A Beautiful Failure: Gardening From Mistake to Mistake

A DAHLIA DISASTER is looming. It has the potential to be a colossal gardening failure on my part and is already a crushing disappointment. Crushing, but not career-ending. If in fact every single one of the twenty-five dahlia plants which I started from tubers (in the bathtub) meets an early and untimely death in our breakfast room, I will pick up my gardening ego and carry on.

I have done it before and I will do it again because I am stubborn, and because I think half the time I cause these problems by moving too fast, planting too much, trying to squeeze too much out of too little. And I don’t think I’m ever going to stop being this way. The only good news is that I’ve learned to accept the outcome. Sobriety has definitely taught me this. And that you only have so much control over things. (Well, actually very little control. Especially when it comes to nature.)

However, if whatever pariah is affecting the dahlias (could be spider mites, could be potting soil with too much nitrogen, could be a temperature swing or a moisture thing, a virus, or God knows what) migrates to the tomato seedlings (which are looking spindly and a little droopy), I will have to beat myself up just a little.

The problem is that I started way too many things indoors, everything grew super-fast under the new lights, and the weather is still too cold to move anything outside, even during the day. So I am using limited window light to provide plants that need a lot of sun with, well, not enough sun. I should absolutely know better. And just because I am always wishing I had a greenhouse, that doesn’t mean that one is going to magically appear this instant. I should really rig up a little temporary plastic hoop structure outside, but I haven’t had time to do it yet. 

Seedlings are survivors though (yay, we love survivors – tough cookies!) and my bet is that most of the vegetables, zinnias, cosmos, Thai basil, etc., will power through the less-than-ideal conditions inside and make the transition to the outdoors in a couple weeks.

The dahlias are a different story. One morning at the breakfast table I looked over at the leaves curling on most of the plants and headed for the internet (a frustrating activity if there ever was one. No two dahlia growers agree on anything). By dinner that night I told my partner that I thought the dahlias might all have spider mites (probably from our house plants) and that it might be nearly impossible to eradicate. He looked at my face, and I know he thought I was going to cry. He offered every possible kind of positive encouragement, including suggesting we buy dahlia plants from a local nursery to replace them. He knew how much fun I’d been having planning the dahlia garden – lists and charts and pictures cut out of catalogues – and he’d been planning (still is!) to build me a new raised bed just for these flowers.

We decided we’d simply have to wait and see. So far some still look okay, but several are looking worse, and others that were just starting to leaf out are now relegated to a different part of the house in the hopes that they won’t get contaminated (if in fact it is a virus). They will be the first to go out to the little temporary plastic-covered holding area if I can get going on it. 

If we do lose some or all of the dahlias, we’ll replace some with whatever similar varieties I can find at the nurseries, though certainly not 25 plants (they are pricey!), and sadly it will be hard to find the exact same ones which I chose for color and shape. Maybe in the future I’ll give up on trying to start dahlias inside to get a jump on these gorgeous blooms. But probably not. I’ll come up with what I hope will be a better way to do it next year.

Dahlia Parkland Glory from last year.

I’m fascinated by the amount of failure I am willing to tolerate when it comes to gardening. You could toss it off to the familiar adages about failures adding up to success, etc., etc. But I think there is another reason I put myself through this: I enjoy the process, the doing, the thinking, the reading, the trying, the puzzling, the planting, the watching, the coddling. I like engaging this way so much that even if things don’t work out, I’m still happy. (Some people enjoy banging their heads against the wall repeatedly!)

So I guess I’d have to agree with Winston Churchill:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

P.S. Sorry for the late delivery this week. I had my second vaccination yesterday. But now that it’s Sunday, I can wish you Happy Mother’s Day.

Last year, I paired a little Bishop dahlia with Thai basil and annual pennisetum in a container on the deck. It turned out to be a nice combo, though little Bishop grew quite tall!


Visit cookthevineyard.comand sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

If you arrived here from the internet and would like to subscribe to the Sixburnersue blog, click here.

12 thoughts on “A Beautiful Failure: Gardening From Mistake to Mistake”

  1. Ah, but think of the pleasure your survivors, heroes all, will give you. I cheer them along!

  2. Debbie, Thank you so much. That is an excellent idea and I will check in with them. I am envious that you are a Master Gardener — would love to make time to do study for that. Take care and thanks again, Susie

  3. I smiled to see your ‘set-up’ as mine is basically a mirror image of it! Including faaaaar too many flower+herb seeds, 2 dahlia survivors from last year + 5 new purchases, 5 overwintered geraniums and petunia cuttings (first time effort) from the container I optimistically bought 2 weeks ago when the weather WAS mild. Every morning I haul them outside, in the hopes that the brisk temps combined with rain showers will keep the nasty bugs at bay.
    Two more quotes for you: Hope springs eternal in the gardener’s heart. (Do not know who to attribute)
    Thank goodness for the COVID restrictions on drop-in visiting. (Me)
    Best of luck with your garden!

  4. Jenneke! I love that you have a similar setup to mine and understand the craziness. I have 5 overwintered geraniums too and they got so big! Good for you for doing petunia cuttings — very cool. I bought some neem oil today and if I have time am going to attempt to wash the leaves (outside) of some of these plants and then spray them. OY! P.s. I love BOTH of those quotes! Thanks for being in touch, Susie

  5. Dahlias….sigh…the queen of flowers. Your struggles with them remind me of a relationship gone bad. They start out with such promise, then curl up and stop talking the moment they see something they don’t like: spider mites. Keep sweet talking them — I sure do love them although my yard is too shady for me to grow — and we’ll be following your progress. Thanks for posting!

  6. I feel your pain. Dahlias are the most frustrating! Every year I wonder why I plant them and swear it’s the very last time. Then summer comes and they’re so exquisite that I just can’t resist making plans for ‘next year.’
    Hang in there. As you say, at the very least you’ll learn something and will do better in the future.
    Love your posts!!

  7. Deborah — I love that analogy! Too funny. Well a friend came over today and she thinks they just need to get outside (stressing from too little light and maybe inconsistent water)– they may not have spider mites so cross your fingers!! Will keep you posted.

  8. Hi Amy,

    I know it does make you wonder why we bang our heads against the wall, but honestly, those blooms — so gorgeous! I am determined to learn how to do this right but I suspect that a greenhouse or hoophouse is really a much better place to start these than inside a house! Will keep you posted!

  9. Hi Susie, I started laughing when I saw the first picture of all your plants, very impressive!! I think you need to move back to NORTH CAROLINA so you can have a longer growing season! But hang in there, I bet many of your plants will survive!!
    Happy Spring xoxo melanie

  10. Melanie, That is not a bad idea! Ha! But truly I am certifiably insane (but we knew that). I do think some of the dahlias will live. I moved the youngest ones out under plastic today.

    But I sure do miss spring in North Carolina. You’ll be in your bathing suits by the time we finally take our polar fleece off! xoxo

Comments are closed.