Friday, November 9, 2012

25 Gardening Mistakes That I Made in 2012!

I am not shy about admitting my errors in the hopes that others may learn from them.

Here are a list of plants that I trialed this year that either completely failed or did not grow as well as I had hoped. I have listed pros and cons where I felt the results were mixed.

1)  Abelmoschus esculentus, Okra, Emerald variety - Almost all the plants failed to thrive. I only harvested one okra pod - and that was from a plant that I transplanted. Not sure if the problem was the variety (I had much better success with Clemson Spineless last year) or the soil in the raised bed which seemed to become very hard and heavy this year. I dismantled that raised bed and practically had to use a pickaxe to break up the soil so that I could plant buffalo grass.

Aquilegia vulgaris "Winky" - The leaves actually look quite pretty now, but I've found that the foliage deteriorates rapidly especially in hot weather. If you cut it back, it will regenerate nicely. I had to cut this plant to the ground twice during the growing season to keep the foliage looking nice. I wonder if this process of needing to regenerate foliage all the time will exhaust the plant?
2) Aquilegia vulgaris, Columbine, "Winky" variety - The species Columbine is supposed to attract hummingbirds, but I didn't see any on either of my two Winky plants. I liked the long bloom season in the spring (around four weeks, maybe longer) and the foliage starts out really pretty, but it soon gets tattered and torn. I do like how you can cut the foliage down to the ground and it will resprout and look good in no time (though the plant will not rebloom). Perhaps the bloom would have lasted even longer if I had deadheaded the flowers, but I wanted the plant to produce seeds, which I tried scattering throughout a couple of my landscaped beds. I'm eager to see whether I get new plants next year. If the plant resows, I may consider it a success. I don't consider this an abject failures. I guess I'm still on the fence with Winky and will Aquilegia in general.

Pay no attention to the green weedy-looking plants covering the ground. Most are self-sown Calendula officinalis or Evening Stock (and a few are weeds). Try to focus on this few small vertical sticks in the middle of the photo. That's Aronia (Chokeberry). Supposed to be a small tree. It's not there yet. Maybe next year? It does have hints of pretty fall color.
3) Aronia, Chokeberry - I purchased three plants via mail order in quart-size pots. I got tiny bare sticks that seemed to really struggle in the heat and humidity of a Tennessee summer, even in partial shade. (The partial shade still received sun all morning and until 1 or 2 p.m. in the heat of the summer, and that might have been just too much for the little plants.) The good news is that they all survived, but they didn't grow much. Again, I'm on the fence with these. I have high hopes for next year. My mistake, I think, was to buy such small plants via mail order. If I could go back, I'd try to buy one or two larger plants and get them in the ground in the autumn to provide them with time to settle in. (The price at my favorite local nursery for a 3-gallon potted plant is only around double the price of the tiny quart-size plant I foolishly bought.) Apparently, Aronia's natural habitat is wet woods and swamps, so it may just not like being planted on a hilltop property. But I'm not giving up quite yet.

Callicarpa americana, American Beautyberry - Yep, it's the stick in the middle of the photo. No berries, not much beauty.

4) Callicarpa americana, American Beautyberry - Another tiny quart-size mail order plant. I tried it in a full-sun windy location where it constantly looked on the verge of death. With lots of supplemental water, it survived our scorching summer. I relocated it in September to a half-shade location in the front border. It didn't seem all that happy about being transplanted and dropped its leaves soon after, but we'll see if it comes back next year. Even if it does survive, I'm don't think I like the plant enough aesthetically to recommend it. The flowers are tiny. The leaves and form are unremarkable. The purple berries are nice, although small and they did not persist into winter nearly as long as I had thought they would. (I don't think any birds ate them, I think they just shriveled up and dropped off the plant.) A disappointment, but one that I'm not ready to shovel prune quite yet.

Calycanthus floridus, Carolina Allspice, Sweetshrub -- It's not surprising when the leaves look like this in autumn, but Calycanthus' leaves curled up and died throughout the year. Not good.

