Every Garden is an Experiment

Beginning gardeners are often convinced that they are only good at killing plants. Once upon a time they bought a pretty little plant in a fit of optimistic impulsiveness so they could have something beautiful, so they could feel accomplished and good at something. And then their plant died. They tried one more time with similar results, so they resigned themselves to the belief that they just aren’t good with plants. They gave up because they didn’t know the most important thing about gardening: Gardening is an experiment. Every garden is an experiment whether it’s Disney, Versailles, Crockett’s Victory Garden, or your backyard plot.

Let’s dispose of the notion of green thumbs. No one is naturally good at growing plants. They learned to be so, and it probably started with a family member making them weed when they were little. Then, they simply kept trying. They spoke to other plant lovers and experts who answered a question here and encouraged them there. They filled in missing information by reading gardening books. They developed a love for certain plants. They kept practicing and planting and failing and eventually succeeding season after season. Hopefully, during all that time, hopefully, they learned that every garden is an ongoing experiment.

One thing is required to become a successful gardener: Patience. Mastery does not happen suddenly. The experimentation of gardening does not yield instant gratification. In the beginning, you struggle, try again and fail but have a little success every now and again. You learn to plan and study. You will find that being impulsive does not help. Hopefully, you learn most of all that you are not in absolute control. After all your attempts, the plants will do what they will do, and you cannot force them to grow where you plant them.

When you visit an impressive public garden, you are seeing only the successes and not all the in-process failures. It’s the same in an art gallery or in a store. You are seeing what clawed its way through the tests of survival and made it to hang on the wall or sit on the grocer’s shelf. You’re not going to create a magical paradise in your backyard merely by willing it. It’s going to take time and failures before the victories. You’re going to have to work hard at it and sweat. If a plant you bought dies in the second week, maybe it had a disease. Maybe it didn’t have enough sunlight or it had too much. Maybe it was set in soil with low nutrients or low organic matter. Maybe you didn’t keep it watered. Through trial and error, you will discover what your plants need to thrive.

Gardening is a study, and your skill and resulting enjoyment increases over time. You must try again in the spring and do your best to carry it through the summer and into the fall, then say goodbye to it in the winter and hope it will come again to greet you months later. People who are very good at gardening are usually older people. That’s no accident. It takes a while to cultivate the lifelong love, learning, and enjoyment of gardening.

If every garden is an experiment, every gardener is a “scientist” of some sort. Scientists carry their curiosity forward and develop and test a hypotheses season after season.

Don’t lose heart, decide you’re “good at killing plants,” and quit. You just need to keep running experiments. Keep believing, keep working at it, keep weeding it, keep sweating for it, and keep watching it. Keep studying and talking to experts. Read the plant label and obey it. Meet other people and mine their knowledge. Read as many books as you can about plants and gardening. Most of all, don’t let your optimism die. Don’t lose hope, because when it starts working, when your plants begin to prosper and bloom and bring pollinators, there are few things as satisfying.

Stephen Pritchett