If you spend any time on the internet reading about gardening (or any topic, for that matter) you’re familiar with articles with titles like, “31 Foolproof Edibles for Beginning Gardeners” or “Top 5 Easiest Edibles to Grow.” These listicles are usually accompanied by flawless photos of lush gardens designed to solicit a “pin it” response—and a whole lot of Google ads.
Without getting into the potential unreliability of information found in random internet articles, I can say one thing for certain: there’s no such thing as a foolproof plant. True, some edibles are easier to grow than others. But I’ve killed mint, and it’s commonly thought of as an invasive plant. There’s nothing like inadvertently killing a garden thug to make you humble.
The appeal of the low-maintenance garden
And yet there’s a whole industry built to sell us on the idea of a low-maintenance landscape. Products that promise to eliminate time spent weeding and watering. To make planting faster, and the plants themselves more—here’s that word again—foolproof. I see the rise in popularity of low- or “no-maintenance” (ha!) landscapes as part of a simultaneous trend: the one where you’re supposed to do everything perfectly, yet have it all look effortless.
There’s nothing like inadvertently killing a garden thug to make you humble.”
I’m not sure where we got the idea that we could have our perfect, no-maintenance gardens and eat them, too. When I first started growing food, I expected to be able to put a seed in a pot, water it regularly, and harvest a bushel of cucumbers in two months’ time. And that was pre-Pinterest. I pity—no, am upset for—those new gardeners who fall into the same trap. After all, they’ve read the articles! They’re planting the “Top 10 No-Fail Vegetables” as decreed somewhere online. They’re enthusiastic, earnest. I want them to succeed.
Failing better every year
Unfortunately, there are so many ways to fail. When my cucumber plant struggled through that first summer, producing yellowish leaves and only one measly, mealy cucurbit, I did some research. And as when researching any garden symptom, I came up with an inconclusive list of possible pests, diseases, and soil problems. It was only years—and many cucumber plants—later that I finally learned what I’d probably done wrong.
The caveat to any “easy to grow” claim is that basic conditions have to be met, yet different plants have their own distinct needs—their own definition of “basic conditions.” “Easy” sun-loving plants will fail to fruit or succumb to mildew if planted in the shade. “Effortless” salad greens will wilt or crisp in the blazing sun. “Foolproof” cucumber will be unhappy grown in sterile potting mix without benefit of compost or fertilizer. Even mint—the ultimate fail-safe—will die if kept, root bound, in a too-small pot.
The good news is that failure leads to learning. Trial and error—lots of error—leads to fewer errors. Not every year will be a good gardening year. Not every sure-fire crop will thrive. But with enough mistakes, eventually you get to a place where those easiest-plant lists actually ring somewhat true—and at the very least, if you do kill something said to be “foolproof,” you’ve got a pretty good idea why.