The room was packed to overflowing with gardeners eager to hear all about our mistakes. Unlike the usual Yard Garden & Patio Show seminars, with glorious slide shows that inspire and educate the audience, our Blooper Panel of three garden columnists—Dulcy Mahar, Robb Rosser and myself—was a series of true confessions. Each of us told about our worst downfalls in the garden. Our misadventures along the perilous journey down the garden path were abundant.
Many of our first attempts were total disasters. Dulcy confessed that when she first began gardening, her flower borders “looked like two graves. Nobody told me about adding compost, and the plants did not prosper.” Later she learned about Kosher’s compost.
“It wasn’t blessed by rabbis—the gentleman’s name is Kosher,” she added. Soon the plants grew robust and all was well. Until she discovered that an entire bed of perennials was too flat. A trip to England shed light on that problem. She observed that borders included trees and shrubs, and she went home and inserted them into her borders. “Now there’s too much foliage and I need more perennials,” she added. It’s always something.
Dulcy’s first pond is legendary, the topic of many of her columns. The first pond was constructed in shade
“I’d forgotten that leaves fall off of trees into ponds,” she reminisced. Not only that, but since Dulcy, her husband Ted, and her three dogs all had short legs, she made the pond shallow to prevent drowning.
“But raccoons can wade. They decimated the pond liner,” she said.
Robb recounted his disaster with Coast of Maine fish fertilizer that he sprayed on the roses right before an open garden.
It can’t be that bad, he thought. But it was.
“It was ripe and pungent, like a salmon baking in the hot sun. People went up to sniff the roses and went, ‘Oh, my!’”
Gifts from well-meaning friends can become a gardener’s nightmare, like the two alpine goats, Harley and Davidson, that friends gave Robb for his birthday.
“Harley was the first animal I gave the heimlich maneuver to—he was a pig,” Robb recounted. Before the goats devoured his entire garden, he found a home for them with two teenagers. But the heartwarming moment was when he heard the goats crying out to him from the back of the truck, “Ddddddad!”
I received a gift of a dozen old rose bushes from an elderly woman who was dismantling her garden. Thrilled to get free scented roses, like ‘Madame Hardy’ I planted them enthusiastically in a big bed along the driveway, without a clue about how big they would get. Years later I fought my way inside the bed to dig out a five-foot-tall weed that had risen through the jungle of rose canes. Even with long sleeves, I could hardly get inside the thorny thicket, and nearly got stuck inside.
After a hard look at the situation, I hired a landscaper to dig out the roses, and brought in a truckload of composted manure. I planted my first low-maintenance border, layering Idesia trees, shrubs like Viburnum and Osmanthus, and drifts of hellebores, ferns and epimediums. It’s now my favorite bed in the garden.
Not to worry. Mistakes are great, they’re how we learn. It takes guts to risk failure. Gardeners are a brave and courageous tribe who keep on blundering, learning and laughing. If anything, we’re gardening more passionately than ever, possibly with a smidgeon more wisdom, but definitely with lots of gusto. Resisting is out of the question.
Dulcy’s final words of advice were “Don’t overly follow the rules,” and “Don’t be afraid to get just one of a kind (instead of groups of 3 or 5).”
She says she will continue to be “over the top.” Me too. A huge order of dahlias is coming soon. Smitten by the dahlias blooming in Swan Island’s fields last summer, I ordered dozens to take advantage of free shipping and bonus plants. Where the heck will I plant them?
But as Dulcy put it so well, about her decision to give up growing roses, and then ordering more (but only very disease resistant varieties), “I can’t help myself.”