Our Garden Failures and What We Learned From Them
Failures + Lessons Learned - Gardening

Garden Failures + What We’ve Learned // Vol. I

When I was 12 or so (and until I was 16 or 17), I wanted to be a landscape designer–I took out a subscription to Birds and Blooms magazine, I joined the National Gardening Association, and I asked for (and received!) thick gardening reference books for birthdays and for Christmas. I was responsible for our family’s vegetable garden one year (at my request), and I also tried my hand at sowing some flower seeds (cosmos–which thrived–and bachelor buttons, which are literally still coming up every year even now, almost two decades later). In my limited experience during those few years of intense passion for all things garden, the act of planting and keeping things alive and healthy was easy–my one near-loss was a tomato plant that my mom said probably wouldn’t make it, but in all my stubbornness, I declared it would not be so and I fertilized it regularly, watered it daily, constantly rooted out weeds around it, and literally said prayers that it would survive and produce for us. (And guess what? It did! It got basically just as big and was just as fruitful as the other tomato plants that year.)

What I hadn’t realized at the time was how much work had gone on in the background before my efforts–how much money and effort my mom had poured into the soil to make it balanced and rich, and how easy watering was when you just had an automated sprinkler system that did most of the work. Of course, sometimes we do tend to complicate gardening too much—we think it is hard, so we don’t try at all. Or we focus so much on the problems that we don’t fully appreciate the miracle that is throwing a plant in some dirt, putting some water on it, and watching life and fruit and flowers spring forth from it. Or maybe that’s just part of growing up and becoming an adult (or a gardener)—you look for ways to problem solve, to produce more, and to improve.

Below I’ll share some of our gardening failures and lessons learned over the past few years, but if you want to hear how to avoid common gardening mistakes from someone who is much more of an expert than I am, there’s a free webinar you can sign up for that’s going on this Friday (5/15) at 10 a.m. and then again 4 p.m. EST. It’s put on by the folks at Ultimate Bundles (of which I’m a proud affiliate!), and it’s totally free to anyone that signs up and wants to watch. The place to sign up for that is right here.

Here’s the rundown on our latest garden fails (and the lessons we learned from them):

Indoor Seedling Batch #1 – Mostly Flowers w/ Long, Leggy Stems: Majority Died During Hardening Off Process

This first seedling batch we planted was actually all the way back in 2018, but I include it here because it informed a lot of our choices (and reluctance) in trying out seeds again this year. With this first batch, we planted one flat of all sorts of seeds–zinnias, daisies, and marigolds are the ones I remember. We rotated them to the sunniest spots in the house throughout the day, and at first, the seeds thrived–most of what we planted seemed to come up, and we were excited at the bounty of blooms we were going to enjoy for a few dollars’ worth of seeds. We had the seeds inside for about two months (which was too long for some of them), and pretty much all of them grew very long and leggy, which we now know is a sign of lack of sufficient light.

When we started hardening them off for a few days before transplanting, they did okay…at first. But then, on one particularly hot day, 80% shriveled up from too much heat and lack of water. The other 20% that we were able to transplant mostly all died from being too leggy and not being strong enough to withstand the temperature and wind fluctuations, and we only had two marigolds survive out of the whole flat. (Though, I must say, those marigolds FLOURISHED! I’ve never seen marigolds get as big as those did!)

So, lesson #1 here: If seedlings are looking straggly and leggy, it’s because they’re getting insufficient light. And lesson #2: Make sure you watch diligently to make sure seedlings get enough water while hardening off outside.

Indoor Seedling Batch #2 – Hardy Spring Vegetable Seedlings: Died After Transplanting

This year, we decided to brave planting from seed a second time, and we tried to learn from our former mistake by buying an inexpensive grow light on Amazon to clip over the seedlings (this one (aff link) is similar, though we found ours for half this price). We also went for larger seed cell flats because we heard that peas and sweet peas (which we were planting in this batch) had deep root systems and needed bigger cells because of it. Also in this batch were other hardy spring seeds, such as broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, and leeks. We covered the seed tray with a plastic covering until they germinated, and we kept the flat by our sunniest window + had the grow light going at least 16 hours a day. We also watered from the bottom (since we heard that was better for the seeds than watering from the top, which can wash away seeds or be too hard on tiny stems). We had mixed success in this tray: Literally none of our cauliflower came up at all, and hardly any spinach. Our lettuce plants did okay, but not nearly as many came up as we’d planted. Our leeks mostly all sprouted, but they were so skinny and delicate-looking that we thought it would be a miracle if they survived. However, our peas, sweet peas, and broccoli all look great—they didn’t look too leggy, and they had 3-4 sets of leaves before we started hardening them off outside.

Because they were supposed to be hardy against frosts, we figured we wouldn’t need to harden them off that long, so we started hardening them off for a few hours at a time and gradually increased the time each day, and then we transplanted them out after about a week.

Every single one died, even though the plants had looked great.