5) Calycanthus floridus, Carolina Allspice, Sweetshrub - Yet another tiny quart-size mail order plant. Even in a partial sun Eastern facing bed, it looked miserable most of the summer. It would put out a new leaf and then that leaf would curl up and die. At one point, I thought it was mostly dead, so I cut the small plant back nearly to the ground to see what would happen. That actually seemed to help. It put out a new branch with healthier-looking foliage. Of course, it stayed pretty small, but it seemed a little stronger near the end of the growing season and even had a bit of nice color change to yellow on the foliage. I'm on the fence with this one too. Wish I had bought a larger plant to start (could have bought a 3-gallon for $30 instead of a quart for $11). I learned a lot this year about being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Not only did most of the plants fail to grow as quickly as I had thought they might, I think they had a much harder time settling in than if I had bought a bigger plant with a more established root system. And whatever size I bought, I'm thinking I probably should have planted in autumn 2011 to give the plants lots of time to settle in and establish roots before the hot summer weather set in. (Of course, I had not yet finished tearing out the previous landscaping in Autumn 2011. I always feel like I am doing things at the Wrong Time in the garden, but I'm trying to learn better as I go along.)

Clematis integrifolia, Solitary clematis - Not a big fan of the twisty green leaves and you can see those brown stems radiating outwards. Are they dead? I'm not sure. As described below, the flowers have an interesting appearance, but the bloom time was short in my garden and I don't feel like the plant pulls its weight the rest of the year.

6) Clematis integrifolia - A queer little plant, sprawling, sickly looking twisted foliage. Eventually it did have a brief bloom period, but the flowers were so downcast and low to the ground that I can't say they added much ornamental value. Nor do I ever recall seeing a single bee or butterfly at the flowers, so the plant did not seem to add much wildlife value. For a while, it looked as though the plant would root along its stems, but eventually it seemed to give up that notion and just die back. It has greened up in the center again this autumn, but I'm still far from impressed. I'm tempted to shovel prune it, but since I don't need the space right now, I'll probably let it be. That said, I can't see myself ever planting it again or recommending it to anyone.

7) Coreopsis - Supposed to be easy to grow. Supposed to attract butterflies to the flowers and birds to the seeds. I didn't see any birds or butterflies, and the plant generally failed to thrive. When it did send up flowers, I thought they looked weedy and common. Yellow flowers are not my favorites anyway and these scarcely looked different from dandelions. Or maybe worse than dandelions since the flowers didn't last long and the dead ones persisted on the plant. (I have a strong dislike for plants that require deadheading to look decent.) I haven't seen the coreopsis in months. I think it got covered up by the triumphant French Marigolds, plus some leaning cosmos and zinnias. I'll be interested to see if it returns next year, but I won't be crying in my beer if it doesn't come back. (There are admittedly lots of coreopsis varieties. I've heard some, like Zagreb, are much tougher than others. I didn't keep a record of the variety I planted from a local nursery, but it looked a lot like what is listed elsewhere on the Internet as "Sunray". You can see a photo of the blooms in this post from earlier in the year.)

8) Cosmos, Dancing Petticoats and Double Click - Eventually, some of the Dancing Petticoats seeds sprouted and turned into beautiful plants, but I never saw any plants with Double Click flowers and even the Dancing Petticoats did not grow or germinate nearly as well as the plain Cosmos bipinnatus seeds that I bought at a supermarket last year. I guess the lesson here for me was that sometimes fancier hybrids might be a bit more delicate than a robust species. Or maybe I just got a bad batch of seed? Not sure. I'll buy a different type of cosmos for next year (although buying any cosmos at this point probably isn't necessary since I imagine there will be lots of self sown plants popping up in the garden next spring).

9) Cucumis sativus, Cucumber, Progress and Summer Delight - These Japanese type cucumbers were delicious! They were sweet, no trace of bitterness at all, and the thin skins were edible, which made preparation a breeze. Unfortunately, despite loads of flowers, fruit production was poor and the plants seemed unable to cope when the weather got hot. Despite trellising the vines and despite the fact that they were marketed as disease-resistant, they still came down with some sort of disease - most likely bacterial wilt and/or powdery mildew. After that happened, the vines quickly declined and died. I got much better yields last year with the Burpee Hybrid II strain even though those (untrellised) plants eventually got some disease (powdery mildew) also. As mentioned in earlier posts, I won't be growing any veggies next year (due to the need to spray weed killer on the adjacent lawn) but next time I grow cukes, I'll be moving on to try yet another variety.

