Last spring, Paige Wolf embraced the growing season with a green thumb and good intentions. After years of container gardening, she decided that it was time to tend a plot in her backyard, living out the urban idyll that, with increasing peer pressure, has practically become a lifestyle requirement.
Wolf, a 33-year-old who runs a public-relations company in Philadelphia, created a backyard garden measuring about five feet by four feet. She planted tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, dill, oregano, parsley and mint.
"Two tomatoes came really early in the season and then never again. Every now and then, I would get a bean and it would immediately shrivel up and die," Wolf says. As for the dill, oregano and parsley, she says, "none of that ever came out of the ground."
Committed to gardening without pesticides, Wolf also had to deal with the challenges that come with that route. "I know that successful organic gardening is very possible. However, in my case, slugs ate everything," she says. Except, of course, the mint, which "just sprawled throughout the garden."
By early September, Wolf took to her blog to, as she wrote, "admit to myself and the world that my garden is a failure." And what a failure, at least in her telling. From that same blog post: "It is currently a dank, dark mosquito and slug lair with arbitrary vines tangled about. I am a little bit scared of it and when people offer me a few of their organically gardened fruits, I cry."
The charms of gardening have always tugged at the imagination, but it now carries with it a cultural cachet as never before. Homesteading, slow food, eco-friendliness and locavore living – identity choices as much as they are lifestyle ones – all dovetail in gardening. Besides, it's hard to watch chef Jamie Oliver on television strolling through his perfectly kept garden, snipping dinner off the vine, and not wonder how great life would be if you had that.
The problem is not all the reasons that make gardening so appealing. The problem is that so many of us fail to recognize just how much work it takes to get it right before we invest our money and time.
"Everybody wants a garden, but nobody wants to garden," says Ellen Novack, co-author of Gardening from a Hammock.
So it's no surprise that so many people's big plans in the spring – not to mention big purchases at garden centres – become massive failures by the end of the summer. Gardening can begin with great expectations, which, like an overgrown plant, often need to be scaled back.
"People who don't have the time or the energy, they'll start enthusiastically and then life gets in the way," Novack says.
Sheree Rasmussen is the co-owner of Inside and Out Garden Design, in Toronto. Many of her younger clients – most of them couples with young children living in their first home – practically feel obliged to have a vegetable patch even if they do not have the time to tend it.
"A lot of them have almost like a guilt thing, like they feel like they should have a little section to grow their own veggies," she says. "Many of our clients want that incorporated and then they just can't do it."
To those whose available time or skills do not match their ambitions, gardening experts advise dealing with epic fails by simply scaling back next spring. Helen Battersby, a garden coach in Toronto, suggests starting with a plot of land no bigger than two feet by two feet. "And then maybe next year you make it not four by four, but two and a half by two and a half," she says. Too often, people overextend themselves and soon find they do not have the time for the necessary upkeep. Build slowly.
Perhaps most important, do not take failures too seriously. Even experienced gardeners make their share of mistakes each year. "It's not just new gardeners who don't always realize everything they hoped for in the spring," says Steven Biggs, a garden writer in Toronto. "Don't be a total perfectionist."
As for Wolf, she is not going to give up the dream of successful vegetable gardening.
Seeing all her friends post their own success stories on Facebook is driving her kind of crazy right now, she says, but there is always next year. And as an author – she has already written a book on raising children in what she calls the age of "environmental guilt"– she says she may have found the subject for her next book: "homesteading for dummies."
Too much power
We all know the importance of weeding and watering, but Janice Miller-Young, a Calgary gardening coach, says it's just as important to think about your soil as it is to think about what you are planting.
She recently visited a couple who had complete crop failure this year. "It turned out they were rototilling their soil every spring," she says. That can damage the soil's structure and destroy beneficial organisms. "If you're starting a new garden, you might want to rototill once at the beginning, but that's it. The guy, of course, was very disappointed he couldn't use the power tool any more in the spring."
If you do want to loosen up your soil next spring, try turning it over in large clumps with a gardening fork, Miller-Young suggests.