I think our failure on these was due to two things: 1) We should have run a fan on the seedlings from the get-go so that the stems could develop thicker and stronger since we have heavy canyon winds here and then hardened them off for a longer period of time, and 2) I don’t think they got sufficient water for the first few days after being transplanted–we had counted on the rainfall being sufficient during that time, but we should have checked the soil daily to see if they were actually getting enough.

One of our current lettuce transplants

Indoor Seedling Batch #3 – Mix of Flowers, Herbs, and Vegetables: Most Survived, Except Those That Didn’t

The third batch got sufficient light and water and were hardened off for a loooong time before being transplanted (read: 3+ weeks). As a result, they mostly all had thick stems and several sets of leaves. This was the batch we transferred out most recently, and it included mostly snapdragons, though we had a few verbascum flowers in there too, as well as two lettuce plants and a lemon balm (herb) plant.

The seedlings have now been out for two weeks, and they all look quite good, except for one of the lettuce plants (which mysteriously got ripped up and displaced about a foot to the north—maybe from the wind? Or a bird?) and the lemon balm. I *think* our problem with the lemon balm was that we had a couple colder nights where the temps got to around freezing (33 or 34 or so), and it looks like that plant doesn’t tolerate cold well, as it has blackened. Other than that, the rest are looking healthy enough. I currently water all of them daily with a watering can, and though I haven’t seen a ton of new growth, they seem to be doing okay. Fingers crossed!

Outdoor Direct Sown Seeds #1 – Peas, Lettuce, Broccoli: Almost None Came Up

We direct sowed some seeds outside at the same time as we transplanted the indoor seedling batch #2, but none came up. I don’t *think* the problem was outdoor temperature, as I actually took a thermometer to the soil, and it was at 55 degrees—I think the problem was insufficient watering, since we were counting on the rainfall that was happening about 3 times a week to be enough when it actually appears that seeds should basically be watered daily unless the soil is still moist from the day before.

Outdoor Direct Sown Seeds #2 – Peas, Sweet Peas: In the Process of Coming Up Now

We direct sowed more peas and sweet peas when we transplanted indoor seedling batch #3 out, and since these seeds have been getting watered every day (and it’s significantly warmer now, as it’s over a month later), we had several of the (snap) peas come up this week, with more expected. Verdict is still out on whether they’ll reach maturity, but for now they mostly look good (although the one sweet pea that had come up has now shriveled…sigh…).

Outdoor Direct Sown Seeds #3 – Shirley Poppies: Still Haven’t Come Up

I also planted these poppy seeds at the same time as those peas and sweet peas above (in this last planting), but none have come up yet. However, as they were sown 11 days ago and the sprout time on the packet says 10-15 days, we still might have a shot. Shirley poppies are supposed to thrive more in cooler weather, so I think we nailed the planting time outside. We’re also watering them daily, which the seed packet said to do. You barely cover these seeds at all though, so if none come up, it might be due to the canyon winds blowing some away, or even the watering causing some to wash away or shift too much. We shall see!

Some of our snapdragon seedlings in 100% compost

Compost Experiment #1

In 2018, we built our first raised garden beds and were torn on how we should fill them up. As anyone who has built a raised bed knows, the most expensive part of them is often not the wood and supplies for the bed itself, but the dirt that goes inside. Looking for an economical option, we found that our local landfill sells a truck bed full of compost for just $20, which meant that we could fill both raised beds plus do a top layer on our ground beds for only $40. Literally everyone but one person (Matt’s boss, who did extensive graduate work in horticulture) told us that we absolutely had to mix the compost with something else in order for anything to grow in it. We decided to try an experiment and try straight compost to see if Matt’s boss was right. And it appeared that he was–we planted everything in 100% landfill compost, and our stuff THRIVED that year.

Compost Experiment #2

The next year (2019), we decided to build two more raised beds, and we (of course) were going to fill them with straight compost again since we’d had such good success the year before. Well, that time we didn’t get so lucky—the chemical decomposition of the compost materials appeared to be too “hot” for our plants, and few survived. (Those that did survive kind of had a sickly, parched look to them, despite ample watering.) When we talked to Matt’s boss about it, he said that planting things in compost made from 100% green material will thrive, but that if there is ANYTHING that’s not green material mixed in, that’s when you’ll get the result we got. So our plan for future years is to do one of two things: 1) if we get compost from the landfill, we will mix it with something else, like everyone else told us to do, or 2) if we get the compost from someone who can guarantee that it’s 100% green matter (or make the compost ourselves), then we’ll take the chance on it again.

Now, in case you are wondering, we haven’t amended that second batch of compost—we’ve just kept planting in it. Why? Because we heard that once it’s “cooled” off chemically (mostly thanks to lots and lots of watering and time), the matter in it is excellent. We have noticed that it doesn’t retain water well though, so if we stick around here for awhile (unlikely, since it’s looking like a move is more and more likely), we’ll go ahead and add some mulch and some specialized soil blend to firm it up a bit.

If, like so many others in the general population right now (thanks to the food stocking and processing issues in the grocery stores and such), you are going to try and grow some of your own food this year, make sure you check out that free webinar on the 8 most common gardening mistakes (and how to avoid them).

What gardening failures have YOU had? And what lessons have you learned from your experience?

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