Confessions Of A Total Garden Failure

A woman – a great photographer – came by and took pictures of my garden for a book she is doing on urban homesteaders. She was interviewing me and I said something like, “I think if I bought vegetables at the store at this point, I’d feel like a total failure!”
This was one of these things you say with the toss of a hand over coffee. It’s not strictly accurate, but the verbal flourish conveys the meaning more effectively than some wishy-washy but literal variant like, “I strive to produce as much as possible on site, given the reality of my land, time, and other commitments, and am in general very happy with how little we buy from the store.”
“Oh, excellent!” she said, scribbling my quote down, “that’s great!”

“Fuck,” I thought. “Now I’m going to be in print forever, quoted as saying I’m a failure if I buy carrots at Costco. I already buy fucking carrots at fucking Costco. Why did I just say that? Fuckfuckfuck.”

So why did I say that? Because it’s true. True in a Freudian-slip-style, it feels true, kind-of way. I’ve imbued my personal Golden Grass Fed Cow of urban homesteading with magical properties and strapped it to my identity one cheerful blog post at a time.
The Punk Gardening Angel of Reasonable Expectations pats me on my shoulder and consoles me: “It’s really okay…Carrots are healthy and your kids like to eat them, and you do buy the bulk organic bag, after all, and peel and slice them yourself. Beside, honey, everyone knows that life gets complicated and time gets short. Crops get planted too late or get eaten by maggots and that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to eat carrots. Just buy the carrots like normal people and stop worrying about everything so much!”
But then The Nagging Devil of Martyrdom and Perfectionism on my other shoulder says things like, “If you didn’t grow enough carrots you should just do without. Figure out ways to substitute beets. You have a lot of them. Don’t be a hypocrite – eat what you grow, grow what you eat. You’ll have no incentive to figure out how to grow good carrots on a large enough scale ever if you just pussy-out when the growing gets a little tough!”
Your thing might not be carrots. Carrots might sound trivial to you – hell, they sound trivial to me, though what they represent does not. But I’m guessing you have some area where you hold yourself to standards that are just a smidgen unrealistic too. I’m guessing you’ve had times when your knuckles were white from the effort of keeping everything in its place, moving it along, or holding it together too.
I love my garden, and writing this blog, and you my readers. Especially you, my readers. I don’t want to disappoint any of you guys, but this is the reality: if buying the bulk sack of organic carrots at Costco for $5 makes me a failure, then a failure I must be called. I cannot grow enough carrots to keep my family in carrots. Same with apples. We’re just not there yet. 
And while we’re at this failure confession stuff:
  • My son up-ended my pot of leek starts last summer and stomped them into oblivion and I’m down to a single storage onion. I will be buying onions at the store. Soon.
  • In October I was so burnt out from caring for the garden, the animals, the kids, the home, the preserving and the various extended activities of the homestead that I wrote my friend that I wanted to take a blowtorch to the whole thing.
  • Sometimes I feed my kids a lot of cheese, which is expensive and primarily not local or organic, just because I don’t have to go outside in the rain and pick cheese.
  • One year I grew nothing – nothing – but weeds. I don’t think I even put in a tomato start from the big box store.
  • I found a half a hot dog wrapped up in my purse a few days ago. No bun. It had been stashed there a few days prior after I fed the family at – you guessed it – Costco. We were there because we needed printer paper and toner, but not carrots.
It goes astray sometimes, this in-between life, and there are moments and seasons of failure. I have these insecurity flashes that I’m not good enough or I’m not doing enough. And then the useless guilt shows up, like a whiskey back following a pint of perfectionism porter. 
But then I remind myself: eight years ago I wasn’t debating a homegrown-or-nothing vs. carrot-compromise situation. No, I was debating getting the whole Jack-in-the-Box appetizer combo or just the three pack of jalapeno poppers to start off a festival of drive-thru dining. Compared to molten deep fried fake cheesy sauce, I’ve come quite a long way, baby.
We all start somewhere. Sometimes, with a little perspective, failure starts to look more like a promotion.
Do you have reasonable standards for your garden and your life?


  1. says

    Erica – I don't grow carrots for the same reason I don't grow potatoes, corn, or apples. It's matter of limited growing space, time management, and economics. Bulk carrots, apples, potatoes, and corn are incredibly cheap buy at the store. Instead, I grow what I refer to as "value added" crops: tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, cukes, eggplant, various herbs, etc. The only exception I've made to my Keneysian view of urban farming are my chickens. It'll probably take me about 2 years to recover my initial input cost, but I do love those free range eggs!

  2. says

    I feel the same about Eggs as you do about the carrots (or whatever). Our hens are not producing nearly as many eggs as in the summer and as I had family in over the holiday, I had to, OMG, buy STORE EGGS! I felt like a failure and almost broke into tears when they were scanned in a the check out.

    But then when I got home, I did some thinking and realized how FORTUNATE I was to be ABLE to buy eggs when I could NOT provide them for my family. Yeah, they weren't brown (or green) shelled, dark orange yolked & firm like eggs from our hens, but you do what you gott'a do!