10) Fragaria vesca alba, Everbearing White Strawberry - Total failure. Strawberries that I grew in the ground last year were eaten by something (slugs?) so I tried growing these strawberries in a pot. In full Tennessee afternoon sun, they were burned to a crisp. I moved them to a shadier spot, but they failed to recover. I don't think I was meant to grow strawberries. In fact, at this point I'm amazed that anyone can get a strawberry crop, at least using organic methods. I talked to one grower at a farmer's market who had planted a long row of strawberry plants and harvested a single pint. I don't think I was meant to grow strawberries and I'm not at all sure that the plants were meant to grow in Tennessee at all.

11) Hemerocallis, Daylilies - I'm still not a huge fan. In fact, I don't understand why they are so popular. They look awful in the heat of summer, recover a bit in autumn and then look awful again in winter. The dormant ones look particularly bad in winter and the semi-dormant ones seem to be worse in terms of harboring aphids so that the foliage and blooms are damaged come springtime. I'll admit that the flowers are pretty, but they don't seem to have much wildlife value (I can't recall ever seeing a bee or butterfly at a daylily blossom) and it's tedious to deadhead the spent blooms and scapes. An awful lot of work for not much reward. I doubt I'll remove them from the landscape simply because I think I learned my lesson from the front border about needlessly removing functional plants, but if I were planning to stay 20 years and completely redo the landscape to my liking, I have a feeling the daylilies would be replaced sooner rather than later. As it is, they may still be here when we leave, but I don't think I would ever purposely buy or plant them.

12) Lavatera trimestris, Silver Cup - Tried growing from seed, but did not get any germination via direct sowing method. Maybe a bad batch of seeds or maybe they need coddling in a controlled seed-starting environment? Regardless, I don't plan on trying to direct sow again, though if I ever saw a plant at a nursery, I might try buying and planting it.

13) Linum grandiflorum rubrum, Scarlet Flax - Same story here - tried direct sowing, but got zero germination.

14) Lonicera sempervivens, Coral Honeysuckle, "Alabama Crimson" and "Blanche Sandman" - I'm on the fence with this one, which could be a fun since this is a vine that I tried to get to grow on my porch railing. Unfortunately, the vine does not really grab onto anything, so I'd have to tie it to the railing, which I have not done at this point. Still, that's not the vine's fault. It is just following its nature. I don't really have any objection to these plants. They did not grow as much as I would have hoped, but they are perennial so hopefully they will be bigger and stronger next year. I tried planting two in partial shade. One did not have any flowers this year. The other had a few flowers, but the long tubular red flowers take a long time to unfurl and then they quickly dropped off. They are supposed to attract hummingbirds, but I did not see any at the plant. Then again, there weren't many flowers so perhaps the hummingbirds simply didn't notice them. I do like how the vine still has most of its leaves. I think they are supposed to be semi-evergreen in our area. Anyway, I'm not opposed to these plants by any means, just wish they had done better here. But they did survive and get bigger and I still have high hopes for next year. (Floridata has a nice description of the virtues of Coral Honeysuckle.)

15) Lonicera periclymeneum, Harlequin and Serotina varieties - Now these Loniceras did not impress me at all. I tried planting one in partial sun and one in full sun. Both of them were baked to a crisp and disappeared in our hot summer despite plenty of supplemental watering. Since the natural range, according to Paghat, is as far north as Sweden, I guess I should not have been too surprised that they didn't care for Tennessee's climate or soil. (On the other hand, Paghat says their range does extend to North Africa, which I would have imagined should have accustomed them to hot weather...)

Wild-looking seedpod for Nigella damascena, Love-in-a-Mist, photo by Katie Dalton

16) Nigella damascena, Love-in-a-Mist - Nothing really wrong with these dimunitive flowers. They're actually sort of interesting, but they are so small that they are easy to overlook. I think they are cool, but I can't recommend planting them as more than a curiosity, although I may change my mind if they have self-sowed and return next year.

