In my Facebook Fast post, I wrote about how most “friends” only present the best parts of their lives: their vacation to Costa Rica, achieving a PR at the latest marathon they ran, or how “blessed” they are to have just celebrated their 6-month anniversary with their significant other. No one posts about divorce, collecting unemployment, or miscarriage. My last post was filled with sunny images of the lush green growth and jewels harvested from our urban garden in May. Did I love sharing them in all their gardening glory? Oh, yes I did. It’s just not as gratifying to post pictures of browning strawberry leaves, powdery mildew, aphid infestations, or bolting broccoli rabe. But, just as in life, gardening is a learning process, evolving from season to season, and we need to either turn lemons into lemonade (or lemon curd) or know when to call it quits and chalk it up to a learning experience. Here are 5 gardening lessons I’ve learned so far.
- Some damage can be repaired, and plants often can come back stronger after adversity. This year, I started growing plants from seed for the first time. It took about 8 weeks for my chocolate pear tomato plants to grow from seeds to starters ready to be transplanted. For 8 weeks, we brought out my seedlings for sunshine and warm days and brought them inside at night. I spoke encouraging words to them and petted their leaves to help them get stronger. Eventually, it was warm enough (lows of high fifties to sixties degree F) to leave them out overnight. I gave some away to friends and sold the rest, leaving me one to plant in a 20-gallon SmartPot. Before having done so, however, I found part of my plant’s stem chewed on near the base. A few more millimeters eaten and “timber!” Fortunately, I already had my SmartPot and soil ready for planting. I took the young plant, gently pinched off the bottom leaves, and buried the damaged area (along with crushed egg shells), leaving just the top few pairs of leaves above soil. I worried most of the rest of day that my plant might be weak or sub-productive. The beauty of tomato plants, though, is that you can and should plant them this way as they start developing roots from the buried stem. Since I buried the stem deep to cover up the damaged area, it developed an even stronger root system. Here’s the saved plant today.
- Poor pollination and pART (plant advanced reproductive techniques). Some plants have male and female flowers. I explained in my previous post that the baby fruit–in this case, the swollen ovary of a female cucumber flower–will shrivel away if not properly pollinated either by bees and butterflies or by hand. Last year, Sean and I accidentally grew some kabocha pumpkin just from tossing some seeds from one we ate into the compost that ended up in the garden. As the vine expanded, we’d get excited seeing baby pumpkins and then would be let down when they yellowed and shriveled. It wasn’t until this year that we discovered that these flowers need to be pollinated properly in order to develop into large edible fruit. So, don’t despair if you see some shriveling baby fruit; sometimes you just need to help them along with pART (I totally just made up that acronym), or hand-pollinating. Now, when I see new female cucumber flowers open, I will take a male flower, pinch off the petals, and brush the stamen into the center of the female flower. Then, I also pinch off the shriveled, non-developed fruits to encourage the plant to put out more flowers.
- Sometimes, you just have to accept some losses. This is my first year growing strawberries. I started some Alpine ones from seed and bought a few batches of Sequoia and Seascape. The Seascape strawberries produced some of the sweetest, most flavorful red berries I’ve tasted. After a few weeks, though, their leaves started to brown, and eventually, whole plants looked dead. The Sequoia started doing this before any flowers or fruit appeared. I tried trimming away these leaves to prevent the spread of any disease, but over half of plants are now brown carcasses. I still don’t know why they did so poorly, but right now, I’m just letting it go. I may ask the garden experts I buy from, but sometimes, you literally just need to stop and smell the roses instead. (If any one reading has a diagnosis, please comment!) Pull out the diseased plants and put them in the trash, not the compost bin. Or, if it’s a case of over-infestation by aphids, one gardener’s loss is a chicken’s gain.
- Some plants may bolt early; you can either pull them out to make room for new seeds/plants or you can enjoy their flowers and then collect seeds. My broccoli rabe or rapini were a great success from the fall/winter planting. They produced dark, tender, sweet bitter greens that were enjoyed sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes. So, I sowed a few more seeds in February/early March. San Diego warmed up quite early this year and my plants bolted instead of giving us another crop of greens. I was busy and pleased with all my summer plants, so I just let the plants go to flower and then seed. I finally pulled them out this morning and pulled off the seed-containing pods. I’m going to dry them and collect seeds to plant once the summer heat cools. Whether that works is yet to be seen.
- You don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I learned two lessons from growing brussel sprouts last fall. One is that I don’t have room in my garden for such a slow-growing plant. These plants started developing thick tree-trunk stems with huge leaves that became fodder for aphids. The actual brussel sprouts were either tiny or non-existent. There was one in the ground that was overlooked by the aphids and, therefore, the sole survivor. Months passed, and my summer plants were ready to go into the garden. Instead of giving the leaves to our goats, I “googled” and found that the leaves were indeed fine for eating. I gathered the large leaves, washed them, piled them on top of each other, rolled them up, and cut them into thick ribbons (like how you would chiffonade basil leaves, except thicker). They were sautéed for less than 5 minutes with olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper, and the brussel sprout plant wasn’t a total loss. In fact, they were quite delicious–heartier than cabbage and more tender than collards. Many veggies offer more than one edible part: radish root and radish greens, squash blossoms as well as their fruits, beet root and their greens, and even carrot tops.
So, next time you feel discouraged by what might look like a failure, try to see if you can save it and make it stronger, find another use and turn it into a win, or at least learn a lesson from it. What have you learned or gained from your gardening (or life) “fails”?
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