature, and then fly off to destroy hornworms all over the neighborhood. So if you ever see a hornworm with what looks like dozens of bright white eggs on its back, LEAVE IT!