17) Capiscum annuum, Peppers, Jimmy Nardello and Yellow Asti - I had a hard time growing peppers this summer. I started with transplants, not seeds, and the transplants really struggled in the heat. (I thought peppers were supposed to like heat?) As the plants were starting to grow, they kept getting devoured by something. I eventually caught a large caterpillar - I believe a tomato hornworm - on one of the plants. But by then it was too late. I think I eventually harvested one small pepper whose taste was unremarkable. I'm totally willing to accept that I screwed up and that the failure of the pepper harvest was my fault. But by buying peppers at the farmers market this summer, I also came to the realization that I don't think I am a huge pepper fan and that therefore I would probably prefer to spend my time and energy on other crops, especially ones that are easier to grow from seed in Tennessee.

18) Phaseolus vulgaris, Beans, Emerite and Musica - I had an awful time trying to grow pole beans this year. Last year, I grew bush beans and those didn't fare very well, so I thought I'd try the pole beans this year since they are supposed to be more prolific. The vines grew very well at first, but the beans were attacked by beetles (bean beetles?) that damaged the foliage and ruined many of the pods. And besides, the pods were small and twisty (perhaps because of the insect damage), nothing like the pods you find in the grocery store or at the farmers market. Again, from experience buying beans at the farmers market, I don't think I am such a huge fan of pole beans, so I doubt I would try growing them again anytime soon. Fortunately, my pea crop turned out well in the spring and I like eating peas much more than beans, so perhaps I'll just concentrate on growing peas and leave the beans to those who can grow them better than I can! :)

19) Phlox paniculata, Garden Phlox, David - First of all, you supposedly need to divide this plant every few years to keep it vigorous. I am not a big fan of plants that require the work of division. Secondly, the plant just doesn't seem to do all that great in my Tennessee garden. It dies to the ground in winter, takes a while to emerge in the spring. After it does emerge, it takes a while to flower and by that time, it is getting toward summer and the plant is not really fond of hot weather, so it stops flowering again and then you just have a lot of dried dead brown flowers on the plant. I do have to say that I kind of like the scent of the flowers when it is in bloom, although you'll have to kneel down and smell them up close if you want to get the scent. This phlox did seem to overwinter easily in our garden and two of the three plants even multiplied. It seems pretty tough and was even able to survive a brutal summer here in more or less full sun. So I don't dislike Phlox paniculata. I certainly like it better than daylilies. But it's still far from my favorite plant at this point and not one that I would rush to plant in a new garden or recommend to a friend. I also tend to prefer plants with strong wildlife value for beneficial insects and I don't recall seeing many (any?) bees or butterflies around the Garden Phlox.

20) Rudbeckia, Black-Eyed Susan, "Summer Blaze" - It was supposed to be tough, but the Rudbeckia that I planted this past spring baked and withered away in our Tennessee summer. Yes, I killed Rudbeckia. Do I get a Black Thumb medal? (I've heard that different Rudbeckias have different levels of toughness. Maybe I just planted the wrong variety? I have to admit I'm intrigued by Rudbeckia nitida, Herbstonne...)

21) Salvia elegans, Pineapple Sage - First of all, I tried flavoring some water with the leaves of pineapple sage and failed to discern even a hint of pineapple flavor. Second, despite the beautiful sprays of red flowers in autumn, the plant looked miserable most of the summer. It seems to hate heat and detest drought. Accordingly, while I think this is a lovely plant, I just don't think it is suited to Tennessee. Fortunately, I probably won't need to worry about that - since the plant is only rated as hardy to zone 8, I doubt it will return next year. For now, I'm still enjoying those long-lasting red fall flowers!

22) Sarcococca confusa, Sweet Box - It was supposed to have fragrant winter flowers followed by black berries to attract birds. It was supposed to be drought tolerant (once established). I bought two tiny seedlings. One died in the drought. The other nearly died and is just hanging on. It may do better next year, but the growth rate is painfully slow. At its current growth rate, it might make a nice foundation shrub in 10-20 years.