  3. says

    I can't grow carrots. I try every year and I fail every year. I've rotated them through our various beds. I've tried more water and I've tried less water. Everyone I know looks at me as if I have 3 heads when I ask them what the secret to growing carrots is. Apparently they're an easy crop for most folks to grow. They have no secrets for me.

    Carrots are my nemesis, apparently.

    When I first started "homesteading" I tried to plant everything we like to eat and even a few crops I thought we ought to like.

    Over time I've changed our plantings to only those foods we cannot find locally and organically. I live on a teeny tiny city lot and only have a few hundred square feet in raised beds. I have to pick and choose. We don't have the space or the climate (Wisconsin) to permit me to grow all that we eat.

    When I finally gave up on perfection and accepted good enough it was a lot more fun.

    This past year I only planted tomatoes. That wasn't my original plan but a fall and subsequent hamstring tears (not pull, but tears) derailed my garden entirely. I looked out at the barren beds all summer and felt a strange combination of failure and freedom. It was nice to not have to work the garden, but at the same time I worried that I had failed my family. I got over it. I accepted my imperfection. I found other hobbies I had forgotten about.

    At this point I can't remember what started this response, but I'm left with the memory of the relief I felt when I finally embraced my foibles and flaws.

  4. Lady Banksia says

    Erica – I hear ya… and its okay.

    As I jot this with coffee at my side, I look out the window at my six (count 'em, SIX) cheddar-cauliflower plants in the flower bed, between the roses, which are now mostly dormant. There are hree small heads started, and three more that are showing no signs of heading. wtf??

    The turnips are coming on, but only sparsely. Why one and not the one next to it! I planted, I fed, I thinned… whats all the leaves and no turnips, eh? WTF??

    The fall pea plants are staked, fed, watered, healthy green, and 3 feet tall, but no flowers! What?? WHAT THE…??

    There's an empty, composted, watered, raked, and mulched bed right next to the orange tree where one (count 'em, ONE!) Blue Hubbard squash grew some 3 months ago (on some 50 ft of vine from 6 seeds, mind you)… huh? WTH??

    How did this all happen?

    Move over, I'm sharin' the bench… put on another pot of coffee… we'll plan our grocery lists.

    Love ya – and its okay.

  5. says

    Hi Erica, I'm only about six months into this adventure of homesteading, so I have yet to determine what realistic expectations are. I'm a little nervous.
    I appreciate the candor of your post, it helps newbies to the scene like myself. I did grow 'baby finger carrots' this year successfully. Granted, it was a rather small crop.
    Cheers, Jenni

  6. says

    Erica, I love your humor! Your writing really speaks to me. I hold myself to the same kind of standards. I feel so much pride providing food for my family, but sometimes between the weekly granola making, the double dinners I cook to keep us one step ahead for tomorrow's lunch and everything else I try to keep up with, I just get tired. Sometimes going out for pizza and beer is what we need.

    I think you're wise to take a step back and look at how far you've come. If you buy carrots at Costco it doesn't mean you failed. It means you're balancing the act.

  7. says

    This was my first year of getting back to growing my own veggies in about five to seven years and it felt amazing. I live in the desert now and it was noticing a tomato plant at SAMS CLUB that got me back to my love of growing veggies to eat. And I got to see my 7 year old grandson's eyes light up when he picked his first homegrown carrot from my garden and said, " CAN I EAT THIS?" and he loved it! But then the big 120 degree days came and wiped out all my cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and herbs. And crushed my spirit. Now I KNOW I will begin earlier in the year, harvest earlier and rest during those really hot months…..I'm learning balance and I love your sense of humor. Thanks for keeping me honest. Hugs from Palm Desert. Lori Robin

  8. Bonnie S says

    Winter squash and sweet potatoes are better substitutes for carrots than beets, I think. All the orange veggies are high in beta-carotene.

    I try to grow most of our veggies, but I failed on the orange-veggie front this year, after a bounty of 100 Delicata last year. That hurt! But I got more lettuce than ever before, and I managed to get tons of green beans, after the slugs ate four different seedings of green beans last year.

    We have a ton of space and sun, but limited time to weed. I am going to grow some sweet potatoes next year, to help ensure I get an orange storage veggie, but I can't grow all our own onions or regular potatoes yet, and am not even interested in growing our own corn or wheat. Local apples are great, so I'm concentrating on berries.

  9. Erin says

    As usual, Erica, this post was awesome. I actually called my husband into the room so I could read it aloud to him. I love what you do and I love what you write. Thank you for taking the time to let us all have a peek into your life.

  10. says

    Erica, I am not an urban homesteader — nowhere close — but you did inspire me to start a garden in sunny Arizona. I was feeling so proud of my spinach plants (I grew actualy vegetables in Arizona, a.k.a., the face of the Sun!) and was disappointed last night when I decimated all the plants cooking ONE dinner. Not only do I only grow a few types of vegetables — I'm not even keeping up with my needs with those types! But your post gives me hope. What I've done is so much better than what I did before. Besides, that artichoke plant I put in too looks like it's got some real possibilities…

  11. says

    Harriet and I may both be thinking of asking about the hot dog … "So, are ya gonna eat that … ?"

