When you read blogs and articles about gardening, you get a lot of good advice. Pretty consistently, you’ll hear what you should do before you get started, what tools you should have, what you should avoid doing, and so on.
This post is not about that.
As I begin my third season as a gardener, I’m going to tell you about a bunch of things I messed up. Because today I walked around my garden and found myself saying over and over again, “That’s not dead? I could have sworn I killed that last year….but it’s growing!” Not about the weeds, mind you, but about plants I really wanted in the first place, but gave up for dead.
Think you can’t start a garden because you’re a brown thumb? You’ll kill everything? You don’t have time to do the research to figure out what to do? Don’t know how to test the PH of your soil or identify common pests and fungi?
I am here to witness that those reasons are not valid. If you want to grow plants…you can do it, and you’ll probably do better than you think. Some of your plants can and will survive your own ignorance, neglect and even accidental attempts to kill them via mower or weed killer. And I will prove it to you.
Exhibit A: Catnip
What I have not yet told you is how this catnip came to be. It was a rocky road.
I planted my first garden the spring of 2010. We had moved into our house the fall before, and I was excited to finally have a big old yard to call our own. In addition to a vegetable garden, I planted about a dozen different herbs that year, and one was catnip. The catnip never came up, which was sad, but I sort of forgot about it among all of my other plants that did come up.
Fast forward to about June of last year. I was weeding my garden (which didn’t happen very often, because it was a busy summer) and yanked a weed that was about four inches tall and about the same around. Chucked the whole thing, root and all, across the yard onto the compost pile and went inside. My cat, Charlie, was begging for attention, so I picked him up and went to grab a kleenex to blow my nose. As I lifted my hand across his face to my face, he started sniffing madly at it. And then he licked my hand. And wouldn’t stop.
It took about a minute and a glance through an herb book to figure out the weed I pulled was catnip. I went back outside, threw the weed into a pot with some dirt and my cats lived happily ever after.
After I knew how to recognize the catnip plant, I saw it in two other places in the garden (I have no idea where I sowed the seeds that first year, but I think animals might have moved the seeds around, because they weren’t near each other.) Catnip is a perennial, so it comes back year after year. This year, I have 7 catnip plants in my yard…which is great (time to give some away!), but I don’t actually feel like I can take credit for them.
Exhibit B: Tiger lilies
I bought some tiger lily bulbs at a perennial sale last spring. I brought them home and set them on my porch step until I had time to put them in the ground.
But there were these hungry rabbits. And while I was at work, the hungry rabbits ate the tops off all the plants.
I thought, well, I’ll just put them in the ground and see what happens!
But nothing happened. What was left of the above-ground portion of the plant turned brown and shriveled and did nothing all summer. So naturally, I figured they were dead. But lo and behold, this spring I see green sprouting up from where I planted those bulbs. I’m watching these with interest, because I have no idea what happens next…will something grow out of the center of the round circle of leaves? Will it be tall? Or short? I could google it…but I’m just going to let this one unfold.
Exhibit C: Chives
You know how I said I planted about a dozen herbs that first season gardening? Chives were one of them. Towards the end of the season, I was getting less diligent about watering all the potted herbs frequently. We had a hot spell, and the herbs dried up and turned brown. I left them out a few more weeks then moved the lot into a shelf in the garage. The following spring, alone among all the dead herbs, the chives spiked up through the mass of dead brown. I spotted them in the back of the garage when the bright green grass-like tuft was about three inches high. (The shelf in the garage doesn’t get direct sunlight, by the way. I don’t understand why they didn’t just die.)
Well, again last year, I fell off the watering wagon at the end of the summer and killed all the potted herbs again. (I never said I learned from my mistakes the first time around.) Like the year before, I moved the pots into the garage for the winter. This spring, I pulled all of them out again. Knowing what happened last year, maybe there’s some life in them!
Well, I have been watering them all for about three weeks. I keep thinking my neighbors must think I’m nuts for watering five pots of dead plants. But finally, today, the payoff. You can barely see it, but the chives are back baby!
Still waiting on the other four pots….
Exhibit D: Peonies
Ah, the peonies. My very favorite flower. When they are in bloom, I go to the farmer’s market every weekend and buy as many big beautiful bouquets as I can afford, and I love to just gaze at them and think about how things can’t get any prettier.
So I bought three peony bushes for myself at the farmer’s market. They were cleaned off so I basically purchased some roots in a bag, which I thought was weird. But I planted them, spaced apart as directed, in the backyard.
My dad came one afternoon to help me spray for weeds in the backyard and didn’t realize I had plants back there…and sprayed right over them. And I should mention…they’ve been mowed over. Twice. (Despite the weed spraying, they are surrounded by weeds, and the peony plants never grew tall so they’re hard to see.) Through the abuse, they did nothing more than poke a few half-hearted leaves up through the ground. At the end of last year, they were completely leveled.
And yet, against all odds…
Now, I know by this point, you’ll no longer surprised when I tell you they poked through the ground this year, even though I was sure they were long gone. But they did, and I was shocked as all getup, because if I didn’t know better, I’d think I had been actively trying to kill them. Which I wasn’t, but it sure did look that way.
They’re little now, but I compared them to my mother-in-law’s peonies, which grew into a two foot tall shrub last year, and these little stalks are doing just fine. Who knew?
Also, a related tidbit: Although the peonies I planted didn’t come up for two summers, I did end up with one peony bush…which grew under the fence from my neighbor’s backyard, because my side of the fence has more sun. I didn’t plant it, but I’ll take it.
I could show you more examples, if you needed them. There’s a rosebush that fell apart while I was planting it and “hibernated” for a year to make me think it was dead (while I put off the task of digging it up to make room for something else) and it is sprouting leaves this year. Or the little sprouts popping up in front of the house that I’m pretty are sunflowers, which means I planted them last spring and they decided to chill for a year first before making an appearance.
I do what I can, but I’m a terrible gardener by a lot of definitions. I don’t know when it’s the right time to plant things; I haven’t tested the PH of my soil and I didn’t plan my garden plot location that well and have to scoot it over six or eight feet this spring. (Like how I say “scoot”, as if it’s going to be super easy?) The things I plant sometimes take a year to start growing and I don’t know why. I forget to water way too often, and I should be weeding at least twice as often as I am now.
And yet, things keep growing. Although I need to wait for it sometimes, the things I plant generally come up one way or another. If you wish you had a garden but think you can’t do it, check out all my mistakes and just give it a shot.
You see, growing a garden is a learning process. You will get better every season…but in the mean time, you can do a lot of things wrong. The nice thing is that plants want to live, even despite your fumbling efforts and mistakes.
Have fun, learn what you can, then just wing it. Some things will die…others might come back to life. That’s one of the things that makes gardening fun. Nature is full of pleasant surprises.
Or maybe the moral of the story is, wait a year before you really believe it’s dead.