"Gardening is all about mistakes, it's how we learn.” - Sheryl Williams, Certified Master Gardener
Perhaps this sounds familiar: you start with a grand vision of exotic vines blooming on the fence, a vegetable patch overflowing with more food than you could possibly eat, brilliantly fragant flowers in every color. And then. A series of missteps and assumptions and elements outside of your control later... it’s all a hot withered mess, the Helena Bonham Carter of gardens. Nature: 1. You: 0.
Congratulations: you have discovered gardening's true nature. It's all about mistakes.
Sheryl Williams knows a thing or two about learning from them. She is a Certified Master Gardener who blogs at YardFanatic and Dig for Texas as well as doing outreach. Her impressive garden was featured on the Inside Austin Gardens Tour this year, and like the rest of us, she started out at the very beginning.
“Truly, I started out knowing nothing. So the first thing that happened to me, which is the number one thing that happens to new gardeners is: I fell for every pretty face. The thing is, the pretty faces are all either hothouse plants or they’re tropical in nature. They don’t really grow anywhere else. You get discouraged because everything you plant either dies, or when it does grow it looks nothing like it’s supposed to.” She reminds us: “It’s not always the best idea to bring the prom queen home.”
Speaking of prom queens, the seed catalog publishers are just as guilty of enticing us with unrealistic ideals as the beauty industry. Whether it’s the cover of Comso or a glossy shot of cosmos bipinnatus, Photoshop was there.
Says Sheryl, “The biggest mistake I made was sitting on the couch ordering from catalogs. You see these pictures that are totally unrealistic. It’s gardening by sitting on your butt, and that really doesn’t work.”
Yes but in January when we’re still four weeks out from the last frost date, what else is there for an impatient gardener to do?
“Find local sources for plants,” she recommends. “We’re very lucky here in Central Texas; we’ve got some really nice ones that specialize in natives. They’re very knowledgeable. For beginners, that kind of resource is invaluable.”
Like Sheryl, Anne Woods started out with similar impressions. “My parents' garden was an informal Japanese shade garden and a riot of color. I didn't get into native plants or food plants until years later. It was all about glorious, showy shade plants and anything with huge blooms -- the kinds of things that can't really survive without life support in our lovely new drought.”
Anne is a metal sculptor and local permaculture expert who now sees gardening in terms of our symbiotic relationship to nature. “The best investment of time you can make is to slow down and really pay attention to the soil and the landscape. It knows what it needs, and a smart gardener will pay very close attention to that and work with it instead of trying (and failing) to force something else.”
A devotee of urban farming, she has come to see working in her yard as both creating bounty as well as giving back to the land, and loves the unpredictability that getting up close and personal with nature provides. “No garden goes as planned -- that's part of the fun. It's like that saying, "no design survives its collision with reality". And that's especially true of gardens because plants and weather have their own schedules, and the conditions you deal with can be totally different from year to year.”
Her single biggest challenge over the years? “My biggest failures have probably centered around deer. I'd read all the lists of "deer-resistant" plants and all the different techniques for "deer-proofing". But the deer don't read those lists, and they're starving. And what one herd won't browse, another herd just a block away will eat like candy. There's no feeling quite like showing up at a client's newly finished garden to discover that every. single. plant. has been eaten. Talk about humility. That -- and a gazillion more mistakes -- taught me that gardening is a series of instructive failures. You just take good notes and keep trying. Gin and tonic helps.”
Amen, and pass the Hendricks.