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Mistakes Were Made: An Unironic Celebration 

click to enlarge Enjoy and hope, but maybe don’t get too attached.
  • Larry Decker
  • Enjoy and hope, but maybe don’t get too attached.

In the summer of 1992, when I was 23, I tried my hand at market gardening. A friend from New York City graciously offered me free use of an acre of land in the Poconos. At dusk on June 22, the air felt ominously crisp. I'd grown up in Virginia, where we planted tomatoes as early as March. Higher Pennsylvania elevations be damned, there was no way we could get a hard frost on June 23, was there?!

Earlier that month, I had lovingly planted and mulched more than 200 tomato plants. On that fateful June night, I covered as many of them as I could with pots and row cover cloth, but many remained exposed. I had gotten too late a start, I was tired, and I was still in denial. I had uneasy sleep—and a good new-farmer's cry the next morning. The mistake I'd made was setting up my market garden in a microclimate notorious for late-season frosts. If I wanted to grow lots of tomatoes and other warm-season crops, it would always be a battle.

I have more confessions, like the times I planted "dwarf" trees too close to a home. ("Dwarf," I came to learn, means very slow growing, but not necessarily remaining small.) Or how more than one water-loving plant came to my dry sandy soil to die, like bog rosemary—bog rosemary!

click to enlarge An honest oversight had big consequences for a bonsai collection, as nurseryman Drew Zantopp tells in this story.
  • Larry Decker
  • An honest oversight had big consequences for a bonsai collection, as nurseryman Drew Zantopp tells in this story.

Yet, I think I had to make mistakes—lots of them. I've learned much from my failures, and they broke me of bringing crippling perfectionism to my gardening pursuits. I think more people would garden if they weren't so afraid of making mistakes. The beloved late plantsman J. C. Raulston said, "If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener."

I asked horticulturists I admire to share their own experiences with imperfection:

Hudson Valley Seed Library Co-Founder Ken Greene
"We tried to start our farm with a broadfork. (A broadfork [see photo] is a really useful tool that has a row of wide tines on the bottom and two tall handles. You jump on the bottom bar to force the tines into the soil and then lean back while holding the handles.) It was a mix of idealism, energy, inexperience, and lack of funds that led us to try opening up a new field with nothing but a broadfork. It was fun, hard, slow work—and the beds we created were pretty awesome—but this was stage one in our inappropriate-technology saga. Stage two was jumping from a broadfork to the other end of the farm technology spectrum by borrowing a friend's tractor and trying to disc the field. It was like using a sledgehammer to drive in a finish nail. It did the trick, but did some damage (soil compaction) along the way; we had to bring the broadfork back out to undo the compaction! I'm happy to say we've finally honed in on the right tools for our seed farm."

Hudson Valley Garden Association Co-Founder Laura Wilson
"As a self-taught gardener I went about my studies in a serious, methodical way. Shortly after starting to read about pruning I was visiting a good friend in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of her small city garden was a happy red-twig dogwood. Having just discovered the practice of coppicing and pollarding, I enthusiastically told her to chop that baby down: 'You'll get more, redder branches!'

The poor shrub never recovered, and the lesson was twofold:
1) Don't make your friends do your horticultural experiments for you.
2) When it comes to pruning, take it slow—you can always remove more later."

click to enlarge Mugho pines and other “dwarf” conifers can get embarrassingly large, the author found.
  • Larry Decker
  • Mugho pines and other “dwarf” conifers can get embarrassingly large, the author found.

Norbert Lazar, Owner of The Phantom Gardener in Rhinebeck
"My first organic vegetable garden in Westchester was a shared experience with my housemates. We fought over treating the eggplants when they were covered with flea beetles. My roommate wanted to use poison and I was convinced that the eggplants would grow through it like the tomatoes were able to.

Well, we were both wrong. Poisons aren't necessary but I learned that organic gardening is not gardening by neglect. Education is the key and a good gardener learns which insects are problems and which ones are helpful or at least tolerable. (The eggplants didn't make it.)"

Teri Condon, Owner of Gardensmith Design in Highland
"I was looking for the perfect back-of-the-border perennial when I came across plume poppy, a plant with broad, gray, oak-leaf-shaped leaves that grows 10 feet tall. I found out it could be very invasive, but I figured I could outsmart it. I dug a trench two feet deep and buried aluminum flashing vertically to contain the root system.

For a few peaceful years I pulled out any little seedlings, and the mother plant remained contained. But one day I noticed that the roots had found an escape route, growing underneath my trench! I finally had to remove the plume poppy and admit defeat. Someday I will find a home for this magnificent plant, away from my garden, all on its own."

Drew Zantopp, Owner of Zantopia Gardens in Mumford (near Rochester)
"I used to really like creating my own bonsai plants, and I had a nice little collection of about 15 plants of varying ages. They needed to go dormant for the winter and spend a few months in cold conditions waiting for spring. I built a cold frame box by the side of my house with thick wooden walls and ¼-inch-mesh galvanized screen on the top and bottom. 

click to enlarge The Hudson Valley Seed Library’s Ken Greene and Doug Muller love their broadfork, pictured here, but learned about its—and their—limits.
  • Larry Decker
  • The Hudson Valley Seed Library’s Ken Greene and Doug Muller love their broadfork, pictured here, but learned about its—and their—limits.

In the fall, I'd gingerly place all my prized bonsai inside, put the mesh screen cover on, and then rake a bunch of leaves, completely covering my bonsai cold frame with about a foot of leaves on all sides and across the top. Then I would just forget about the bonsai plants for the winter. And for 10 years, that's what I did. Every April, I'd push off the leaves and all my bonsai were budded up and ready to start growing for the new season.  


Then one April, I pushed the leaves off my cold frame, looked in, and couldn't believe what I was seeing. My bonsai plants, each and every one of them, looked like white, bleached bones sticking up out of their pots. What the hell? I got down on my knees and looked closer. There was no bark on any of the bonsai.

After a moment of sheer and utter depression I started looking around for clues to my bonsai disaster. And there, in the corner of my cold frame, was a little hole. A short distance away from the hole was a mound of soft bits of grass, leaves, and other debris. After years of neglecting to inspect my cold frame and just assuming it was impenetrable, a tiny mouse or vole had gnawed its way in and spent the winter warm and toasty in a nest, feeding on the bark of all of my bonsai!

That was the end to my bonsai collection, and I never started a new one. Actually, that experience was a great lesson about overcoming attachment—a true Zen realization. After I got over my crushing disappointment, of course."

Happy Accidents
Finally, I love this garden blunder I found online, posted by "George" on GardenWeb: "My wife thought that a small clump of bamboo would lend a nice touch to my half-acre wildflower garden. I now have a lovely half-acre bamboo grove and no wildflowers." I think that puts things into perspective, even if George does blame his wife.

Speaking of...

  • Michelle Sutton on embracing imperfection in the garden.

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