1. Plants die and it’s not always your fault
I always thought it was my fault plants die. I started gardening back in College, not extensively, but more like buying one of those “gardening packets” from Barns and Noble kids section, and wanting to grow elephant ears. I really hope I am not the only adult who did that. Some of those sprouted and I was watching them so closely everyday that they might have just died from over-exposure of my burning-eye-contact, as if I could see them growing visibly by staring at them. Well, they didn’t survive.
Then I moved on to planting roses in the front garden for my host family, without knowing there are many kinds of roses, and the long-stemed red roses sold in a bouquet is probably one of the hardest things to grow. Also, I bought them from Walmart, not the best source for plants as they may have transported a long way, from somewhere else where the climate is totally different. Well, surprisingly, out of the three, one of them still survived until my host family sold the house last year.
Since then, I moved to California, and killed many more succulents. I blamed myself for them as people told me “succulents were the easiest to take care of.” Well that is another lie (see point #9).
Eventually I moved to Arkansas, and planted an orchard, started my vegetable/herb garden and grew garlic, kale, tomatoes, carrots this year. I realized that plants die sometimes, and it’s not really your fault. It could be many things that kill the plant: pests (like aphids, these green little tiny devils, caterpelers, bright colored and with horns), fungi (like fire blight, what a horendous name!), rodents (those squirrels who ate my sunflowers), drought (sometimes no matter how much you water, it’s not gonna save the plants), soil (bad soil could make it hard or almost impossible to grow), temperature (too high, too low, too humid).
All of that to say, it’s not you! Sometimes it’s simply not the right environment for the plant. I used to beat myself up for it as if it’s my fault. Now I take the Darwin approach – stay back and observe, may the strongest plant survive. I don’t stress about watering my plants in the morning anymore. Surprisingly, gardening became more enjoyable because everything that actually survives and produces are cherry on top.
2. Plant a lot of backup seedlings
Now that we got the biggest one out of the way, the rest are how to deal with the fact that not all plants will survive. The easiest solution is to plant a lot of seeds. This is why one plant/flower produces SO MANY seeds. Because they know nature works in a way not every single seed would survive and sprout. So now, I sow multiple seeds in one pod, and I sow more than what I would transplant into the garden. This way, I have some “spares” if something doesn’t turn out. If certain seedlings are weaker, I can swap it out with a stronger plant as well.
3. Buy from a local/semi-local seed company
Don’t buy seeds from Walmart, Home Depot, or worse, Barns and Noble. Try to find a seed store that’s local (as in either the seed is from this local farm, or they obtained their seeds from somewhere that’s in the region). This will give you the highest chance of these seeds sprouting in your region (zone) AND survive. I buy seeds from Southern Exposure, and I look for the little sun icon to make sure that it’s especially well-suited to the South East region. For example, citrus trees, something that grows well in California is never going to survive in Arkansas.
I also bought a pack of carrot seeds from Home Depot once at the beginning of my gardening journey, and none of them sprouted. So, I thought carrots were hard to grow. This year, I decided to give it another shot, and bought seeds from Southern Exposure, they sprouted beautifully and this year I have tons of carrots to eat. It makes me wonder how long ago those Home Depot seeds were collected & kept in the store? Seeds do expire (die) after a while – they are less viable year after year. If you haven’t had success with a specific plant, try another source of seeds from a local company.
I also bought two paw paw trees from our local Arkansas orchard: Ames Orchard & Nursery last year and they’ve been surviving so far even though I haven’t babied them much. Having plants that are regional/local to your area would increase their survival and decrease the time spent tending to them.
4. Spiders and snakes are your friends!
Well, maybe not the ones you hug and cuddle with. But they keep the pests away. I have learned to speak with them like we are in the same platoon fighting the war against pests that invade my garden.
I got this big gal (see left) earlier in the summer (and she used to be a smaller gal until she caught a giant caterpillar and divoured it in a week). I looked up this type of spiders online and found they are not venomous. They are surely scary looking though!
I also found a garden snake a couple of times chilling underneath cardboards. I am not sure if it’s the same snake, but I call it “Nagini” 🙂 I find giving them names make me less afraid of them, and I realize they are important guests of my garden eco system!
5. Plan Plant Planogram
I learned from one of the gardeners either from youtube or spotify podcasts that they draw out their garden in advance, and plan out where all the crops would go, when they would be replaced by the next season crops. I started doing it this year, and it has greatly helped me realize that I need to lower my expectation of how many plants can be planted in one place. It also allowed me to have some room for their growth.
6. Be a laidback gardener
I used to stress out about my garden when I go on vacations. I feel anxious because I feel like everything would die and I would have come back to a dead backyard. It turns out plants are quite resilient. Sometimes, I even luck out on having more yields because I let the plants be. This year, I had to leave the house from May to August, and did not spend as much time tending to my garden. It definitely became a little unwielding when I came back, but it was not as bad as I imagined in my head. I still enjoyed plenty of harvests, including 5 lbs of garlic, with almost no effort at all. So why stress? Gardening is supposed to be fun and relaxing.
7. Experiment with homemade compost
Good soil is expensive, yet good soil is one of the biggest factor of successful gardening. The best way I’ve learned is to make homemade compost (whether with a tumbler, bokashi, or have a 3ft cube yard waste pile)
8. Collect seeds, even if it’s not heirloom
Heirloom – plants that are heirloom, meaning the seeds they produce will grow the same plant/fruit, are considered more desirable in the gardening community because you are saving tons of money every year by collecting your own seeds instead of buying new ones. However, for a beginner gardener like me, I haven’t kept track of things that are heirloom. Even with seeds that are not heirloom, it would be fun to plant and see what would grow!
Collecting seeds are great fun as I started to learn what each plant seeds look like as well. For example, I would’ve never knew calendula seeds were this jagged horseshoe shaped alien looking parts of the flower.
9. Succulents aren’t that “easy” depending on where you live
I now have grown a lot of vegetables out of seeds but I still struggle keeping succulents alive. The other day I inherited a bucket of succulents from my friend who’s neglected them for 3+ months and some of them were on the brink of death while others thrived. It occurred to me that a lot of the big box stores combine different types of plants together such as aloe that needs a decent amount of water with other succulents who only needs water once every month or so. No wonder some of them died while others thrived in the neglect.