Why Completely Failing at Gardening is a Sure Sign of a Great Gardener – Transformative Gardening, Part 1

A Late Summer Permaculture Harvest at Lillie HouseWhenever there’s a completely failed, overgrown weedy tangle of an abandoned garden, I know I’ve discovered a gifted high value gardener with true natural intelligence, just waiting to flower.

It’s the surest sign there is.

As I am a natural gardening teacher and Permaculture designer, these poor discouraged gardeners frequently seek me out at social gatherings for a sort of gardening confession and penance.

If you listen carefully, you can hear keen insights and clever observations through their exasperated sighs, gnashing of teeth, wails of garden guilt:

“It’s been two seasons since my last confession…”

“I just couldn’t keep up with it… it was too much work…”

“I got sick/went on vacation/had a wedding to plan and everything just got overrun with weeds and pests.”

“It’s just too expensive for me right now.”

“I just never figure out how to get enough produce.”

“I just don’t have a green thumb…”

You see the wisdom yet?

And if one commiserates and presses further even greater insights emerge: guilty stories of accidentally injured wildlife in the battle against nature, discomfort over weeding, how family members wouldn’t help, the perception that it’s all too complicated, each crop, pest and weed requiring some specific bit of knowledge, the right tool, the right product to buy, and it all just takes too much work and the yields are never worth it.

All their garden dreams have never lived up to reality.

Dream vs. Reality
The tectonic friction between dreams and reality, paraphrasing author Richard Grant’s Tex and Molly

The plain but hidden truth these “failed” gardeners have intuited is that those conventional gardening systems are not designed to work well for the gardener.

Like many things in the era of hyper commodification, conventional gardening is no longer a thing we do, it’s something we’re supposed to consume: products from Home Despot, expert services, trademarked corporate seeds, chemicals, fertilizers, plastics, and industrial materials.

Thus in every failed garden consumer who’s given up on this gardening edition of the rat race, there’s a naturalist genius who has intuited this key piece of eternal wisdom, in the words of my stepdad:

“That don’t make no sense.”

And it’s why one gardener, after doing “everything right” and tracking his inputs and outputs, discovered his home-grown tomatoes cost $30 a piece.

Another wise grower! (This is so common I got this message while writing this post!)

On top of that whole industry trying to erect as many paywalls between you and your own tomato as possible, the whole paradigm is geared towards gross productivity, no matter the costs. Why? Because historically, that was measurable, and thus salable.

These conventional systems and techniques are optimized for giant commercial farms using whatever vast amounts of tax-subsidized energy, corporate products, resources, plastics, low-cost labor, and chemicals necessary in order to maximize yields – even at a loss (often, 400 calories of inputs for every 1 calorie it produces!) But they just don’t work well on a more human scale, and they cost too much: Increased exposure to toxins, exploited land, increased pollution, stress, wasted time, resources, and income….

“That don’t make no sense!”

For any gardener or farmer who isn’t being subsidized by tax payers, exploited labor and land, “gross productivity” is usually counter-productive to their real goals and dreams that do make sense. These are usually things like: saving or even making money, living sustainability, growing healthy food, relaxing with nature, teaching the kids about growing food, etc.

The first step in the adventure of wise gardening is to intuit these problems, and let go of the things that aren’t working to meet our actual goals! The second is to refocus on our own goals, more holistic goals that actually make sense. In addition to the things above, the most important goal for most growers who aren’t industrial farms is Return on Investment, or ROI. It’s not how much we can max out production, it’s about getting as much food as we can actually use back for as little time and cost as possible.

And so, a whole movement of “alternative” farming and gardening methods and techniques has grown up to help provide better paths. At their best, these focus on this issue of ROI, better meeting needs. Of course – careful! – these can easily be over-commodified, and centralized too.

So, at Lillie House, we feel like the next stage of development, of ecological succession for a saner food system, is to get very precise about helping people set their goals and really getting good at helping people to meet them themselves. For the last few years, we’ve been working and consulting with some of the most inspiring natural gardeners, farmers and Permaculturists to figure out how to do that.

In part 2, we’re going to lay out our curriculum for truly high value, transformative gardening, a path that frees the intuition, and helps us learn the things that will really help us accomplish our gardening (and living) goals.

4 thoughts on “Why Completely Failing at Gardening is a Sure Sign of a Great Gardener – Transformative Gardening, Part 1

  1. Thanks Mike! I love the way you think! It is also important to stress that a home grown tomato is a completely different product that a store bought tomato. Yes, you can go to the farmer’s market and buy organic, heirloom tomatoes for $8/lb. and they’re pretty nearly the same as the one you might grow in the backyard. And if you really don’t like puttering, starting seeds, creating your own compost, etc, tomatoes probably aren’t the crop for you.

    The cool thing is, there are plenty of perennial crops that take so much less attention! To take one example, in my climate (and yours) an Asian pear tree, planted and properly mulched, costs maybe $50 (including mulch) and takes maybe 3 hours to purchase and carefully plant. Here in New England, if you mulch it right, you may not even need to water it! Five years from now, that tree will be producing hundreds of pears with maybe 5 hours of yearly maintenance, plus the time it takes to pick the fruit. Stored correctly, some varieties, like the Korean Giant, will last for 9 months. Organic Asian pears sell for more than $1.50 apiece. Tell me that’s not a good deal?

    Personally, I just love homegrown tomatoes. I don’t care that they’re cheaper in the store. I’d rather grow my own so I can eat them, for two months, directly off the vine without thinking about pesticides, nutrient loss, poor labor practices, fossil fuel consumption, irradiation, packaging, etc, etc. When I factor all those things into the equation, it just feels better to plant my own.


    1. All good comments! Most of the tomatoes in the pic at the top of this piece? I didn’t buy seeds, didn’t plant them, didn’t fertilize, stake, prune, irrigate or tend them. All I did is pick them, clean, beautiful, totally organic heirloom tomatoes with zero inputs…. Pretty good ROI! Maybe even better than my Asian pears… maybe…

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