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Owning up to garden failures

Alison Stewart

Alison Stewart

December 1, 2012

I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’ve just been re-reading parts of Samuel Pepys’s diary and have realised that the only point of any sort of diary or blog is to tell it warts and all, so here goes … the mini-herbaceous border in my rental garden in Edinburgh, stocked in May with free plants generously donated by my next-door neighbour, was a pretty comprehensive failure.

My failed herbaceous border

Purple Michaelmas daisy (including mildew)

What went wrong? Well, just about everything. I was spot on when I wondered whether competition from the tree roots would be a problem. Even in a wet summer, all the plants struggled. The Astilbes went brown and crispy at the edges, the Michaelmas daisies succumbed to mildew, and the heucheras failed to put on any growth at all. The bergenias hung in there – bless their little elephant ears – so maybe, just maybe, I will see some flowers on them next spring.

So it was a failure from a plant welfare point of view (just as well there is no plant version of the RSPCA, or they’d be onto me for cruelty). But it was also a planting scheme failure. I had no idea what most of the plants were when I put them in. My neighbour is a man of very few words, and none of them included the names of any of his kind donations. When they eventually flowered (which it took them at least three months to get round to) it turned out that, apart from the Astilbe (which I did recognise), and the heucheras and bergenias, which were my own plants, virtually all of them were members of the daisy family Compositae.

Pink Michaelmas diasy (I think)

This, I realised, explained why I didn’t recognise most of them: I don’t like daisies and never plant them (though I did make an exception for Anthemis tinctoria ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ in my Cambridge garden). It’s not daisy flowers I object to, but the plants they grow on, which mostly seem straggly and shapeless to me.





The one thing I did get right was my guesswork about which plants would be the tallest but it didn’t really save me because I didn’t stake them so they shot up and then flopped onto their shorter neighbours. They also developed unsightly fringes of yellowed leaves around their nether regions that were not effectively hidden by the plants in front.

I can’t really bring myself to show you more than one photo of my failed experiment – even Pepys didn’t have to illustrate his disasters. So I will fill in the space with cheating close-ups of some of the rather pretty flowers, angling the shots to conceal their browny-yellow, sprawling under-carriage (though even that tactic can’t hide the mildew on the purple Michaelmas daisy).

Oh well, it doesn’t matter really. All the plants were free so they didn’t owe me anything. And the strips of turf I removed to create the garden bed are doing very nicely thank you in their new home at Sherbrooke, our house and garden in the west of Scotland.


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Tammy Schmitt
11 years ago

Failure can be a beautiful lesson. If I had a dollar for every gardening disaster I’ve tended, I’d be a millionaire and would still be making money. Failure is only regrettable when we don’t learn from it. You’ll be all the wiser next year.

Alison Stewart
Alison Stewart
11 years ago
Reply to  Tammy Schmitt

Yes Tammy I’m sure you’re right. I suppose for me (as a would-be perfectionist) this failure is less devastating than it might otherwise have been because it’s a rental garden and we will be moving next July so someone else will have to live with it! It seemed more funny than anything else: “everything’s coming up … daisies”!

Johanna McDonald
Johanna McDonald
11 years ago

I have just had a different kind of failure.
I have just got home to Hobart Tasmania after a month in UK and SA and at the moment, it appears my whole garden is a failure. We have apparently had the hottest and driest November in memory. I didn’t reset my drip system to accomodate drought and heat and so my garden, beautiful before I left, is brown and withered. Rain is promised for this week, lets hope it happens. So a failure on my part to think through the what ifs, before going away.

Catherine Stewart
11 years ago

Oh dear, what a disappointing home-coming for you, after what sounds like a wonderful holiday! No doubt if you’d increased your watering, it would have rained every day instead! The only solutions are to either have a neighbour/friend look in and check all is OK, or upgrade your automatic watering system to one with soil moisture sensors. They’re expensive but it makes it a very efficient system. I hope your plants make a speedy recovery.

Alison S
Alison S
11 years ago

Poor you! I do really feel for you. Trying to guess the weather and conditions in advance and/or from a distance is just about impossible. But maybe it might not be as bad as you think? Plants have amazing powers of recovery. I’m sure that if you cut things back (where possible) and wait, you’ll discover that quite a lot of them have survived. Perhaps they’ll even flower, but just a bit later in the season.