Gardening's best lessons often come from our own mistakes


Many years ago, I had a near perfect-looking lawn. In fact, to most casual observers, it was perfect. Back in those days I was obsessive about having a picture-perfect landscape. I spent many hours primping the lawn and garden to achieve a flawless look.

One morning, as I made my routine inspection, I saw a few stray weeds in the lawn, barely noticeable to even the most discerning eye. But I was having a party that weekend and it was the ideal occasion to showcase my weed-free yard.

Without hesitation, off to the garden center I rushed, focused and determined to eliminate these few remaining stragglers. I hurriedly marched into the store, snatched the product, and within a few minutes I was back home, applying this glorious herbicide to my lawn and feeling smug that I was again in control of my weeds. Soon after, my mission was complete. Now all I had to do was wait a day or two to enjoy the fruits of my labor and the feeling of being one step closer to horticultural heaven.

The next day, just as a child anticipating the bounty of presents on Christmas morning, I headed out to the front yard, hoping to see the early effects of my anti-weed assault. But what I saw next made my heart sink. My near picture perfect lawn was now covered with dull, yellowish, crisscrossing stripes, each about the width of a drop spreader. It looked like someone had been doing figure 8s all over it.

That's when it hit me. In my haste to treat the lawn, I purchased the wrong chemical. Using it on fescue grass would kill it and the words clearly said so on the label. The problem was I hadn't bothered to read it.

By the day of the party, most of the grass was dead. To cover my tracks of this embarrassing debacle, I spread straw over the entire area to conceal the destruction. The only plausible explanation I could devise was that I was in the process of renovating my lawn. The straw was there to keep the bare soil moist and protect the newly planted seed I would tell them. No one ever knew the difference.

Looking back on this experience turned out to be one of the most important gardening lessons I've ever learned. Ever since, my gardening skills have continued to improve, often through the trials and tribulations of my own personal experience.

The biggest lesson from that occurrence many years ago was a vivid reminder that lives with me always. No matter how much you think you know or how busy you may be, always, always read the label. Fortunately my mistake was only temporary and not a big deal in the grand scheme. Yet something very good came from that experience. For me, it was the "aha moment" of my transition away from synthetic chemicals and toward an organic regime in managing my lawn and garden.

I've also gained a new appreciation for the term, "leave well enough alone." Having high standards and striving to achieve them is one thing. But on that day, I was over the top. No one would have even noticed those few weeds except me. The lawn had never looked better - or worse in a mere 48 hours. Striving for perfection in your yard or garden as in life is mostly a waste of time and energy. Perfection is an elusive thing and more often than not, the pursuit of it is an exercise in futility. Moreover, it usually comes at a high price. With lawn and garden chemicals, the damage to the environment and bio-diversity can be very high.

I haven't seen that old yard of mine in a long time. When I moved away a few years later, the lawn had recovered nicely, replete with a smattering of insignificant weeds. My landscape and I had taken on a more relaxed look and I rarely, if ever, used chemicals in my garden after that. Overall I'd say that was a pretty good day after all.

Joe Lamp'l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television.

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