How To Fail At Gardening

By Stefanie Gilmour | February 10, 2016
Image by Brett Mulcahy
by Stefanie Gilmour
February 10, 2016

This week’s gardening guest blogger is Stefanie Gilmour, who tends a postage stamp-sized garden within a good-sized Zone 6a city. She is accompanied by her Other Half and two four-footed managers. She enjoys volunteering time tending to the city’s green spaces and canopy. Her education with all things “garden” is ongoing.  For more about Stefanie and her garden adventures, visit her blog,

How to Fail at Gardening

When we first moved to the Lot, the landscaping left much to be desired. Other than several shrubs planted too close to the house and garage, we had a blank canvas (a.k.a. a lawn). While hop-scotching around the city from apartment to apartment, I hadn’t felt the urge to garden. However, as soon as we had our little patch of green to call our very own, it was game over. I had the itch to grow vegetation, and I had it bad.

In the Beginning

At first, visiting a garden center would often result in a carload of plants and a serious dip in my bank account balance. I was a whirling dervish in the nurseries. There was no attention given to “growing zones,” “mature size,” or “light requirements.” The plant was beautiful and it was coming home with me. Into the cart it went.

It didn’t take long for my reckless behavior to catch up with me on the Lot. Plants began to struggle and die. Beds became overcrowded and diseased. You mean I have to water? Wait, I have to weed? Hold on, the plants don’t wait for a break in my schedule so I can sculpt them into a breathtaking garden?!

A Design Disaster

Getting Educated

After some years of blissful bumbling about on the Lot, I made the decision to devote time to learning about gardening. There is a certain freedom to “winging it,” but I was becoming frustrated by the results. I eventually took a Master Gardener Volunteer course through the local Extension Office. It was instant love as I dove down the rabbit hole of gardening WITH SCIENCE.

I mailed soil in to be tested, I began to memorize Latin names, I learned to prune, to plant, and to identify pests and disease. Existing plants were shuffled in the expanding beds. New plants were carefully selected and strategically placed. Rain barrels, a compost bin, and two raised vegetable beds were added. I received a vermicompost bin with red wigglers for my birthday and was elated!

cozy-corner-before cozy-corner-after
Cozy Corning Before Cozy Corner After
the-lot-before the-lot-after
The Lot Before The Lot After

A Flawless Garden?

The garden is no longer a lot full of pretty plants but a layered and constantly evolving ecosystem. Oh, and it happens to be a lovely place I can putz around in to relax. Does everyone’s garden have to be like mine? Heck no. Is the Lot perfect? No way. Do I still mess things up? Oh my, yes.

  • Just recently I realized I planted a coral bell (Heuchera) in full afternoon sun. It’s a shade plant. Sizzle goes the Heuchera.
  • The year before I planted a jack-in-the-pulpit in a different area with full afternoon sun. Jack faced the same fate as the Heuchera.
  • I forgot to water my hanging baskets yet again! Annuals = thoroughly dead.
  • The trumpet vine I planted not knowing it was an aggressive bully is back for revenge.
  • Both the lettuce and bok choy bolted before I made time to harvest it.
  • Landscape fabric does not work very well, especially in a bed with mint.
  • Some cardinal flowers are already too large for their space because I didn’t check the mature height last season before planting.
  • Wild morning glory is growing all over everything.
  • The clematis wasn’t trained.
  • The climbing rose almost ate me alive when I pruned it because it was overgrown into the neighbor’s driveway.
  • The bush beans died.
  • I bought a plant this season because it was pretty. Again.
mint-landscape-fabric jack-in-full-sun
Landscape fabric does not work very well, especially in a bed with mint. Jack-in-the-pulpit sizzles in the full afternoon sun.
dead-hanging-basket bok-choy-bolt
I forgot to water my hanging baskets yet again!
Annuals = thoroughly dead.
The bok choy bolted before I made time to harvest it.

It’s Okay to Screw Up

It’s perfectly acceptable not to have a magazine-spread-perfect garden. (Those people have staff anyway.) It’s not a problem that you don’t know the Latin name for every last plant in your growing zone. It’s pretty common to at first not know the difference between top soil and potting soil.

It’s okay to not get it right all the time.

Don’t let mistakes in the garden frustrate you. Keep going. I feel a gardener should never know all the answers and have a flawless garden, but instead always be learning and growing.


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  • George Koulomzin
    Comment added May 6, 2021Reply

    An Android app called "Sun And Shade Analyzer" will help you avoid sun exposure errors! It will accurately compute the average hours of direct sunlight a plant will receive during any part of the year. The app is predictive: it knows the sun's daily and seasonal movements, and uses your device's camera to "see" all obstructions (trees, buildings, etc.) which would throw shade on your plant. It can even simulate foliage if necessary, to compensate for fallen leaves.

    It's fun! Try it out!

  • Newbie
    Comment added April 30, 2016Reply

    What a wonderful article to read as I begin my first (and not-such-a-great-idea massive) garden!

  • Heather
    Comment added February 13, 2016Reply

    Well, I thoroughly appreciate your article, as I am one to love the idea of a garden but not so much love the gardening...sort of like the idea of having a sweet little farm and then having to work it:) Glad you are enjoying your space:)

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