Garden Guy column: Failure with plants can still mean growth, but in knowledge

·3 min read

“I have a brown thumb.” I expect whether we are gardeners or not, that most have heard a similar statement. Being an avid gardener, writing about gardening, teaching classes, and giving programs about gardening for many years, I have heard this or similar comments more times than I have complained about the wind, heat, and lack of moisture.

I’ve found that, in most cases, this is the way someone who is not interested in gardening shapes their response to the subject. I’m not into bird watching, but I know of no similar comment to make when it comes up. I’m forced to say that I am not interested in it. But there are also times when a gardener will use this statement, usually a new gardener who is in the process of learning.

Bob Hatton
Bob Hatton

Regardless, the statement hints at failure. For gardeners, that is normally the inability to reliably grow something successfully, the fact of having killed many plants, or a feeling that their gardens are not up to snuff. As such, I should have been using this phrase for years. But my attitude is better summarized by William Vaughn who, writing in the 16th century, said “The man around the corner keeps experimenting with new flowers every year and now has quite an extensive list of things he can’t grow”. Bingo. I am the man around the corner.

I have always maintained that gardening is art (the fine arts world doesn’t agree). The landscape is the canvas and the soil, soil amendments, weather, etc. are among the “tools” and variables to be considered by the artist in applying the plants (paint) to the canvas. Unlike a traditional painting, there is one uncontrollable factor – weather. Weather’s impact constantly changes challenging the garden artist to try to factor in and deal with its potential impact on the beauty of the “painting” each day for the duration of its life. A difficult and ever moving target.

In gardening the simplest “paintings”, not unlike finger painting many of us did as a child, are not difficult. But to progress to the various stages of more advanced gardening requires knowledge, practice, and the other things that one must have to do anything at a more proficient level. Like exercising, golf, oil painting, or anything else, the desire must be present to advance.

For gardeners who want to get more proficient, there is some level of desire. I would remind these folks that brown is also a color. Brown-eyed Susan is an example of this in a flower. In the gardening world most think of brown in terms of dead. I often refer to dead evergreen plants as “everbrowns”. So, think of your everbrowns as well as other gardening failures that end in the death of a plant, whatever the color it may be, as growth of knowledge. Furthermore, think in terms of needing to try that new knowledge more than once to be sure it is the correct knowledge.

“You never really know a plant until you’ve killed it three times.” Gardener’s old saying.

This article originally appeared on Amarillo Globe-News: Garden Guy column: Struggles with growing plants a hint at failure