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My Garden Mistakes

I have been working on the rocks in the arbor garden. Again. They are dry-stacked to form low walls enclosing the planting beds, and I have been tinkering with them ever since I began this particular garden in 2009. After seven years I should have gotten them right, and maybe now I will. I have changed the shape of the planting areas several times, not knowing exactly what was wrong. This year I realized that rather than giving definition to the planting beds, my wimpy outline was merely a suggestion. I needed bigger rocks and more of them. I have also been resetting the large flagstones that form the patio area under the wooden arbor, bringing in bags and bags of sand and leveling the stones. I am not finished yet, but already I am happier with the whole space. Here is what it looks like today, in progress:

It is obvious that I did not know what I was doing when I began. If I had hired a stone mason, it would have been money well spent.

I tend to dive into a project with the gusto and optimism of inexperience and come out the other end humbled and much wiser. You bet I have made plenty of gardening mistakes over the years.

I have planted plants too close together, only to remove half of them when they began to encroach upon one another. This has not always been my fault. These dwarf Yaupon Hollies planted in the front garden, shown in the foreground here, grew twice as large as the three feet claimed on the tag:Now I know labels give averages for mature plants; the actual ultimate size depends on many factors.

I once planted something called Viburnum augustifolium. It had lovely evergreen leaves, but I had no idea about its habits. It grew to about thirty feet tall. I came to call it Cancer Tree, because it produced abundant underground runners, which sent up new trees in all directions, rapidly metastasizing into nearby planting areas. Unchecked, this thing could have colonized the planet. We cut it down, and years later we are still spraying herbicide on new sprouts. 

I watched a parade of hydrangeas and azaleas choke to death on my clay soil before a wise woman told me to improve the soil by adding lots of soil conditioner to my planting holes. Wow! What a difference this has made. I also discovered that my soil is going to be acidic no matter what I do. I can sweeten it temporarily by adding lime, but it is easier to plant acid-loving plants, or else grow the plants in raised beds or pots. 

One mistake that did not happen: Originally, I almost painted my little woodland bridge brown! I debated over the color, thinking blue would be too bold for its wooded setting. But I wanted blue; and once I put it in place, I knew it was just right. Even in the depths of winter, it brightens the area, and it compliments the moss path perfectly:

So do I regret all the mistakes? Certainly I hate to waste money. Education and prior experience help to minimize blunders, but "mistakes" are going to happen in the garden. Gardens are as individual as their makers, and the books don't cover everything. I have learned not to moan too much over my mistakes, but to learn from them. It is all part of the process.

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Reader Comments (22)

Dear Deb, first I want to say that I do really love your Arbor Garden with the dry-stacked walls and the flag stone paving. I think it looks spectacular right now! It must have been very hard work to get all the stones in place.
I also love your blue little bridge and agree with you, brown would not have been nearly as nice as this color. The light blue makes the bridge stand out, but it is not in your face or garish.
Over the years I have become much more relaxed with making mistakes in my garden. I think you simply can't avoid them for the reasons that you mentioned. I see my garden as a dynamic entity where adjustments and corrections have to be made constantly. The climate change, which is so obvious here in San Diego, may force us into a completely different way of gardening in the long run anyway. For example, lawns in general may become a thing of the past. In my garden hydrangeas, which grew well here once, are now a mistake, since they simply can't cope with the heat and the drought anymore.
Happy Valentine's Day,

February 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterchristina

I made the dwarf yaupon mistake too! It is funny - they say you learn from your mistakes and I vowed to not repeat them in the new garden. But I find myself wanting to start planting the same things again! I love the terraced area. I think you did a great job.

February 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPhillip

I'm glad you braved the blue for the bridge! I think of my mistakes as part of the gardening education process, with the money spent on plants that didn't work out as tuition for the school of experience. ;-)

February 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJean

I adore your blue bridge! I have a tendency to jump into projects with a great deal of enthusiasm and a modicum of information so I can sympathize with the mistakes made in the process of building a garden. If given a choice, I want to handle projects on my own - or with the assistance of my ever-patient husband - even when hiring someone with expertise (and more muscle!) would be advisable. But it is perhaps the way we learn best so, in the end, not a waste of time.

February 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKris P

I view mistakes as an essential part of being a gardener, particularly as I am still getting to know this new garden. Like you, I tend to hurl myself in to new landscaping projects, even more so now that I am well enough to tackle bigger jobs, but I do occasionally think that I would do better to employ a professional. I had a go at using some stone removed from the central bed in my front garden to edge a border, but without cement it would just fall apart - or be too big for the look that I want. And I don't want cement. I am full of admiration for what you have achieved with your raised stone-edged beds and patio. As for soil amendment, I have only just realised, three years on, that with very free draining soil it really is essential to mulch in order to retain moisure in the dry spells, even if I am growing plants that are supposed to thrive on poor free draining soils. I am hoping that copious amounts of compost will allow me to grow salvias and keep them alive for more than a season...

