On failures

Entire sweet potato harvest eaten by voles.

Another personality trait of mine (seeing as I seem to be throwing them around a lot lately) is I am the last person to ever admit I was wrong. Wait: Scratch that. I am prone to glossing over my failures. (There, that’s much more truthful.)

This hasn’t helped me in all situations, which is understandable. As a contributing member of The Working World, I realized early that admitting fault was actually an admirable trait, especially in one both young and female (in the old and male profession of architecture, that is). Now? Now I am past young, and am past the peculiarities of my chosen profession. Now, though, I wonder about the educational value of failure.

As humans, we learn by failing. It starts when we have the barest grasp of any ability. Fail to cry, fail to get soothed and fed: it’s an easy cause/effect lesson to learn as an infant. But perhaps the word “failure” is an awkward one on our tongues, as it is on mine: perhaps the word I should be using is more enabling, more encouraging, more…more of a soft landing. Like mistakes, like simple error.

In the mail last week I received my loaned-out copy of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The friend to whom I had loaned it is my best friend from college: she has just moved to the wilds of Athens, Georgia, and has recently voiced a putative interest in locavoreism. So I was curious what she thought of the book. “Not enough stories of failure,” said she. And it was true: this book, though wonderful, does gloss over the difficulties their family had in securing local food. Excepting turkey sex, this is a story of successes.

Failure on the farm is an easy prospect. With little knowledge and less skill, one can rapidly go through lots of money and time. Add to this the fickleness that is weather, one can lose whole crops of things. Failure, then, if it does nothing for the farmer, at least makes good copy: it makes an interesting story. Giants in the Earth this is not, though; I am no Ma Ingalls. My family’s very existence is not dependent upon my ability to extract things from our soil. But, without hubris, I can fairly say my family’s lives are made more interesting by the giants I find in our earth.

But failure, here on my own farm? Well! Take a glimpse at the mostly empty root cellar. (It’s the uninsulated back stairwell to the basement. A nice feature, incidentally, and an easy if inadvertent coldcellar.) NO Brussels sprouts, no Napa cabbage, just a few onions, no mounds of carrots. All these lovelies rotted in the ground in our wet, wet August with our heavy, icky soil. It’s the Brussels sprouts I most miss; at the time of the loss, I was well on my way to having my largest crop ever of 8 purple and 24 green plants. I have done what I can to secure their replacements from other local organic farms, and have no fear that we’ll starve. But am I disappointed? Damn straight I am.

10 responses to “On failures

  1. thank you for that. i’m de-lurking as a fellow glosser-overer. those were some hungry voles! more mistakes, please! ever notice that mistakes also make for better stories? love love your writing!

  2. During one of those typical teenage arguments, my mother once told me that my biggest problem was that I am one of those people who insist on learning everything the hard way. I don’t know if that’s “my biggest problem,” but it’s certainly true. And I also think that the only shame there is in making a mistake is in not learning from it. As such, I appreciate reading posts where people talk about their failures and getting through them as much as they talk about their successes.

    And frankly I am also kind of reassured to see that even people who seem to be living the kind of idyllic, self-sustaining life to which I aspire have a few failures in the garden. It eases my own anguish about my terrible brussels sprouts… I mean, are they even worth bothering to harvest if they’re only the size of a large pencil eraser? 😛

  3. Those dang voles….I had them in my yard, too. You were the one to identify them for me. Keep on trudging thru. Not getting stuff right ticks me off, too. I just have to tell myself over and over how I can do something different next time. Sounds easy, but is it? Not when you have varmints eating your stash.

  4. Okay, but you didn’t fail. The crops did.
    To everything there is a season, learn, learn, learn.

  5. I appreciate your honesty about your failures. A lot of my friends remark on what a green thumb I am. The only reason I have any reputation as such is because I’ve killed so many things that I know a lot about what not to do! We grew potatoes for the first time this year – we hardly harvested any. The opossums ate half of our tomato crop. Cucumber beatles kill our plants on a regular basis. I never have to hide zucchini in my friends’ cars or house! Gardening is easy….yet it is also so hard because there are so many times that no matter how much work or how hard you try, something happens to foul you up. It helps me to read about your successes and your failures. It makes me feel like I’m not so alone. 🙂

  6. But isn’t that the way of the garden? Each year, something thrives & something fails. It happens every time. Maybe next year the voles will forget where their free sweet potato lunch came from the year before, but perhaps something else will get eaten by other pests. Accepting the good with the bad is a BIG part of gardening, IMHO.

  7. Love this entry. Totally agree on the Kingsolver book. And am facing a garden filled with stilted, half-grown, mostly nibbled stuff right now. Yet more zinnias than I ever hoped for. Which means more butterflies and more bees. Which is its own joy, even if it doesn’t show up on my table.

    As for brussel sprouts, that was the first thing I bought from a farmers market (Union Square in NYC) so many years ago. I carried that stalk up an elevator in an office building and knew right then and there that my life had changed.

    As for your root cellar–beats mine!

  8. Lisa at Greenbow

    I’m with the thought that “we” don’t fail but the project/garden may do so. One cannot control the weather or pests. We can not only learn from failures, we can grow from failures.

  9. Great post. Timely for me too. Do I accept that I stuffed up when saving Tigerella tomato seeds last autumn – no germination after two attempts, or do I try to sow them one more time?

    Not sure if this is persistence or denial/refusal to accept failure? It’s a fine line.

  10. Marnie: glad you de-lurked! (I love it when people do that.) “Mistakes can be fun,” should be my motto.

    Kim: I appreciate the long way. But really, this is no idyll: there’s plenty of bumps in our road. Here’s a tip next year for your Brussels sprouts: around the end of August, cut off the top 6-8″ of the plant (above the first sprouts). The plant will put its energy into those lovely nubbins, and they’ll be huge by October. But certainly, you should eat those little guys. I can see them in a simple pasta with lots of lemon and butter.

    Frugalmom: we are often our own toughest critics, aren’t we? I’ve already armed myself for the next time I try to grow those sweet potatoes, but…you’re right, sometimes it is an uphill slog.

    CC: thank you for your perspective! And you’re quite right, of course.

    Kristina: thanks for commenting! Yes indeed nobody needs to see the carcasses of our plant failures. Notice for example I have not said a word about my perennial beds this year: they’re an abomination. But we should gladly accept the title of green thumb because only we know the real truth!

    Artemisia, oh yes, I agree. Mostly I have successes, and every year something else happens wherein I get completely turned around: I thought I could grow good xx, I think, but this year the bugs came. So if it has taught me anything, it has taught me not to write anything off. Except maybe Belgian endive.

    Pattie, I love your Brussels sprout story. I had a friend come for Thanksgiving last year and I sent her into the garden to pull up a plant, she came back in the house and said she needed help: she didn’t know what the stalks looked like. (And when I was in NYC a couple of weeks ago, I bought a couple of pounds of German White garlic from Union Sq farmers’ market: loads cheaper than getting it through the mail…but boy did my suitcase smell when I got home!)

    Lisa: Thank you thank you thank you. (I am one walking grown failure, I will have you know!)

    Nada: Try for one more shot. Maybe it just wasn’t warm enough. Or: just put them into a corner of your compost area, and they are SURE to sprout, as they seem to be so happy to do in mine!!!

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