Why I Don’t Mind Being a Terrible Gardener

Sandbox Garden

We’ve lived in our house for just over six years. Before that, I’d had houseplants but didn’t have space for a garden. My thumbs were brown with a few specks of green.

Then we moved and became accidental gardeners. Well, sort-of-on-purpose accidental gardeners.

Our house had a giant sandbox in the backyard, and while luckily there weren’t any cats who made it their own, we didn’t have kids who could enjoy it either.

We contemplated using the space for a trampoline, but my creaky joints, lack of coordination, and experience patching up trampoline-related injuries in the emergency department nixed that idea. We also contemplated building a gazebo, but we already had a large covered porch.

Out of ideas, we polled our friends and family. There was a clear winner.

Our Garden Saga Begins

Baby GardenSo we borrowed a wheelbarrow to excavate the sand, and made a few bazillion trips to the Home Depot for soil and supplies. We even got a composter.

We added hundreds of seeds, several soaker hoses, and a timer, then stared obsessively at the dirt for a few months.


Garden BountyOur first year, we ended up with a forest of okra (that I forgot we planted and had to send pictures for my mother-in-law to identify) and an endless supply of cilantro and green onions. And three baby tomatoes and one strawberry.

Then THAT Happened…

Our next few years were not so successful.

Caterpillars demolished our tomato plants, and I tried to feed my husband tiny black ‘tomatoes’ that turned out to be weeds. Oops. Sorry, honey.

And rabbits, gophers, squirrels, and birds ate everything else.

We tried using posts and bird netting–which just got caught on everything and kept us out but didn’t deter the critters.  Covers made from PVC pipe and webbing seemed more promising, but the PVC melted in the heat and a Gremlin chewed right through the webbing.

More water was supposed to help our garden survive the scorching summers, but nearby tree roots invaded the garden and choked out our plants instead.

On To Plan B


We put our visitors to work.

While we struggled with the garden, we decided to plant trees in the rest of the yard– lime, orange, lemon, grapefruit, and apricot.

We got a few pieces of fruit the first year, then had a hard freeze and no harvest the second.

Then there were apricots!  Delicious, mouth-watering balls of sweet sunshine. And those dang gophers liked them too. The battle was on.

It turns out that a two-liter soda bottle with the top and bottom cut off and a slit up the side wraps around a small tree trunk well, and it keeps the gophers at bay. It also turns out that while a solar-powered fake owl will deter birds for exactly two weeks, CDs hung from the tree are much more effective.

A few years passed, and we now have limes nearly year-round, with other fruit ripening in the spring. Satisfied on that front, we turned our attention back to our pitiful garden.

And Plan C

Garden CThis year we built raised garden boxes, each with its own irrigation, and bought established plants rather than seeds. As I write, my husband is hanging a massive circus tent of bird netting with a doorway so we can enter easily and won’t have to peel it off the plants to care for them.

We also invested in a pH tester, azomite, and coconut coir, with inspiration from the Urban Farm and the Vegan Athlete.

Maybe it’s voodoo, but so far, so good. Maybe this will be the year we actually harvest more food than we could buy for what we spent on supplies.

Then I realized that’s not the point.

Realistic Expectations and Gratitude

We live in the freakin’ desert. I love it here and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but this is not the breadbasket of America and we are not homesteaders. My lovely Midwestern mother-in-law’s 8-ft tall tomato plants aren’t gonna happen in our backyard. We enjoy her delicious bounty when we visit, but our garden has another purpose.

It’s a hobby. We gladly spend a little money on exercise and fresh air when we’re backpacking, and gardening provides the same benefits and is more convenient. We can get our nature fix right outside the back door for five minutes or for hours. If it’s too cold or too hot outside, we can still enjoy it through the window.

We can get our hands dirty and smell the freshness of the herbs.

And as much as we love to hate them, we enjoy the critters too. On any given day, we see lizards doing push-ups as they show off for the gophers, squirrels, rabbits, and quail, which sometimes bring owls, coyotes, and bobcats. I’ll gladly sacrifice some garden bounty for a close-up view of a bobcat any day.

We no longer expect to harvest from everything we plant. Anything we can eat is a bonus, but the true purpose of our garden is to enjoy the process.

Have you almost ruined something you love by taking it too seriously and demanding too much? How did you learn to let go and enjoy the ride? And if you garden, please share your tips and tricks below.

