Top 5 Dumb Gardening Mistakes of 2010

Top 5 Dumb Gardening Mistakes of 2010

Some of our Peterson Garden Grewbies

Some Peterson Garden Grewbies

Last weekend I was teaching a fall planting class for some of the gardeners at The Peterson Garden Project. And although enthusiastic and excited about fall planting, there was a lot of talk (and sadness) about “mistakes” and “if-onlys” from their summer gardens.

I had to smile and say that gardens are NEVER perfect. Every year brings challenges and dumb mistakes… And if perfection is part of your DNA then gardening might drive you stark raving mad… but America’s father of home gardening, Thomas Jefferson, put it more eloquently in his famous quote: “Although I am a old man, I am but a young gardener.”

So to make my “grewbies” (growing newbies) feel better, I thought I would catalog some of my stupidity for 2010 in the hope that they (and you) will laugh and maybe learn from my mistakes… and that sometimes mistakes can be classified as experiments and sometimes mistakes turn into genius… (not in my case but I’m sure it happens somewhere…)

IMG_4791Dumb Mistake #1

Make sure that the marker you use for your thirty four varieties of precious heirloom tomatoes, numerous eggplants, peppers, herbs, melons, squash and other heirloom treasures (that you have obsessed about, made excessive lists of and coddled in your garage for months) is fade proof. Enough said.

IMG_4810Dumb Mistake #2

In your enthusiasm to clean up the spring garden, let the things that have come back over winter stay put awhile. In a Tazmanian Devil-like frenzy I pulled most of these “scallions” that had over wintered. I missed a few which then turned into big fat bulb onions. It wouldn’t have hurt to let them stay awhile longer and after surviving a Chicago winter they probably deserved it… and I would have gotten more bulb onions.

Dumb Mistake #3IMG_4910

No matter how excited you are about something new that a gardening friend brings to your house one warm spring day, when that someone tells you that cane fruits (raspberry, blackberry, etc.) grow out of control, believe them. Put the shovel down and set the plant aside until you can do some research as to where they will grow best (and not kill your rhubarb).

Dumb Mistake #4

When trying a new variety for the first time, such as my current favorite, Trombetta il Begno from Renee’s Garden Seeds, follow the package instructions. In this case: eat when young.


A bonus dumb mistake in this category: when growing a new type of squash, one plant might be a good start vs. four.

IMG_5557Now here’s where a dumb mistake can be repeated and become “wisdom” the following garden season… Trombetta has amazing and plentiful blossoms. If you’re into stuffed squash blossoms, this is the plant for you! And it also seems to resist powdery mildew…

Dumb Mistake #4a (judgement call)

IMG_6160Again with the Trombetta… while intensive planting is great for small space urban gardening, the spring frenzy can sometimes make you plant things too close. And when you don’t know the growing habits of new plants, it can cause “issues”. This is the judgement call… tomatillos are normally monster space hogs in our garden and one is definitely enough (Top 5 Dumb Gardening Mistakes of 2008). We planted the four Trombetta and the tomatillos in the same bed. In this picture you can see the results of the Trombetta/ Tomatillo grudge match… Trombetta won. Over planting: maybe – tomatillo control: definitely.

Dumb Mistake #5

IMG_5466In the dead of winter while laying in bed with garden porn (seed catalogs) looking for everything with your favorite color (in my case purple) in a seed name, consider that if you grow those seeds you should have a plan for them once mature.

In the case of this lovely, and intimidating, purple okra:

  1. Do I know how to cook it?
  2. Do I know anyone else who knows how to cook it?
  3. Do I know anyone I can give it to?
  4. Can I feel guilt free forgetting to harvest the uncookable okra pods?

Thankfully, P. Allen Smith came to my rescue when he was filming at The Peterson Garden Project for his PBS show “Garden Home“. When I shyly revealed my yankee secret (“okra scares me”) he kindly suggested that dried, they make lovely fall decorations… thank you.

