Appreciate Your Garden Mistakes

A correctly sited needle palm – something that I don’t always do. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

I’m a firm believer that gardening mistakes are necessary as this is one of the best ways to discover what you like and more importantly, what you dislike. I have several plants that, through trial and error I simply do not care for – but I certainly didn’t know this when I first started out. I want the garden to reflect the owner’s likes and dislikes; this is why I find many professionally designed gardens rather boring.

I can honestly say that I wrote the book on gardening mistakes. I’ve sited smaller plants behind larger ones. I have planted (always unknowingly) monster plants that wanted to overtake the world. I have been known to provide inadequate room for some plants, such as one of my Rhapidophyllum hystrix, a needle palm. Several Master Gardeners view my garden as a mere collection of plants, i.e., filled with mistakes; this is okay by me as we all have different opinions about what constitutes a garden. Just realize that for many of us, we gradually discover our opinions through trial and error.

Our aim should be to create a garden that pleases us, not the neighbors down the street. If you are gardening to keep up with the Joneses or gardening because it will increase the value of your house, then in my world, you are on the losing end of gardening. No, I want to see someone who experiments, who tries different plants because they want to learn more about what they like and dislike and who will daringly test out different color combinations. This trial-and-error method to my mind is simply the best teacher of all.

Over the years my garden has consisted of a mass of mistakes. I have chosen plants, such as Stachys byzantina, aka Lamb’s Ear, that failed to perform as I had hoped. Lamb’s Ear either multiplies when it’s happy or settles down each winter into a soggy, disintegrating mess, both conditions being unacceptable to me. My cannas traveled past their borders while a particular Euphorbia decided to emulate Putin in its desire to conquer foreign lands. This taught me that those plants with a Napoleonic complex are not for me.

I have had to buy more stakes than I care to admit in order to support some of my plants. Baptisia flops in my garden as do some Phlox and Echinacea. It slowly dawned on me that (1) in my good soil, flopping is a problem; and (2) staking is one of my least favorite gardening tasks. Therefore, I tend to purchase plants that carry the word “sturdy” in their description.

Now, most plants have both pleasant and unpleasant side effects so you have to weigh these pros and cons. I’m a huge fan of the hardy orchid, Bletilla striata, but it does have a downside: Many varieties, including the ones I possess, want to bloom in late March. While I love these harbingers of spring, often we get one of those dreaded cold spells that can stop the forthcoming blooms in their tracks. There are two ways around this problem: (1) either select varieties that bloom later; or (2) accept the risks knowing sometimes you will lose out.

One major mistake I made occurred when I somehow managed to forget that crinums are bulbs; as with all bulbs, it’s important to allow the foliage to wither away. We once cut back Crinum ‘Super Ellen’ – and it took her two years to decide whether she had joined a nice family or one that mistreated her. Crinums, with their withered stalks, look dreadful in the winter, yet if you’re going to have them grace your garden for half the year, you have to put up with their winter fright.

Another major mistake I made dealt with the use of color in the garden. Now, gardens are made for color, of course. I planted a long row of magenta-colored azaleas because I knew I liked the color magenta, despite Gertrude Jekyll’s taboo. The result was two weeks of a blinding row of magenta before settling back into a green nothingness that took up a lot of real estate.

What did I learn? Blobs of color, no matter the color, tend not work for me. Go by the large development downtown on Hillsborough Street where the landscape designer (if they used one) used two or three different plants throughout the buildings along the street, thereby creating blobs of meaningless color.

Since this azalea blunder, I try to use color by concentrating on single plants or groups of three to set off the color. The one spot I do not follow this dictum consist of two large plots, lately vacated by Phlox panicula ‘John Fanick’, that will soon hold P. paniculata ‘Jeana’. I can cope with two splashes of color in this particular area as my eye needs a rest in the garden. The color is subtle, which also helps.

Realize your mistakes are precisely that: yours. They belong to you, not others so wear them proudly. A dear friend of mine has a Camellia japonica at the end of her sidewalk. Now this camellia wants to burst forth into an unruly profile whereas my friend desires a contained shape. For years, when it becomes slightly messy, she prunes it back, regardless of the season. Consequently, this handsome creature with shiny green leaves rarely (if ever) blooms. For me this would count as an error; for my friend, she has a pleasing end to her sidewalk – so this is no mistake.

I firmly believe that mistakes are defined by the eyes of the beholder. What I deem to be an error, others may well conclude, is a success.

Through experience, you will discover what works for you, whether it’s shape, form, or color. When something doesn’t work, learn by it. And remember, you may prefer what others deem to be a mistake so wear your mistakes proudly.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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