High Tolerance for Failure


Here is a photo of my vegetable garden:


Just kidding.

This is mine.


It’s nothing startling–I’m a writer, not a painter or designer.  But I know enough to know vegetable gardens need substance, since they are basically gardens of annuals–ephemerals that look like nothing in June and again in December.

My garden’s got some backbone, thanks to the fence and shed and arches, and permanent plantings like the William Baffin roses, the trumpet vine starting to climb my purple shed, the little Northstar cherry trees I just planted, and the currants and gooseberries lining the main path.


It’s also insanely productive, with a healthy size–I’m guessing 35 by 45. I never buy a vegetable between June and December, and I’m feeding a family of five plus guests.  And I could easily extend that season many months by learning more about storage, or finding the time to can, or setting up a hoop house.  When my kids are in college.

Pretty_view_towards_houwHere’s the really important point: I made this garden myself, after my friend Loren plowed it and dumped a truckload of manure on it.  I maintain it entirely myself–at a weekend house that we don’t even make it to every weekend. 

The whole business is just not that hard, I think, if you have a few mental things going for you.

1. Experience.  I’m not a professional farmer, and I think experimentation is the soul of the garden, so I have by no means finished learning about vegetable growing.  But I’ve done a big vegetable garden every year for 15 years now.  I’ve read a lot.  I’ve looked at a lot of vegetable gardens, both in books and in life.

2. A high tolerance for failure.  The interesting thing about experience in gardening is that it doesn’t always translate to a new garden.  I had one very ugly year while learning how to manage a garden that I couldn’t go out every night and weed.  And vegetable gardens in particular require a tolerance for failure.  They include dozens of crops and are threatened by hundreds of pests.  Not everything is going to go well every year.  You have to accept that if you want to have a kitchen garden. 

3. Patience. I didn’t expect to make my garden in a weekend.  What I expect is that it will keep getting more beautiful over the years.

4. Mad love. I can’t say that I’d rather spend time in my vegetable garden than have sex with my husband, but it is very, very close.

The last might be the most essential element in vegetable gardening. But how do you tell people how wonderful it is to eat a tomato still warm from the sun or to find a toad enjoying the shade under your chard?  Hell if I know. I’ve been rhapsodizing about kitchen gardening for years, without ever converting more than a handful of people, and most of those only temporarily. 

Fortunately, the culture seems to be changing all by itself, without any help from me.  Nothing like spending $5 for a dinky bag of mesclun lettuce to inspire even lawn-lovers to shake a pack of seeds over the ground. 


  1. Nice garden – I’m envious! My hubby just got me my first digital camera and as soon as I learn how to use it, I hope to put up photos of my gardens.

    Happy 4th!

  2. Oh I can just imagine the size of your zucchini after being away for a week. I usually pick mine about 3 maybe 4 days after they pollinate. If I let them go for 7 days they would be monsters.

  3. Ah, the bountiful beauty of a well loved vegetable garden, there’s nothing like it !
    Like Jim at Art to Gardening and Michele’s country vegetable garden I appreciate ‘good back bone’ in the vegetable garden.
    When you consider that vegetable gardening is in essence planting with annuals it is helpful to place some evergreen structure to ground the garden into the landscape.
    There’s been many vegetable gardens that have educated and inspired me over the years such as Villandry and its spectacular new contemporary Copia in Napa Valley ( http://www.copia.org) .
    On a smaller more intimate scale the potager gardens that Rosemary Verey had designed and planted have been extremely helpful in understanding how green and built structure in the garden can impart timeless beauty even when the vegetables are totally dormant.

  4. Mad Love, is that what the purple shed is for? Me I am just getting a strange unusual satisfaction from my first real vegetable garden in eighteen years.

    In my country setting I think I can get by with a bit less structure, even though there is a split rail fence, roses and tons of wildflowers that surround the garden. In the winter that wide open space is miniaturized by the larger surrounding forest and mountains.

    I’m learning. I’m trying to be patient. Maybe the broccoli is a failure. It might be a bit too disgusting to eat with all the caterpillar poo and chew marks.

    What have I eaten so far? Radish, three kind lettuce, two kind spinach, sugar snap peas, yellow squash, cucumber and banana pepper.

  5. I love your garden and it’s sort of inspiring me to dig up a big section in my backyard to make something like this. Nice work!

  6. There is a toad beneath the shade of a chard. This calm dark, this sweet refuge, must have come after a frantic struggle through the fingers of grass and the intense summer sun. To find this place now, to find this perfect balance of being, of earth, of pure rest–such joy and purpose can only come after the full hunger of a body is quenched. This is rapture. This moment is pure intoxication–becoming the chard, the toad, the sweet earth beneath that we long for all day until evening, when we tease our fingers through it, slowly look up, and smile distantly at our fulfillment. (I tried to combine sex and a garden moment….)

  7. Michele, boy did I need to read this RIGHT NOW! I have planted my first vegetable garden in years and am struggling with a fiend who is eating my tomatoes, nibbling on my cucumbers, and basically shooting the finger at me. I get so frustrated, but it helps to remember that gardening teaches patience, and that my tales of frustration connect me to all the backyard farmers that came before me.

    Thank you for being one of the many trailblazers – I do think the tide is turning! It is a wonder to shop for produce in your own back yard, no matter what the struggles are to get to that place!

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