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Comments 18

  1. Thanks for sharing your garden pictures! You told my story. Last year was my first really serious year as a gardener. And was I ever serious! I spent hours picking bugs and babying the plants. And the harvest wasn’t great. This year, I decided to stop picking the bugs and just let it be. Whatever the garden produced, we would happily consume, but if the bugs (or other critters) got to it first, so be it. We did lose our zucchini to squash bugs, but the rest of the harvest was much better than last year! (We are in the Midwest – and did have a few 8 foot tomato plants!)

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  2. I love this outlook. I used to have a little garden when I was up in Massachusetts where I grew tomatoes (among other things). I don’t like tomatoes. People were always confused by this and I was confused by their reactions. To me it felt obvious that you grew things because it was fun to grow things. I could give the tomatoes away or other folks in my family could eat them. It was never about the practicality of growing vegetables.

    Thanks for the harrowing tale. 🙂

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      Ooh! I’ll gladly eat your surplus tomatoes anytime 🙂
      We do a lot of things for fun that aren’t necessarily productive but are still worthwhile. My nieces aren’t into gardening, but they make art projects and cupcakes by the truckload. Some end up in the trash, but they get so much enjoyment out of the process that it’s still a win.

  3. “We no longer expect to harvest from everything we plant” – that’s a classic line – and one that I would have to use too if we ever did a garden! We don’t even own a houseplant right now because we can’t keep anything alive. Doing it as a project and something to have fun with is great and I like Matt’s idea too about giving things like tomatoes away too (because I agree with him – never liked tomatoes at all!)

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  4. Those raised beds are very impressive looking! We tried some container gardening from seedlings but they died. That was the only time. We decided to wait until we have a little land. We’ve got maybe 6 feet in between the homes here and an HOA to deal with. I’d love having an excess of tomatoes too, to try my hand at canning.

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      Oh man, you’re really upping the ante with canning! We dehydrate some herbs, but haven’t had enough of a surplus of anything else yet for long-term storage. I can understanding not wanting to deal with an HOA, though some cilantro, basil, or chives might even grow well in a windowsill. Best of luck with your future garden adventures.

  5. I wish I had room in our backyard for a garden. We live on a postage stamp of a yard and there is no room for one. In our next house though I hope to provide my wife with the garden that she desires. Plus some chickens to lay some eggs 🙂

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      Ooh, chickens sound like fun. Best of luck with those adventures too!
      For the gardening, though, have you tried windowsill herbs? Little pots in the kitchen eliminate the need for a trip to the store or even to your yard.

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  6. Ha! As a perfectionist, I think I have done this with every passion, interest, hobby, and job of mine. It’s taken me nearly a decade to be comfortable with detours and totally “unproductive” moments in teaching. I used to think it was a sign that I was failing if a student would raise his hand and instead of sharing an insight would tell a joke. Now, I realize that it’s not a sign that I’m a bad teacher. It’s a sign that kids are humans and they think I have or need a sense of humor!

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      It’s also hard for me to remember that everyone needs breaks and to not take life so seriously. I have friends who actually took up smoking so they’d get to take smoke breaks! I’m not recommending that, but encouraging short breaks and jokes sounds like a great idea. Maybe you could even challenge them to visit the library or Google for (school-appropriate) jokes and have a contest each week. I’ll start: why was the jalapeno wearing a sweater? He was a little chili…

  7. Gardening in the desert definitely speaks to you determination!
    We’ve had successes and failures in our garden every year, and learn what works and what doesn’t. We’ve also figured that some things are more economical to buy than try to grow in the space we have (onions, potatoes, & carrots, to name a few).
    Luckily, my wife works part time on an organic farm at a local camp in the summers, so if something doesn’t work out, we can usually get it at the farm for free. My brother’s girlfriend also runs an organic farm, so we’re able to stock up when we visit. We just returned from our Thanksgiving trip with around 60 lbs. of sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, and potatoes.
    Our cat is doing a great job ridding our yard of voles – last year, before we got him, tons of plants just disappeared overnight!
    All in all, gardening has been a wonderful family activity for us and helps keep us stocked with food all year.

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      For us, the greens are super-inexpensive at Costco, so we limit garden space for them. Herbs, on the other hand, are very pricey and luckily they grow well here.
      How fun it must be (along with a lot of work!) to work on a farm. Enjoy your Thanksgiving trip bounty- that sounds like a soup or stew waiting to happen. Do you mind if we borrow your cat for our gophers?

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