Twisted, dessicated, browned vines droop across their cages, all life and vitality wrecked by powdery mildew, too much water, not enough air, and failed planning.
These are my spaghetti squash, Honey Bear acorn squash, Jubilee watermelon, Sugar Baby watermelon, and honeydew plants; a pitiful display of seeming gardening ineptitude. A total failure.
And yet, because of these gardening blunders I feel successful. I’ve only owned my home for two and a half years, and was a transient apartment-dweller for the previous 24 years, so gardening on this scale is new to me. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of my efforts are wildly successful in very visible ways, such as the new arbor laced with Scarlet Runner and Italian Purple Pole Beans, the tomato and pepper forest growing in the main veggie bed, and the perennials, zinnias, and blackberries growing in the center bed.
So why, when faced with such obvious and lush markers of success would I focus on my failures? Because it is the failures that teach.
Last year, I planted two rows of corn with pole beans, intending them to grow together. What actually happened was the beans grew so fast that they overtook the corn and dragged it down, showing me I had much to learn about this planting combination. In a separate spot last year, I planted additional pole beans that were chomped continuously by a pesky groundhog that refused to acknowledge my three-foot high chicken wire fence as a barrier to his munching needs. Both of these experiences taught me to guard my vegetables better and plant beans on sturdier structures such as the arbor I pieced together and installed, shown below.
Back to my pathetic squash. Last year, I planted several varieties of spaghetti and acorn squash in the same veggie bed as the overwhelmed corn. The vines took over, covering the tomatoes and peppers and corn and sweet potatoes (which have impressive vines themselves.) I learned that squash vines need more space, air, and light. So this year, I carved out a new bed specifically for the squash and I constructed wire cages for each plant, imagining that each vine would grow up, out, and over, having plenty of light, room, and air.
This was a good idea in theory. What I learned is that when the skies open up and dump a metric ton of water week after week in the summer, and your squash bed sits too low and is too dense for good air flow, powdery mildew quickly takes hold and the end is soon nigh. Next year, I plan to construct a different type of fencing that allows for vertical climbing, but less bunching (no circular cages), and I will plant less squash so as to give each plant more room.
Finally, watermelon. I love to eat watermelon, but it has become my garden nemesis. I tried planting it in a gigantic pot last year and it died. This year, I planted a Jubilee and a Sugar Baby in cages and because our summer was so cool for so long, the plants grew too slowly. Then the rains came and they yellowed. The teeny melons rotted on the bottom and fell off. I will try again next year, but I am now convinced that watermelons cannot be grown by the average backyard gardener.
Learning and experimenting and planning new strategies are only possible when we fail. Easy successes are terrific, but don’t teach us anything. I choose to embrace the success and the possibilities of failure in the garden, knowing that beautiful and delicious results are forthcoming with patience and planning.
Amanda Morris is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and retreats to her garden for peaceful zone-out time after work.