While we were visiting North Carolina, Karen met up with one of her friends at a local coffee shop. I joined them, and her friend asked me an interesting question. Here’s a paraphrased version of the exchange.
Friend: So, here’s a question about gardening. Are there some people who just automatically fail at gardening? You know, like how some people are tone-deaf and can’t sing?
Jared: Absolutely not. To me, gardening is a lot like the movie Ratatouille (yes, I really went there…). I believe gardening is like the running quote in the movie, “Anyone can cook." Anyone CAN grow plants. The problem is they don’t fail enough. Have you ever cooked a recipe that failed?
Jared: Yea, we all have. But, when people fail, they don’t stop cooking or say I’ll never eat again, right?
Friend: Right, no.
Jared: The big problem that people have with plants is that instead of viewing them as a craft, they view them as pets. (She really engaged with this point). When a plant is purchased, there’s an emotional connection with it because you are now somewhat responsible for this organism’s life. You water it, light it, feed it, etc. Then, if or when the plant dies, they view it as failure instead of a learning opportunity. People tense up and instead of going through the pain of killing something, they say never again.
Jared: And, I get the affection. I’ll never forget when my last sprig of my late great-grandfather’s sage plant died. I was crushed, and talk about love for a plant! But, I’m not going to stop gardening because of that failure.
How many times have we gardeners had a form of this conversation with self-proclaimed brown thumbs, cactus killers, and funeral plant murders?
But, can these agents of plant death really not grow plants? I mean, I’ve had succulent leaves fall on my carpet and root with zero help on my part. (I promise I clean! It’s just when you overwinter 50 pots inside you miss a leaf or two on the floor...)
I don’t think killing plants indicates a lack of potential ability. Growing plants is something that one must learn. There must be a willingness to push through failure and see failure differently.
In so many other activities, time spent engaging with it is seen as practice. Working with the craft and learning from failure will make you better. But, the stumbling block for the amateur’s psyche is that plants are alive. They aren’t a smeared painting, a grounded model airplane, a foul ball, a flat home brew, a wobbly bench, or a sloppy batch of baklava, which is still delicious by the way.
If these inanimate objects fail, no big deal. Deconstruct and remake. Live and learn. But, plants... the compost heap means you’re a failure as a human being.
People know plants are living creatures, and they see them as pets. When they see this living thing die, they feel responsible, and they view it as a reflection on their character. And, to never relive failure again, they swear off growing plants.
As an educator, I asked how do we change this? I’ve had students day one indicate they can’t grow anything, and by the end of the semester their flora is thriving. Are there a few nuggets of knowledge and hope we can sow in people's minds to help them on their growing adventure?
FAIL MORE AND LEARN FROM FAILURE
If people are turned off to gardening because they “can’t keep anything alive," the problem I see is they don’t fail enough. Seth Godin talks about this concept with generating ideas, but it also extends into the world of crafts and hobbies. Often in crafts, we humans start looking for patterns to figure out what we are doing well. Growing plants is like taking up any hobby or activity. It’s unlikely you know how to do it the minute you jump on a bike or are thrown in the water, but you have to learn the motions. I would encourage those amateurs who feel they are plant-deaf to look for patterns.
You only grow plants in a dark room? Ok, that might be a problem because most plants need light.
You don’t have holes in your decorative containers? Ok, well that might be a problem because roots need oxygen.
You keep killing cacti that you think should be easy to grow? Ok, maybe you should try something else. Like basil. That actually is easy to grow.
Plants die, and that’s ok
Those of us who have leveled up in our horticulture powers have done so on the heaps of humus we've created. I say that because we’ve killed hundreds of thousands of plants in our lives. It’s ok! (I chuckled writing that because maybe we’ve just become numb to their suffering?)
Some species like sunflowers and poppies are programmed to die after they set seed. No matter what you do, they are already courting death right out of the womb. It's ok! They’ve evolved to do that. And, as you’re slaying plants left and right learning how to be a better gardener, their corpses don't clog the trash piles of the world like so many other hobbies and spending sprees. They compost and return to the circle of life (cue The Lion King intro music). It's ok!
ASK FOR HELP
We need to be there for people. Instead of being critical when someone thinks fertilizer really is plant food or when someone buys a painted succulent expecting it to stay that color, we need to help them out.
One reason I think we might be gardeners is because early on we had the serendipity of success that helped to propel our green thumbs forward. Maybe it was because we had a great-grandfather helping us plant tomatoes, or maybe a book on houseplants accelerated our knowledge.
But, what would have happened if everything you grew right out of the gate had failed? You might be quilting instead.
You have to fail to learn, and see failure as just that. A learning experience, not a measure of how good of a gardening guru you are.