And, finally a bonus piece of advice… when a potential “mistake” turns out well you can call it “breaking the rules”. In this case Peter, hubby and Yarden-tender extraordinaire, gets the credit.

IMG_6081We have this nasty strip of land that I normally plant nasturtiums in (see my failed attempt at participating in the Seed Grow project – sorry Mr. Brown Thumb – for more details on this hell strip.) Peter suggested planting tomatoes there. I said an emphatic NO (bad soil, no water, neighbors will eat). As he sometimes does (and probably why we’re happily married) he ignored my suggestions and planted tomatoes anyway (when I was out of town). And, well, the picture says it all.

So, in conclusion, one more quote:

There is no gardening without humility.  Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder.  ~Alfred Austin

Gardening isn’t perfect. Just like people aren’t perfect but, luckily, there’s always another season to hope for the best…


  1. How about “climbing plants will climb.” If you don’t provide a trellis, they will migrate across the lawn and find the nearest tree, or stationary object (like your mother in law if she sits still long enough). Hours of painstaking melon-unwinding later (from the grass, the lovage, the broccoli, the beans, and the magnolia) I finally have gorgeous trellised melons.

  2. Enjoyed this immensely–I’ve learned a ton of plants that prefer full sun can actually do OK in part-shade. Rudbeckia can do pretty well in full shade!!

    For fade resistant tags I like grease pencil (or even pencil pencil) on old vinyl blinds.

    Your #5 resonates with me. I’m a crazy winter sower and always (always) plant more than I have room/plans for. In fact, I sitll have things in cell packs from back in May that I haven’t planted out. It’s amazing they’re still alive in those tiny spaces!!

    Whenever I teach, I *tell* people not to over sow. I KNOW I shouldn’t. But then you get all these seeds in swaps and seed packets beckon you in the store and, and, and…

  3. One of our local farms has a wonderful recipe for Grilled Okra (they got it from one of their customers)

    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    1 teaspoon sweet paprika
    1 teaspoon sugar
    1 teaspoon ground coriander
    1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    1/4 teaspoon celery seed
    1 pound fresh okra
    1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted, or olive oil

    Preheat the grill to high. Place the salt, paprika, sugar, coriander,
    black pepper, cayenne, and celery seed in a plastic bag.
    Rinse the okra under cold running water and blot dry with paper
    towels. Trim the tips off the stem ends of the okra but do not cut
    into the pods. Place the okra in a large mixing bowl, add the butter
    and toss to coat. Then add the okra to the spice bag and shake it
    until the okra is all coated. Put on the grill (I use skewers) about 4-
    5 mins per side, until browned all over.

    I didn’t have a grill handy, so I used a wok! The recipe if very forgiving.

  4. I love garden mistakes because they make wonderful compost. The best use for okra I have found yet… sometimes I think I grow things just so I can compost them… yep… there I admitted it.

  5. Wonderful post so pleased to know I’m in good company : ) Farmers and Ranchers always working to make next year better, so nice to have fellow gardeners in on it too… : ) Annie

  6. I have your okra solution, passed on from my Southern “mama.” You will love the crunchiness, the healthier alternative to traditional deep-fried okra, the ease of it, and the absolutely divine & inspired croutons they make as toppers in cups of tomato-basil bisque, coupled with scatterings of goat cheese. So, here we go. Let’s see if we can tame your okra phobia with easy crunchy, baked okra that tastes like fried without all the mess, trouble, and extra fat:

    •Cut up okra in slices while still young and pliable enough for a knife to cut (if too hard, throw away). Discard top hat parts.

    •Pour some flour into a large ziplock bag. Add the sliced okra and shake the bag while saying, “It’s shake and bake, and I helped” in the most Southern drawl you can manage. Make sure your okra slices are covered.

    •Pour some vegetable oil (about 4-5 tbsps. depending on the amount of okra you have) into a deep metal sheet cake pan. Put the oiled pan in a 375 degree oven to heat up for about 5-10 minutes. Pull it out of oven when you think oil is hot.