23) Smilacina racemosa, Solomon's Plume - Bought for the fragrant spring flowers followed by berries. It completely failed to thrive, leaves turned brown and it quickly disappeared. Maybe it needed more acidic soil? Maybe it was just miserable in the heat and drought (despite supplemental water)? Maybe it needed more shade? In any case, I doubt I would try it again.

24) Tropaeolum majus, Nasturtium - Purchased for interesting foliage and edible flowers, but I never saw any blooms because the seeds took a long time to germinate and then the plants faded away in the heat of summer. Some new seedlings have actually sprouted now in the autumn, but since the plants are only hardy to zone 9, I presume that I missed my chance. I guess my only hope might be that some notoriously hard-to-germinate nasturtium seeds that did not germinate might still overwinter and sprout early next spring in order to flower before the heat sets in. I'm sure this is a lovely plant in the right climate and setting, but I can't imagine ever planting it again here in Tennessee. (I should have been clued in by Texas A&M which notes that the plants are "native to the cool highlands of mountains extending from Mexico to central Argentina and Chile." Cool mountain highlands does not describe my Middle Tennessee garden!)

25) Viola tricolor, Johnny Jump Up - There's nothing particularly wrong with these flowers. I sowed the seeds because they were supposed to bloom for a long time (some guides suggested 12-19 weeks of blooms!) and because the flowers were supposed to be edible. I did try to eat some of the flowers, but did not find the experience particularly enjoyable. As for the aesthetic value, the plants are tiny so that you really need to be on hands-and-knees to appreciate the beauty. They are cute and I certainly would have no objection to find some scattered here and there in the garden, but I don't think I would go out of my way to sow them again. As for wildlife value, I can't recall seeing any bees or butterflies visiting Viola tricolor.

So there you go. A lot of lessons learned! I'll try not to make the same mistakes again, because why repeat yourself when you can make new mistakes? :)

If anyone has good luck growing any of the plants listed above and wants to let me know I screwed up -- or even wants to stand up and defend a plant that I've disparaged -- I'm eager to hear your opinion in the Comments section!

PS - If you'd like to stay abreast of the latest developments at Garden of Aaron, you can now subscribe via email! Totally convenient, totally free - what could be nicer?


  1. After reading through this, I think there are several issues that can be fixed.

    1. It sounds like you have heavy concrete for soil, which is why your coreopsis died. They need very sharp drainage. I grow some in the ground and others in a pot. To fix your soil, try Penetrate from John and Bob's. I use this and it works!!! It's not cheap but is an investment in your garden. It will save you money in the long run. Here's a link:

    2. Your soil may not be as healthy and bioactive as it needs to be. Look for Espoma Biotone Starter Fertilizer and dump a handful into the planting hole every time you add a new plant to the garden. I've even dug small holes in existing beds and added some to enrich the soil. It's full of beneficial bacteria and should be available at Lowe's/Home Depot or a good garden center. It' completely organic.
    3. Get as many bags of leaves as possible from neighbors/friends, dump them in your grass, mow them up to shred them and then dump them in your garden. Leaves are the perfect fertilizer. ADD LOTS OF COMPOST!!!
    4. Broad cast with a heavy hand Espoma PlantTone organic fertilizer. It will work its magic through the winter.
    5. Partial shade usually means just 4-5 hours of sun. If your plants are getting full sun til almost 2, that is too much sun for a shade loving plant.
    6. Phlox have enormous wildlife value for pollinators but they like to be moist and need rich soil. Don't give up on these. :o)
    7. I've killed rudbeckia, too! Try Rudbeckia fulgida deammi ('Deam's rudbeckia). It's much tougher than 'Goldsturm' or any other I've tried. It has small flowers that hold up well.
    8. I have a hedge of sweetbox in front of my a/c units. They want to be moist, shady and grow very slow. Their fragrance is fabulous in late winter.
    9. I may have killed my newly planted Solomon's Seal, too. I think they want to be almost wet instead of just moist.
    10. My Harlequin honeysuckle was a big whiney baby this summer, too. It wants more shade than my Major Wheeler and isn't as vigorous. But it may be just a slow starter. I'm giving mine a second chance.
    11. Daylilies like to be moist and will survive in crappy soil but love rich soil.Hyperion daylilies are a tough heirloom that are tall, fragrant and attract pollinators. They survive dry soil better than any others.
    12. A lot of columbine die back in the summer. Give them bright partial shade and they'll be much happier.
    13. Always plant shrubs in the fall unless you want to water them all summer.
    14. Ask Santa for a rain barrel to help with the watering. I have five, including one that holds 156 gallons and is collapsible.

