If, this morning around 8:30 a.m. EDT you heard the distant echo of a frustrated scream…well, that was me. You see, I had just discovered that despite thinking that everything was perfectly all right, something had gone very wrong in my fall garden.
Something got to the brassicas I set out a week ago and I’m pretty sure it was cutworms. They live in the soil, so were undeterred by the floating row cover protecting the plants from aerial pests. I haven’t taken an exact count yet, but I’ve lost around three dozen broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts plants. And I’m really kicking myself because I’ve dealt with cutworms before. When I set the plants out I briefly considered putting toothpicks next to their tender stems–a precaution against cutworms I always take with my cabbage plants. But then I talked myself out of it, because I’ve never had cutworm trouble with other brassicas. Such a bad idea. I wish I could go back in time and throw a box of toothpicks at past me’s head. I imagine it connecting with a satisfying “thunk.”
Before this discovery I had a much different post in mind for today. Ironically, I had actually planned to write a post expanding on some of the issues I mentioned in my earlier post about the trials and triumphs of fall gardening: pests and high temperatures, to be precise. I was going to talk about row cover and hand-picking and organic controls. And I still will. Next week.
But right now I’m going to be talking about coping with gardening failures.
To be perfectly honest, I still struggle with embracing failure and learning from my mistakes. I was the quiet, anxious kid who did everything I possibly could to avoid mistakes and conflict. Paranoid about breaking the rules, terrified of getting an answer wrong on a test. I thought going into a creative field–graphic design–would help me loosen up, but in college it was just more of the same. No room for error. So I matured into an uptight, type-A, perfectionist, control freak.
Fortunately, I got into gardening just a few months after college graduation. Gardening has taught me–and continues to teach me–that life is messy. That I’m not at all in control. And that the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry. (Robert Burns knew what he was talking about; maybe that insight came from his own farming experience.)
Somewhere out there are some bad-ass Zen gardeners who can calmly survey the loss, nod their heads, and move on. I aspire to be join their ranks someday. That kind of objectivity and acceptance requires some serious perspective–and a lack of perspective is one of my biggest weaknesses. I’m really, really good at making mountains out of molehills in my mind and letting them overwhelm me.
So I’ll admit, the first step I took in dealing with today’s setback was to flip out about it. I raged at the loss of the beautiful plants I’d grown from seed and fumed at the frustration of having to start over. I felt stressed by the pressure of the changing seasons–despite a 10-day forecast full of highs in the mid-90s, I was keenly aware that my time for getting these fall crops established is quickly slipping away.
The next feeling that came up was insecurity. I thought about not writing a blog post for the week–who wants to read about my stupid mistakes, right? Then I thought: what if I and my family really were depending on this fall garden to get us through the winter? What if we suddenly didn’t have the luxury of buying food from the store? How would I ever feed myself and my family when I could even keep a bed full of brassicas alive in August? (And if that isn’t an excellent example of my personal neuroses, I don’t know what is.)
But some words of wisdom from my mom–a Master Gardener for more than 20 years now–made me realize that it was important for me to sit down and put these thoughts to (digital) paper. Because at some point, all gardeners of all skill levels go through this same experience. Because in the internet age, it is way too easy for these feelings of failure to be magnified by all the perfectly styled photos on Pinterest and how-to blog posts. Because it’s too easy to start thinking that everyone else’s garden is perfect while you’re struggling to figure it out.
Gardening has taught me–and is still teaching me, over and over again, because I have a thick skull–that I’ll never have it all figured out. At best, I’ll become skilled at cultivating the tenuous relationship between human and earth. My feet will grow nimble enough to navigate the spider-silk tight rope that stretches between last and first frost, though I’ll still slip off and come crashing to the ground on a regular basis. There will always be something more to learn, a new plant to grow, an old technique to improve.
Gardening has also taught me that adaptation is the key to survival. Gardening failures are an invitation to step back and reconsider your approach.
In my case, I should have gone with my gut and used my toothpick trick to keep cutworms from shearing off my plants at ground level. I also should have used entirely new and pristine row cover over the plants, instead of reusing old pieces with a few small holes in them–just in case some of the damage was due to grasshoppers, which are largely impossible to control except by exclusion.
It’s also possible that I need to rethink my efforts to grow brassicas here in South Carolina. I’ve done it many times before and I’ll no doubt do it again (I can’t live without frost-sweetened kale in the winter), but they are so terribly attractive to so many pests.
I’ve only been on a horse once in my life, but I’ve gotten thrown by gardening plenty of times so I know deep down that the only remedy is to get back up and try again. I have a few replacement plants on hand, held back when I planted the rest out last week in case I lost a few. (Ha!) And even though most local stores don’t even have their shipments of fall plants in yet, I did manage to track down more replacements at a local nursery this afternoon.
4 Steps to Dealing with Gardening Failures
So to distill this experience into something you might find useful in your own gardening practice, here are my tips for recovering from gardening failures.
1. Allow yourself to feel frustration, anger, sadness, etc. as needed. Gardening failures represent the loss of your scarce time, resources, and plants; it is completely legitimate to feel strong emotions as a result.
2. Analyze the failure and isolate the causes, realizing that many times these causes lie outside of your control–especially when it comes to the weather. Take special note of factors you can control, however.
3. Create and implement solutions. These could range from the micro (mulch or fertilize plants, increase or decrease watering, etc.) to the macro (grow a different variety, grow an entirely different crop, move your garden to a new part of the yard, etc.) and from the short-term (today, tomorrow, next week) to the long-term (later this season, next year).
4. Make a record for future reference. Write down the problem, the causes, and steps taken to find a solution. Try to remember to come back later and make further notes once you find out how your solution worked.
What’s the worst gardening failure you’ve experienced? Let’s commiserate in the comments below!