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What Gardening Taught Me About Failure and Life

How it led me to focus on what really spoke to my heart.

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Woman reaching into her lush vegetable garden
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When I moved to Vermont, I assumed I would garden. Inspired by new neighbors and my social media feed, I imagined myself a countrywoman who browsed seed catalogs in February, warmed chicks in April and tended to vegetables and herbs in the long days of a too-short summer.

Living amidst dairy farms, corn fields and stands of sugar maples, sowing a home vegetable garden felt like the minimum requirement. My neighbors offered dill and zucchini from their abundant harvests, and the local farmer’s markets were an overflowing cornucopia through the summer and fall. To truly belong in my new community, I felt I had to dig my hands into the earth. So what if I was born without a green thumb?

My imaginary gardens were as beautiful as they were bountiful. Like daffodils under gritty spring snow, my agricultural ambitions sprouted with the warmer spring weather. My eyes twirled around the seed selection at the garden center — so many delectable illustrations arranged on spinning racks.

I pushed tiny seeds into dampened soil pods and left them on the dining room table to soak up the southerly sun. Little green stems popped through the dirt inside the tabletop greenhouses. Several seedlings shot up — long and leggy — before drooping and withering with a whimper.

I talked to the remaining specs of green. “We’re in this together!” I said, removing the plastic lids to give them air and room to grow. I knew what it was like to feel suffocated. It’s why I’d left my business career to become a writer — to grow and thrive.

My early attempts at writing, however, fell short of my ambitions. As I shifted what remained of the stunted, shriveling plants to follow the lengthening sun, I wondered if I should recycle my hopes for a writing career along with my stack of garden magazine dreams.

When an email arrived from Mary at nearby Joe’s Brook Farm announcing the opening of their farm stand, I slid into my still-shiny red rubber gardening clogs and dumped the peat moss seedling trays in the backyard compost bin.

As Lisa Olivera, author of Already Enough: A Path to Self-Acceptance, says, “Not every season is for thriving.” That summer, I would enjoy the sun-ripened heirlooms that Mary grew, and focus on what spoke to my heart — my writing.

I published a blog and worked to gain a following on social media. But, after months of effort and investing time and money in new software and webinars, I was far short of my goal.

Discouraged by my failing attempts to grow tomatoes and a writing career, I read Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani and followed her advice on self-acceptance and bouncing back from failure. First, I gave myself time to “shake it off," Taylor Swift dance-party style, taking a break from blogging and going for hikes in the mountains near my home — singing as I climbed higher toward the sun.

While in the woods, I was able to “reframe and realign,” as Saujani had also advised. Gardening was Mary’s life’s work, not mine. No one expected me to become a gardener — I had believed it was something I should do.

As a daughter, wife, mother and woman in business, I had been doing what I thought was expected of me for most of my life. The year I turned 60, why did I still believe I had to achieve success, in one way or another — and quickly?

Says Olivera in her Substack newsletter, “It sets us up for failure when we assume everyone around us expects us to forge forward without setbacks or slowdowns.”

I’d moved to Vermont to spend time hiking, bike riding and skiing. And I’d retired from business to cultivate my love of words, not vegetables.

I hadn’t ever allowed myself to slow down or stumble. And that summer, I realized I hadn’t allowed myself time to learn — not about seeds or the craft of writing. That’s why I felt like a failure. Like the plants I wish I’d been able to grow, I needed time and sunlight to thrive.

There’s an old-school thought that dealing with failure is like falling off a horse — get right back in the saddle to try again. In this spirit, I made a second attempt at gardening. When spring arrived, I turned soil and fertilizer into large plastic pots and added young tomato and basil plants. I was sweaty, bug-eaten and stiff from the effort, but I had put my hands deep into the dirt.

Over the summer, my delight as the tomatoes blossomed and blushed quickly turned to horror. The bottoms of the fruit were flat and moldy due to overwatering and poor drainage. I was tempted again to toss the lot into the compost, but I shook it off.

This time, I would use failure as a learning opportunity. With guidance from the Internet, I diagnosed the plant’s condition — blossom end rot — removed the damaged fruit, stripped the dead and yellowing leaves, and secured the drooping stalks to plastic stakes. I stabbed the base of the plastic containers multiple times with gardening shears to vent my frustration with the failing vines as much as to improve their drainage.

After a shower, I returned to my reading chair. Of all that I learned in my gardening attempts, the lesson I’ll keep closest to my heart comes from May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep. She wrote, “A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.”

I saved most of the rotting tomatoes, and the ones that grew later in the season were sweet and juicy in my dinner salad. I am still writing, but I have not had a garden since.

Do any of you like to garden? What do you grow? Let us know in the comments below.

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