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJanet/Plantaliscious

Making mistakes is definitely part of the process! When people tell me that they don't have a green thumb, I tell them that I only look like I have a green thumb because I grow more plants than I kill. But at least as gardeners we (usually) enjoy the journey! Your stones look beautiful in your garden, and I've always loved your little blue bridge!

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

'I tend to dive into a project with the gusto and optimism of inexperience and come out the other end humbled and much wiser. ' These words are my gardening mantra. Boy that has been how I have gardened for about 8 years here. Now onto learning more and improving upon my mistakes. Love the look of the stones. I'd say you got it right!

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

There are no mistakes, there are only moments that teach us new things.; some lessons just take a bit longer...Your garden is so gorgeous, I really appreciate those bits of advice and tips you share.

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie@Seattle Trekker

Truer words have never been written. Your garden looks lovely even in winter.

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLisa at Greenbow

As long as we learn from our mistakes and aren't rendered destitute, all is well. I love your little blue bridge. Brown would have been too blah for that spot.

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

Your garden is looking lovely and I think we are sometimes our own worst critics. If a garden never changed it wouldn't be much fun, and there is always something good about having new ventures to look forward to!

I'm an enthusiastic 'blue in the garden' fan, for me it's pots.

The mistake that nudges me now, is too many plants, too close together.
And cancer trees - the ones we had cut down and poisoned keep coming back to haunt me with cute little bunches of sprouts. GRRRumble!

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Studer

Sometimes I wish I had acidic soil. I would plant loads of blueberries!! :)

I've made countless mistakes and I'm quite sure I have countless more still ahead...

I learned my lesson quickly on some alien invasives that spread too fast. Since then I've become much more keen on planting natives or near-natives (plants that are native regionally, even if not to my immediate neck of the woods). I figure if they escape the garden at least they're unlikely to cause a major environmental catastrophe! :P

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Dalton

Blue really was the perfect choice. Glad brown was not the color. Many folks plant too close, even some professionals do it on purpose, knowing the plants will be removed. I find this bad practice, but they do it to make the price of the job higher, and also to look more full when the job is finished.

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

I loved this post! (enthusiastic clapping!) First, your garden is an absolute joy and so beautifully tended and evidently loved! I am so glad that I am not the only one who dives head first into projects without a pause, but maybe it's just because we love what we do and can't wait to get going! The arbor garden is so beautiful and I have always loved your bridge. I am very happy that it is blue! :-)
- Kate

February 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKate R

Deb, I have made numerous mistakes over the years, generally took pleasure in sorting things out at a later date. No doubt I am still making mistakes, like, tree planting, I guess someone else can worry about that somewhere down the line.
off to have another go at adding your blog to my list.

February 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

This sounds pretty familiar. Mistakes are part of the learning process, as you say. I have done some hardscape projects - paths, raised beds - that really should have been done by a pro.

February 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Like you, I am one to jump into projects without a plan. I've paid for my impatience many times! One mistake I consistently make is to plant things willy-nilly, where ever I find an open spot, only to discover that I've put a short plant in a place where it hides behind a much taller plant. Sigh.

February 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

Your post and comments from other readers prove that gardening is all about experience of our own particular little paradise and that experience comes from making mistakes (or should do anyway) as you rightly say books can't tell us everything. The more extreme the conditions the faster you have to learn. Your beautiful garden shows how much you have learned over the years and I'm sure it wouldn't be as magical as it is if you hadn't made some mistakes along the way.

February 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Hi Deb. I admire you for diving into projects with the gusto and optimism of inexperience. That's probably why your garden is so beautiful. Making mistakes is worth it if it makes us humble and wise.

February 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

Books only teach you so much then you just have to get out there learn by doing. I have made many of the same type of mistakes you describe. I think my biggest regret is all the plants I have lost. So much money wasted! It is smart not to fit the conditions you have in your garden, but I still plant things that need more moisture than our summers here provide. I am a slow learner!!
I don't remember seeing the part of the garden with the wooden arbor or perhaps it looks different at this time of year or from this angle. The arbor is a nice feature and the area around it really looks like it is coming together.

February 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

The arbor area looks beautiful, and looks like it took a lot of work.

I've made sooo many mistakes gardening. Some I'm afraid to admit to on my blog because they were literally stupid. LOL I think everybody plants things too close together. Who wants to wait years for a bed to fill in, and how do you know all of it will live? That's how I justify it anyway.

February 25, 2016 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

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