Of Trial, Error, and Serendipity in Your Garden

Have you ever want to learn how to garden? Do you want to become a garden guru and expert? The answer is simple trial and error.

| Spring 2016

Outstanding gardens don’t just happen. Rather, they are ongoing expressions of their gardeners’ love, determination, and skill. The love part is easy — it comes naturally, at least to anyone likely to be reading this. Determination follows naturally — if you really love something, you’ll likely find that you are determined to have it, or to improve it. The skill part, though ... that’s something that’s made, not born. Skill comes from knowledge and experience. A common thread that binds the really excellent gardeners I’ve known is their willingness to experiment. That, coupled with a keen eye, a sprinkling of playfulness, and readiness to embrace surprises develops gardeners who are flexible, insightful and deeply aware of their gardens. These gardeners have both depth and breadth of understanding, and that is what leads to great gardens.

Sure, you can and should learn to grow a particular plant by following instructions. How deep to sow, soil preferences, when to plant — you need the basics to get going. After a couple of seasons, you know that lettuce seed must have light to germinate, that corn needs frost-free conditions, while spinach is planted earlier. It’s a little like cooking, up to a point. Combine certain ingredients in a certain way; you get a very similar outcome time after time.

But it’s different in the garden. Plants are living things, and each one is in some way unique. Plants are also part of a larger, living context: some insects benefit your garden while others are a hindrance. Rabbits and deer cause problems some years; some years they don’t. The weather is never the same from year to year, at least everywhere I’ve lived. You get rain when you don’t want it; you don’t get it when you need it. There is a lot to go wrong; it’s a wonder sometimes that we ever get a harvest at all! The thing is, there are always going to be surprises, and if they’re not covered in the how-to manual, strictly-by-the-book gardeners are going to be at a loss.

Advice from an old farming book I once read cautioned: There is a difference between a man with 20 years’ experience and a man with one year’s experience 20 times. And that difference, to my thinking, is this: one man is working by rote; the other has taken the time to develop a deep, ultimately almost intuitive understanding of the plants in his garden. And when events fail to follow the script, the difference between the two gardeners (and their gardens) is apt to be like the difference between night and day.

A willingness to experiment is the key, and careful observation is the door.

Take watering, which is typically a quandary for beginners. Rote gardeners will say “I water every day,” or, “I water once a week.” They have reached a usually workable solution, yes, but maybe they have short-circuited their powers of observation. The real world is more complicated. Some plants like more moisture, some less. The far end of the garden might have tighter soil, which dries out more slowly, or it might sit slightly downhill, which is where water tends to collect. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Instead, try an experiment: water more (or less!) and watch your plants. See how they respond. With most plants, a little wilting does no harm, so long as water is supplied before permanent damage is done. How do you know where that point is? Simple: you’ve seen it before, and you can tell at a glance whether your plants are there or not.

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