Do Not Dispair

This squash succumbed to the squash vine borer. Depressing.

I want to discuss failure. There are many talented horticulturist in the world, and arid land climates like mine seem to produce a lot of them. You might consider that ironic due to the lack of water. But consider how difficult it is to ignore some of the spectacular succulents that only grow in climates like the Sonoran Desert.

In Tucson, there are many world-class, famous growers–famous at least in the plant world. I have been so very lucky to have spent time with many of these people, have worked with them on their own collections and in nurseries. I have sat down in intimate discussions about the taxonomy of favorite groups of plants, strange observations in the wild, discussions about familiar and unfamiliar species, and yes, we have discussed our successes and failures.

This seedling that was started indoors is etiolated (starved for light). Solution: get better grow lights.

The secret is that plant-freaks do kill plants. In fact they probably kill more plants than normal people because, well, they take more risks and just grow a lot more things. But true plant-freaks don’t dispair with failure. In fact, failure for scientists is success because it offers one the opportunity to observe the situation and assess what went wrong, bringing us more information about how to grow things, and how NOT to grow things.

Also, sometimes believing one is an expert or even somewhat knowledgeable about plants comes at a price. A few months ago I had a guest writer, Steev write about his success in growing and HARVESTING AND USING hops. Previous to this encounter if you asked me if hops could grow in Tucson, I would laugh and say, “no, try moving to Oregon”. My “knowledge” limited me from really knowing what is possible (and by the way, the beer he brewed from the hops was super delicious). Continually I am learning that I am just as much a beginner as anyone else, that all of us are much closer in skill-level than what is evident.

Hops growing in Tucson.

This is because there are so many elements in gardening that effect results. Each grower’s horticultural practices can vary so much from another’s, that seemingly similar growing conditions between two people can yield absolutely different end products.

Also, garden beds are often at various stages of development. What didn’t work last year may work the next because the biology in your soil is improving if you are following organic methods, and encouraging life to reproduce in your garden bed. Patience is perhaps one of the best tools a gardener can use because biology takes time to build.

Summer is coming up. I have heard so many complaints about summer growing: the heat causing tomatoes to stop fruiting, squash vine borers ruining gorgeously-growing squash vines, aphids and whitefly populations exploding, etc. And when it is over 100 degrees F. outside, those failures can cause one to want to just forgo summer growing.

However, those who keep slogging along through such failures and don’t give up are rewarded and come to love summer. For all the limitations that our climate puts on gardeners, there are triple the advantages. You must keep learning so you can utilize them. And keep asking questions:

  • What can I do to the garden bed to make it better?
  • What plants can I grow in summer that will do well?
  • How can I get ahead of the season next year?
  • What season does this plant like best?
  • What are the people who are doing well this season doing differently than I am?
  • What preventative measures can protect me against the summer pests that are driving me mad?
and most importantly…
  • What exactly went wrong?

This choi sum was planted too late and is bolting. Of course, it can be stir-fried, and is delicious anyway.

Most failures are very simple: there was a need that wasn’t met. Usually water, or sun exposure or not enough preparation. When you fail, decide what you will do the next time that will increase your likelihood of success. And stop whining…you must get used to failure because it will never end as long as you live on this planet. This might be true for everything, but it is certainly true about gardening.

And don’t be afraid to admit you failed. This gets more difficult the longer you have been gardening unless you are unusually humble. However, if you can forgo satisfying the ridiculous needs of the ego, you can discuss failures with your gardening peers (and all of us are peers) perhaps identifying what went wrong and what you can do better the next time. Unfortunately gardening also seems to breed know-it-alls. A little knowledge can be a really annoying trait in some people. I think we have all encountered this sort of gardener. Don’t be that person.

This tiny tomato seedling was planted in late march. It won't get big enough to produce before the summer heat hits.

Of course you can always pose questions here and we can explore the problem together. I also find the people at places like Arbico very helpful. Though they do have products to sell, but they also deal with solving these sorts of problems on a daily basis. Constantly read gardening books too. Even the ones that are geared for other climates can guide you to more understanding.

If there is any room for a tad bit of arrogance, use it in being diligent. Keep experimenting. Stay confident that you can accomplish your goals. I have found that if you keep experimenting, almost anything can grow for those of us who live in arid, warm climates. We just have to innovate new ways of growing things. Many of the horticultural practices that are common were created in wetter, cooler climates and we have yet to reinterpret many of them. Though over the past few decades there has been a lot of innovation, arid land growing is still in it’s infancy and this is exciting because there are still many discoveries to make. So keep plugging away, and don’t be a baby.


7 thoughts on “Do Not Dispair

  1. There is also a wild AZ Hops that you can find in the White Mountains I believe. The brewer in the house said you couldn’t use them for a whole recipe, but they add an interesting flavor.

    We tried growing hops a few years ago on the shady side of the beerzebo (yes, we have a structure called a beerzebo, what of it?) There were cascade, sentinel and magnum hops, but we had very limited success. While shady, the heat seemed to fry them, there didn’t seem to be enough we could do to keep them hydrated enough.

    • Regarding your experience with hops: without seeing exactly how it was growing it is difficult to diagnose. If you have any pictures this would help. We can go through some details if I can see the location you are trying to grow them in.

    • I like the idea of a beerzebo! Anyway, the thing with hops, I found, is just water them obsessively. of course it helps that I work from home and can check them frequently. True, the large amount of watering feels kind of wrong in the desert, but this is true of a lot of gardening here. all the more reason to get into rainwater harvesting and graywater…

  2. Great column. I don’t quite agree that every failure is just a problem to be solved. Well yes, it is; but there is something inevitable and integral about failing with arid gardening. Realizing how much of a crop invariably failed here was a humbling–and, dare I say, spiritual–lesson. The dialectic of success and failure is central to desert growing.

  3. Hey, great article. I am about to write a blogpost about my garden nemesis: crab grass, and this helped me to think that through. Grass management can be a form of failure as I’m sure you can relate to. It’s amazing to watch the natural selection that goes on at your property. I tried to grow some things from seed that i used to buy as transplants like peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and basil. The basil and eggplants never survived the transplanting into the ground yet I had things like tomatoes and cilantro voluntarily come up from last season. Interesting advice about not getting arrogant and that we are all closer in skill level than we think! Thanks again, check me out at

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