The Beauty in Our Failures

Caitlin Elicker
15 Min Read

When it comes to gardening, I jumped in feet first. I had played around with gardening in my teenage years to miraculous failure. I thought it was a good idea to use Rubbermaid containers as raised beds, however, I didn’t think they needed water, ever, and my little sprouts dried up faster than a slug in Death Valley.

After that homesteading failure, I didn’t try gardeing again until I bought my first house in my mid-twenties. I moved into the house in early spring and honestly didn’t put much thought into planting a garden. That is until a Friday at around 11 AM, in the middle of my work day, that I thought, “I MUST put a garden in right this second!”

I ended up leaving work in the middle of the day, going to Lowes and buying $100 worth of plants, borrowing my neighbor’s roto-tiller, and picking a random spot in my yard to till up for my garden. The spot was around 8 ft by 8 ft, and in that space, I planted multiple zucchinis, onions, corn, a pumpkin, strawberries, and a tomato.

Experienced gardeners are laughing at me right now because that was WAY too many plants for the small amount of space I had, but by golly, I was going to do it! I didn’t add any amendments to my soil when I planted, I just lightly tilled and threw plants in the ground. I did construct a tacky fence to protect the space and this time I did water! By the end of the summer, I had harvested one mid-size zucchini, three strawberries, and a handful of medium-sized pumpkins.

As expected, the pumpkins quickly took over the space. The onions and corn didn’t stand a chance. The tomatoes split on the plant and my zucchini just never thrived. I was a bit bummed that I spent $100 and did all that work but it hadn’t produced much of anything. The next year, I was going to do better, this I promised myself.

When I bought my house, the previous owners had cut down a massive maple tree and left the ugly stump in the ground. I hated it and wanted it gone, but didn’t know the first thing about trying to remove it. My sweet neighbors had a tree of theirs cut down during the following spring, and they generously ground up my trunk for me.

That next weekend, my dad and I, using leftover retaining wall blocks, built a large circular raised bed around the sawdust. To the sawdust, I added some bagged soil and some bagged manure, and then I planted my garden. That time, I grew zucchini, bush green beans, three different types of tomatoes, and a few pepper varieties. I had so much success that year. Everything flourished and I was ecstatic! With every harvest, my passion for gardening was growing. I can still remember the swell of pride I got when I harvested something. (I still get it every time I harvest something. That feeling never goes away).

I had such a great experience, I decided to grow my skills. The next year, I was going to start my plants from scratch! I spent the fall and early spring building an entirely new, bigger garden in preparation for this next year. It was going to be epic, I was positive. How could it not be? Did you see my harvest from this year? Clearly, I had learned everything I needed to know about gardening.

That next March, I bought some seeds and some seed trays. My boyfriend bought me a small grow light, (because I thought a south-facing window would be just fine), and I got to work. First, I filled my seed trays with my tomatoes. Half of them sprouted. In the cells where the tomatoes didn’t sprout, I planted my bell pepper seeds. I was surprised when they sprouted, and they looked exactly like the tomatoes. “Pepper seedlings must look like tomatoes when they are young,” I kept telling myself.

When I up-planted all the seedlings, I made sure to keep the tomatoes and peppers separate. I had twelve tomato plants and nine pepper plants. I did my research on how to harden off my seedlings and prepare them for planting in the garden.

By planting time in early May, my plants were tiny, nowhere near the size they should be as compared to the plants at the lawn and garden centers. My peppers still looked like tomatoes and I finally came to the conclusion that my peppers were in fact tomatoes.

After doing some reading, I determined that, for peppers to germinate, they needed heated soil, which I did not offer my seeds. With that bit of knowledge on its own, I should have known that these were all tomato seeds because I didn’t offer my peppers what they needed. But in my desire to just jump in and do it, I didn’t have the knowledge I should have had.

I am one of those gardeners that cannot intentionally kill plants. I refuse. So, I planted all twenty-some tomatoes in my new garden rather than throw any away. It took up the entire garden and that is all I could grow. Because my tomatoes were so puny when they went in, they did not thrive that summer. They stayed small, they produced sickly fruit… it was nothing short of a waste.

