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  • Writer's pictureJulia Watson

Favorites and Fails - True Confessions of a Real Gardener

bouquet flowers
'Malmaison Pink' stock is featured in this bouquet, but for years it was my FAIL!

Do you think you’re the only one who ever kills plants? I do it too, despite being an experienced gardener, so in this post I’ll share some of my fails and you can learn from them. But I’ll also tell you how I finally succeeded with some plants and now some of my fails have turned into favorites, like the gardenia I wrote about here.

Here's the key to success in gardening: pay attention! Successful gardeners are interested in their gardens. They walk around every day, noticing what’s happening and responding early to signs of trouble. It’s the same with any job or vocation – if you love doing it, and if you keep doing it, you’re going to succeed eventually. The key is to be involved and interested.

Most plant deaths are due to neglect. If you don’t regularly walk through your flower beds, you might miss the fact that those seedlings are withering in the afternoon sun, and in a few more days they’ll die of thirst. Ditto for a host of other problems: snails eating up seedlings, squirrels or gophers digging up young plants, mildew or fire blight or rust or leaf curl. If you're involved and interested in your garden, you'll spot problems early, when they're easier to solve.

Sometimes too much involvement is bad – as in overwatering – but judging from the garden confessions I’ve heard (including my own), neglect is more common. Here’s a short list of my own neglectful mistakes: I neglected to water or turn on automatic watering, I forgot to add snail bait, I didn’t protect young plants from squirrels, I neglected to feed plants. I could go on and on! Plants I've killed include dahlias, zinnias, stock, delphinium, gardenias and astilbe and many others.

I advise you to make notes about your garden and take photos. You can look back and learn - that part is important, because not learning from your mistakes causes more plant death. But you’ll also document your successes and see how beautiful things were. In the middle of spring flowering season, I can be a wee bit disappointed that everything isn’t perfect. Maybe there are a few blank spots or too many weeds around the roses. But when I look back at photos, I can see the beauty. Often my past garden photos look better than I remember them being IRL.

flower garden
Our spring garden in bloom

Here’s an example of a fail that I turned into a success and a favorite: stock (the scientific name is Mathiola). For years I would buy these plants at the nursery and try to get blooms from them, but I always failed. Then two years ago, after getting a free packet of stock seeds from Floret link, I tried direct seeding. Three months later I had tall beautiful plants that all bloomed, giving me armloads of fragrant spires. Now stock is a favorite, not only because it’s beautiful but also because it’s easy! I guess the trick is in direct seeding – I noticed when I removed the spent plants (they’re annuals, so they die after one year) that they have a huge center root. Many plants with strong tap roots are notoriously hard to transplant, so I suspect that’s why they didn’t like being planted from nursery plants. When they were direct seeded, they could establish their root system and stay in one place, blooming happily.

I'll end this post with a reminder - say it to yourself often!

Real gardens aren’t perfect; perfect gardens aren’t real.

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