The Garden Of Failure

Leaffooted bugs on an unripe orange picnic pepper

When I built out my garden last fall, failure terrified me. Any wilting leaf, any pest, any problem filled me with such dread. When you have a garden, you’re suddenly responsible for living creatures and the delicate, utterly mysterious balance between them. There’s also that old human bias that rears up in your gut: the anxiety around anything disorderly or on the downward slope of a life cycle. It all felt so intensely personal.

The motion of the seasons strips away that personalized garden anxiety, simply because there is so much going on, you cannot possibly be responsible for everything. And isn’t that an immense relief? Any attempt to overly control, any attempt at perfection ruins relationships, between the soil and the plants, the plants and the creatures, between yourself and the garden.

Right now, hornworms and leaffooted bugs are munching on the tomatoes and peppers in the garden. They aren’t in huge numbers, so it’s mostly manageable. Picking off the leaffooted bugs is a slapstick crime caper: they’re just a fingernail faster than the end of my fingers, scrambling to the other side of a leaf in their clever disguise (they’ll write songs about these Bonnies & Clydes). I’ve figured out a pincer technique—using two sticks or sharp pieces of mulch—to trap and kill them. I’ve become a General Patton of the garden, yet a loving one. I’m a general who sets about his murderous task not with enjoyment but with curiosity.

Tomato hornworms, though, are aliens from some hellish caterpillar galaxy. Because of their pale green color and bulbous shape, my eyes move past them quickly before my brain catches up: “hey, those aren’t cucumbers, those are bugs. Bugs that can crawl. Bugs that can crawl on my skin and infect my nightmares.” They have a single horn protruding from their forehead, an H.R. Giger-esque adaptation that allows them to easily pierce the skin of an unripe tomato, as well as the skin of my own deepest fears. They disgust me. My “technique” for getting rid of tomato hornworms is decidedly the opposite of what General Patton would do: I clip off the tomato branch they’re clinging to and fling the entire scene over the fence into the parking lot next door. I’m not proud of this. But putting as much distance between me and the hornworm seems to work on some primal level. Plus, they’re leaving the tomatoes alone now, perhaps frightened by the lunatic that would catapult them into the hornworm-equivalent of the stratosphere.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned pesticides until now. There’s a reason for this, deeper than my commitment to all-organic gardening (though that’s an important reason on its own). A pesticide changes your relationship with a garden, sometimes irrevocably. It prizes unthinking, uncaring, and big solutions over smaller ones. Above all, a pesticide is predicated on the erroneous belief that speed and efficiency are the greatest things in the world and must be pursued by any means necessary.

But you always pay for efficiency, even if you don’t realize it. Efficiency makes you believe that failure is unacceptable. That death is a mistake and is avoidable. That plant yield must be held on a pedestal. That your garden needs protection like some medieval fortress. That there are “bad” forces out to get you and your hard work. That it’s all about you, and everything else is an antagonist trying to personally prevent you from succeeding. Efficiency makes you believe that there is no time to learn and learning is not a good enough reason to do anything.

By not using a pesticide, I’m choosing to come face-to-face with failure. I’m choosing to allow failure and problems to slow me down so that I can begin to understand leaffooted bugs and tomato hornworms. I can begin to question my own dislike and disgust of some insects—is that my belief or somebody else’s? (Progress report: I’m still disgusted by hornworms.) By observing these pests, I can learn that there is an entire universe of things that eat them: ladybugs, spiders, green lacewings, wasps, and birds. And to invite those things into the garden, I can learn that I need to plant more calendula, chives, dill, cilantro, marigold, fennel, and much, much more. And each of those plants has likes and dislikes—as well as culinary uses for me—opening up other fascinating paths to venture down. Suddenly, the idea, the very possibility of my garden has expanded. There are more solutions than I could’ve imagined if I’d just chosen the efficient route. A pesticide now is a shortcut that cuts off your own knees.

There is the possibility that pests take over my garden and destroy my prized work. I say, let it happen. This is the only way to learn. Nature isn’t my enemy; it doesn’t give a shit about me. Isn’t that another relief?

Death and life in the garden live beyond our narrow understanding of failure and success. Things die and come back and die and come back; failure and success flow into one another and cannot be neatly contained like crop rows. They feed and depend on each other, living as something bigger than just binaries. Failure and success change into something whole, not disintegrated.