    I hope this helps! :o) Trial and error makes the best gardeners.

    1. Wow! Thanks for the detailed comment :) :)

      - You are correct about the concrete soil! I'm not averse to trying something like Penetrate - and I am trying to improve the soil by adding organic matter such as mulch and soil conditioner - but my main strategy is to find plants tough enough to survive and thrive in these harsh conditions. Clearly, I made a Bad Choice in that regard with Coreopsis.

      - I think nutrient level in the soil is actually pretty good (per a soil test) but I'm not averse to adding some nutrition here and there. I have a very iconoclastic desire to minimize external bagged inputs - or at least to minimize and simplify them. Ergo, I stuck primarily with Chickity-Doo-Doo poultry manure fertilizer this year.

      - The neighbors all bag and remove their leaves. I try to put leaves from my own property in the landscaped beds, but since the property is so windy, many of the leaves just blow away. (Most likely they blow onto the neighbors' lawns again, which doesn't really endear me all that much to them!) ;-)

      - Totally agree with you on the partial shade. I'm trying to work on that and find plants that are adaptable. Camellia seems to do quite well in the front landscaped beds, and the azaleas look pretty happy. We'll see if the new plants I added like Ilex glabra and Fothergilla will thrive. I hope so! I did put the Aucuba in a dark corner where it should be OK, although I've read some folks online saying that their Aubucas do OK in sun.

      - Regarding the phlox, I don't think I can keep anything 'moist' in the summertime here. Not without a ridiculous amount of supplemental water. That's why I'm trying to find those elusive plants that are drought-tolerant (weeks of little rain, mid-90s temperatures) but can also survive cold and wet conditions in winter and early spring. I have a feeling it may be a short list... ;-)

      - Thanks for the info on the Sweetbox. I may move the surviving one to a shadier spot. How big is your sweetbox hedge?

      - Thank you also for the Hyperion suggestion on the daylily. I may have to try it! And this other blog post ( recommends one called Lemon Lily (

      - If trial-and-error make the best gardeners, then I am well on my way to greatness! ;-)

  2. Nigella is really quite a nice old fashioned plant. I grow it from seed here, andif it likes the spot it will self seed like crazy. Hope it works for you. The dried seed heads are really great for drying and using indoors.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm excited to see if Nigella self-sows next year.

      This may be a ridiculous question, but how do you dry the seed heads? Do you have to hang them upside-down or just space them out on a newspaper?

      I think I read somewhere that Nigella seeds were formerly used in baking...

  3. about Nigella...2 years and is everywhere!!! for collecting the dryed heads just cut them when ready in the field, in a dry day, and put them in a vase, they last for ever.

    1. Sorry I didn't see or respond to your comment sooner!

      Yes, you are right on both counts. If not deadheaded, Nigella will spread widely in just a couple of years.

      And if the seedheads are cut at the right point, they probably would last a long time in a flower arrangement.

      Thanks for your comment! Hope you enjoy the blog :)

  4. Your soil is too wet. I grew many of these plants just fine in Athens, GA. Your soil also needs the activity and by-products provided by soil biology and organisms.

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for your comment.

      With all due respect, I don't think wet soil was the problem here. If anything, many of these plants probably struggled and died due to drought/heat in 2012.

      Some of them - the red chokeberry, for instance, and the beautyberry - have recovered and are doing fine now.

      Others - such as okra, cucumbers and peppers - would surely do better in a rich, moist but well-drained loamy soil.

      But I'm stuck with solid clay. And I refuse to embark on a large-scale raised bed program. So I'm slowly trying various means of naturally amending my soil (e.g., by growing daikon radishes and letting them rot in the ground) and will continue along that path.

      Meanwhile, I keep finding other plants that are able to thrive in the mucky clay I have. You know what they say, "Don't fight the site." :)


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