    Yes, carrots. Also daikon, celeriac, and parsnips. One might say roots have it in for me but I've had very good beet and turnip years.

    I dunno.

  12. says

    *wipes tears out of eyes*
    Oh, honey, have you been spying in my greenhouse window? Because this sounds EXACTLY like me. I can't grow carrots (or cabbage) either, and I have exactly this conversation with myself. Every. Damn. Carrot.

    "…because I don't have to go out and pick cheese." Oh, hell, yes.

    Also, where can I get a Punk Gardening Angel of Reasonable Expectations? I so need to make her acquaintance!


  13. says

    great post! I can't grow carrots (or potatoes, or lots of things that we end up buying), but I do refuse to buy eggs in winter. I feel I owe it to the hens. We eat porridge for breakfast through winter when the eggs run out! I just think that one day if I ever have to provide all our veges from the garden we would find a way to improvise, and until then I'll keep buying what I can't grow. But you're right, I'll never learn that way…..

  14. says

    Oh brilliant!

    Sometimes when I am beating myself up for my lack of homegrown purity & virtue, I remind myself that ain't nothing, baby! Think about the commercial toothpaste & deodorant, or the Target clothes I still use/ wear despite claiming to be 'eco/ ethical'! Think of the times I 'neglected' the kids to get some gardening done, all whilst claiming our eco/ homesteading lifestyle is SO good for them! Think of the half-done grab bags & jumbled emergency gear when I did a whole months worth of blog challenge about being prepared! Hey, why restrict my unrealistic expectations, guilt & self flagellation to what I didn't manage to grow well in the garden, when there is a whole world of 'failures' all around me. Then I get over myself, and go back to counting my blessings!

  15. Trish says

    Oh, I hear this. Even our bounty makes me feel guilty — at some point in the late summer I just could not look another tomato in the eye and many of them spoiled before I made time to get them into the freezer or dehydrator or jars. Now it's December and when I think about those summer tomatoes rotting away in the compost, I feel ashamed.

  16. says

    Erica, you sure have a lot of guts and honesty as a writer. It takes a lot to "bare the soul" and admit our fears and failures. I know. I've failed a lot in my life.
    But I console myself with the knowledge that at least one thing I did turned out pretty damn spectacular.
    Keep it up.


  17. says

    It's absolutely true- my unrealistic expectations, and sense of shame and guilt are really about never having enough time and that whole conflict of family vs farmwork vs paid work(mortgage!?) Where does a girl start?
    Don't sweat the carrots- but in terms of symbolism-I hear you!
    Yet another great post Erica!

  18. says

    I homesteaded for 5 years…alone…with a child, while trying to run a greenhouse business. Finally gave up on the greenhouse (24-7-365; no vacations, no time off) and got a 40-hour a week job PLUS took care of a garden and 2 acres (I let the field just grow up). After the fifth year, when I felt like tearing my hair out, I left and bought a house on 1/4 acre. 15 years later, after trying to build an urban homestead and going nearly crazy, I left there. I live in an apartment with no yard save a shady patio where I can't grow food. I'm happier now.
    I finally realize why all those pioneer women died so young.

  19. Anonymous says

    I have been getting your blog in my email box for several months now and after this blog I just couldn't keep my comments to myself any longer. This post hit home on the whole 'failure because of not achieving perfection' theme. But more than that, your writing is just phenomenal. You really know how to turn a phrase, and I am still giggling over "like a whiskey back following a pint of perfection porter". I get several blogs each day in my inbox, but none so enjoyed or anticipated as yours. Just thought you should know that someone 'out here' simply loves your work. Girl, if you garden half as good as you write you must be fucking awesome!

  20. says

    we're all contradictions and we do what we can… i'd say you're doing pretty awesome. thank you for the honesty :) I'm glad i'm not alone in my fears and high self-standards when it comes to this sort of thing.

  21. says

    Rats, I just wrote a really long comment On my phone about failure and progress and the weeds in my veggie garden, and then accidentally deleted it!

    Surfice to say, I loved this post, a very welcoming first taste of your blog for me.

  22. says

    Another great post! I only just got started with my own garden in February. I'm in South Florida so most of the garden died or stopped producing in the summer.

    I really enjoy you blog (and your honesty)

  23. says

    Humour and honesty make for a great blog, especially when I can identify. I'd like to add my name to the list of bulk carrot buyers. We do grow some but they get munched in the garden and not used en masse in lunch boxes and roasts like the store bought ones.
    I still buy potatoes even though they have become weed-like in the garden.
    Check out this place I visited on a Permaculture course lots of years ago They grow their own food, including grains, but have to run it as a small holding and run courses to make it sustainable.
    Every little bit helps, and I dont think anyone can go wrong growing some food, planting trees and loving those around them <3


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