Meanwhile, I saw everyone around me having success with their vegetable gardens and it ignited a passion in me. I would not have another year when my garden wasn’t successful. I spent that entire summer pouring myself into anything and everything gardening. I bought books that I read cover to cover. I devoured YouTube garden videos and I learned a ton of things about growing food. I sat and I planned the next year’s garden. I daydreamed about everything I was going to grow. I learned what each plant needed in each stage of its life. This tomato-only garden that was such a massive failure ignited a fire in me that I still haven’t extinguished.

The next year, I successfully grew all my own plants from seed. I grew over 200 varieties that were healthy, attractive plants. In addition to all my tomatoes, I grew peppers (for real this time), zucchini, butternut squash, cucumber, bush beans, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and more.

I bought real grow lights and fertilizers. The whole process took over my entire dining room, but it filled me with such joy. I learned when the best time was to put my plants in the ground and I did it perfectly. I had some failures, that’s totally normal. I loved my garlic too much that I drowned it, and my onions rotted in their beds just days after planting. But all my other plants did great. They went into the ground and the heavens shined down on them. They were growing wonderfully, until the end of June, when a big maple tree came down on my garden.

When I tell you I cried, that’s an understatement. This garden was not only a showcase of my work and devotion to learn everything I could over the last year, but it was also a major outlet to help me heal from a breakup. I had poured everything I was into these plants, and into this garden. I made beautiful unique signposts to identify each plant, and I bought garden sculptures to make the garden even more beautiful. And one light wind brought down a massive tree on all my love and hard work.

I should be ashamed to say this, but I’m not because I loved my plants: as soon as that tree came down, I was out crawling in through the branches, trying to see if the plants survived. I tried to pull out everything that I could, but it wasn’t much use. I kept telling myself that the plants were fine. We just had to get the tree off the plants without hurting them, and my garden would be beautiful again.

When the cleanup people came, I told them there was a garden under the tree with plants I had been babying for months. These people were clearly not Plant People. When they were done, not a single plant had survived. They had destroyed everything in my garden. The plants were gone, the cute signs I made were gone, and everything had been destroyed.

I allowed myself some woe-is-me time while they worked, but the second they were done, I ran to the store. I texted my friends and neighbors and gave them a list of plants I needed so they could be on the lookout. Even though it was late in the season, I was not going to have another harvest-less year. The same day they took the tree, I got new plants in the ground. It wasn’t everything I originally had, and I paid way more money than I should have, but I got them in the ground. Over the next few weeks, I poured my love into them.

It was hard watching everyone else harvest fruit when I should have been, too, but since I got such a late start, I didn’t start harvesting until August. But when I did, it all came in. I made goals back in January of everything I wanted to preserve and can from the garden, and this garden, which went through so much in the year, achieved every goal I had set.

I was able to can over 300 jars of food and freeze pounds of vegetables. It was the biggest success yet; what started out as just a fun hobby has become a full-fledged obsession.  To top it off, our normal frost date is the first weekend in October. This year, it got pushed back until the first weekend in November. So that initial month of growing I lost due to the tree, I gained back due to the late frost.

When I finally put the garden to bed, I grabbed a glass of wine, sat on my patio, and just marveled at it. It’s over ten times the size of my initial garden that very first year but this garden produced so much food. It’s hard not to feel blessed and amazed at what a little bit of dirt can grow. I spent the summer trying to make the garden pretty again, and, even though I’m the one who fertilized the plants and watered, etc., I can’t help but sit back and look at my garden and say, “You did good.” I fertilized all my beds and covered them up for winter because this garden has earned a well-deserved rest.

I have had a lot of gardening failures along the way. But those failures taught me something each and every time. I will never forget the year I grew 20-plus tomato plants that didn’t produce any edible fruit. Or the year I thought it would be a good idea to plant pumpkin plants in with the rest of my garden, as though the vines wouldn’t take over the whole thing.

It was through these failures that I became the gardener I am now. My friends call me the Garden Witch and it’s a name I love. I have spent so much time figuring out where I’ve gone wrong and why that I now have the answers to help other people who are struggling. The knowledge I’ve gained through my failures is so much more than the knowledge I’ve gained from my successes, and it is those failures that have made me the best gardener I can be, for now. It is through my failures that I have become the gardener that I am today, and for that, I will forever be thankful.  Don’t be afraid to fail. It is during our failures, that we grow and learn and become who we are meant to be.

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