The Success of Failure


    By Amanda Morris, Ph.D

    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.amanda2-001

    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.


    amanda6Back 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. 


    1. I feel your pain, Amanda! The first year we owned our house, I was so excited to finally have lots of room to garden. I planted like mad – and that summer it rained pretty much every day. I can remember my poor husband racing home from work, literally tearing his work clothes off as he ran upstairs to get changed and get outside to mow the lawn before the next shower. The only things that grew that year were mold and powdery mildew! It’s always a crap shoot…..

      • Julie – I can compost these vines even though they suffered powdery mildew? I haven’t added them to the composter because I was concerned…? Any advice is most appreciated! 🙂

    2. I always tell people that I killed a ton of plants before I ever learned how to grow them. At least that’s true for veggies. Now, it’s obvious you’re growing organically, or else you would’ve tried systemic fungicides!

      BTW, I feel the same about cantaloupe as you do about watermelon! Same family. Those cucurbits just love disease!

      Great article! Good luck next year.

      • Mike – Yes! Trying the organic approach – challenging with certain conditions, to say the least. Unsure how to beat the mildew without fungicides. And cantaloupes! Funny – those are the melons that not only grew, but thrived. I’ve already harvested and eaten two. Go figure. Haha. 🙂

        • I finally gave up on squashes because I was no match for the squash vine borer. Before that my crops were always getting hit by powdery mildew and I found in my garden the milk/water spray combo really worked when used preventatively.

        • Sulfur fuming was the go-to for powdery mildew for years with the growers of mildew prone grape vines in Napa.
          Recent tests (and years of my own experience) verify that compost tea is actually much more effective than sulfur vaporizers. Other advantages of compost tea include nutritive and pest repellent qualities. It works. I recommend making an aerated tea with molasses. A little research online will give you a wealth of techniques for compost tea. Happy growing.

    3. Amanda, I don’t think I’d compost all that powdery mildew – just bag it and toss it in the garbage. Better safe than sorry…….

      • Yes. Suburban compost piles create wonderful compost but simply can’t come up with the volume needed for the heat that kills weed seeds or pathogens. I have three sources for my dead plants. the compost piles for undiseased plants which don’t produce troublesome weeds from seeds or cuttings. Almost all the rest go into the back yard (I’ve kept half the back lawn for play.) I mow once a week, and i\the clippings feed the grass. Then a few go in the dumpster – either something which looks sick from infections, not simply cholorotic or too dry, and those few weeds from hell which can take over the lawn.

        Our in-laws believe we have a green thumb, and think we’re joking when we tell them that we just bury the bodies when nobody’s looking… Remember, Amanda, composted (or trashed) plants tell no tales.

    4. I’ve been gardening for more than three decades and I seem to have some failure every year – all of which I naturally blame on circumstances beyond my control. Naturally. Still, there are cool seasons, wet seasons, dry seasons, and all can cause failure in even the most experienced gardener’s garden. You are right to learn from mistakes, but remember not to get discouraged when failures continue because sometimes they are due to circumstances beyond your control.

    5. I have the same failures! Squash and melons are my worst stories…next year I’m going to move them up around my patio where there’s the most sun (and with my luck there will be a dry summer and I’ll have to water them constantly) and maybe will have some luck. Also have failed miserably with: cauliflower, eggplant (didn’t make it past the seedling stage) and brussel sprouts. But the beauty of it is that I can’t wait until next year to try again!

      • Thank you for sharing, Carolyn. It is so gratifying to know I’m not alone! And a dry summer – what is that? Haha. We can hope and continue trying. I’m going to try eggplant next year for the first time – any tips? 🙂

    6. I agree with these comments about the frustration of failure but the resiliency of the heart, and how you just can’t wait to get back at next year. The learning curve is so long and even if you learn something one year, it defies you the next! But then there is the unexpected true success you couldn’t have planned!

    7. In Oklahoma you just about can’t go wrong with watermelon. My step father in law has nothing but almost white sand and his watermelons are huge every year. But a hint to help with the fruit rot is to not let it sit on the ground on one side. Once a pumpkin or melon even squash have a fruit touching the dirt, get a flatish rock and prop it up. You get air circulation this way and I can’t think of any rot since doing this. Also I twist mine a bit as well. Don’t break the vine, but turn them every other day or so and you won’t have colorless spots or flat sides. Good luck!


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here