    •Using your hands, pick up some of the okra slices and sift the extra flour off. Put the okra in the hot sheet cake pan. Keep doing it until you’ve got everything in the pan. Using a big metal spoon, stir gently until you have a pretty fair oil coverage onto the okra. If too dry, add a little more oil.

    •Put back in the oven and check every 10 minutes or so, until the okra is lightly browned and crispy (but not shrunken and burnt crispy, although my father prefers his this way; I like it while slightly soft and crunchy). Usually takes about 30 minutes or so. If it’s taking longer, up your oven temp. a bit. When done, pull out and salt/stir while hot. You’re done!

  7. Tracy and Karen – thank you so much for sharing the okra recipes! I’ll think of you next summer when I’m happy to know what to do with okra now! Yay!

  8. Welcome! And thanks for sharing your recipes as well. The stacked tomato salad looks divine. Yum.

    I’m trying to soak up some garden wisdom from you, also, before this spring. We’re moving my chicken flock (oh, so hopefully) to another location after our barn is built, and I’ll get my raised-bed garden area back from them. They have thrived in there.

    After adopting our first child, I had a surprise pregnancy late-in-life (42). Developed an extreme aversion to all meat and strangely enough my beloved vegetables. Trouble was, I had spent months coddling heirloom plants from seed and planting my raised beds to the hilt. Beautiful Peter Rabbit lettuces and collards, among others, springing up…and me, retching just trying to walk through the gate.

    I couldn’t touch my chickens, or look at them, for almost 9 months as well. So we gave the chickens over to my garden and they made the soon ugly, weedy mess beautiful again. Ate everything green in sight. As you can imagine, I’m itching for a garden this year. But it all hinges on the finished barn/new coop area construction timing. It’s killing me, looking at all these great seed/garden catalogs. Trying not to order stuff, but I’ve got the “bug,” bad. I’m sure you can empathize. Geesh. :)

  9. One more thing and I’ll quit blathering. I made a mistake in my okra recipe above. I said flour when I meant cornmeal (sorry). Use finely-ground cornmeal, if you can find it. And don’t forget the salt at the end; very important to taste.

  10. MMMM, okra! I learned to hate the slimey stuff as a kid. We ate it southern style; battered in cornmeal and skillet fried. The only thing I thought it was good for was it’s beautiful flowers, never used enough in floral gardening. I have since discovered it’s most excellent flavor as a binder in seafood gumbo. And my all time favorite is Greek style; small baby pods baked in a tomato/onion sauce.
    Bon apetite!

  11. Summer 2011, I grew both Clemson spineless okra and a beautiful burgundy heirloom (from Seed Savers) variety in Minnesota. Burgundy was about a week earlier than the old favorite AND stayed smaller and more tender. I pick small, freeze them in a bag, and use in soups and stews. Will try the oven-baked recipe–maybe with a little Crab Boil seasoning! Thanks!

  12. Maybe enough okra recipes already… but I have to add that we never grew it in Ohio when I was a girl, but I got brave in my own gardening endeavors, and we have learned to love okra. Last year I canned okra slices with diced tomatoes and curry seasoning. It turned out deliciously good! You can just heat and serve, or use in a soup or rice dish. We have a lot of Indians in our church , and they love okra, so that was my inspiration for pairing it with curry.
    By the way…I am so glad that I have tried new plants in my garden. We have found several new “loves” that way. Wasn’t raised with kale either, but it is now a garden staple! Favorite recipe for kale is in soup with spicy sausage, chicken seasoning, potatoes, onions and kale.

  13. Bush tomatoes like cordon tomatoes need to have those annoying shoots pinched out. We ended up with no bush tomatoes and needed to practically go into our polytunnel with a weed whacker to remove the monstrous plants.

  14. Tht’s true Gardening isn’t perfect. Just like people aren’t perfect but, luckily, there’s always another season to hope for the best… !! Mistakes can be corrected..;)

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