Why Good Gardening is a Risky Business

Reading time 11 minutes


Whilst you won’t find it on a list of extreme pursuits, gardening is all about taking risks. Tending a garden is one of the most thrilling things one can do in life and is not for the faint hearted. Forget those images of grand ladies tiptoeing along their herbaceous borders with a trug over one arm, the likelihood is that their elegant countenance belies steely determination and ruthless resolve. Not for them the status quo, but the desire to grow better, finer flowers, or have their gardener do it for them.

The threat of failure and the promise of glory is why those of us who garden get such a kick from it. We quickly become obsessed, if not addicted, to this most skillful, complex, artful and unpredictable of occupations. Who needs the exhilaration of a bungee jump when one has a new area of garden to clear and redesign; or the ‘high’ of conquering a great peak when one can coax a rare flower to bloom? The rewards of gardening are equal to, and longer lasting than any extreme physical achievement and can be attained without requirement to remove one’s Wellington boots or don Lycra.


Gardening on the edge, as here at Foamlea in Devon, requires vision, bravery and tenacity


The gardens of those who don’t have the taste for adventure can be identified from a mile of. They are sometimes described as ‘low maintenance’, featuring all the same ‘safe’ plants as their neighbours. Their owners strive to keep them looking exactly the same from one year to the next. Preserving a garden in aspic, as we all know, is a hiding to nothing. The alternative is to shy away from the challenge altogether and pave the lot for fear that brambles and knotweed will break in through the patio doors. This is a cowardly cop-out which benefits no one, and certainly not the environment.

If you are reading this post it is unlikely you are the type of gardener I am referring to above. If you are, I am hoping I can snap you out of your horticultural torpor. When I ask non-gardening friends why they don’t engage with their garden, they frequently tell me it’s because they don’t know where to start. The most they can do is keep on top of the mowing and hedge trimming, which is maintenance, not gardening. When one can fill libraries with text books on how to cultivate flowers, fruit and vegetables, it’s hardly surprising that the uninitiated find themselves stymied by the perceived complexity of the task. Yet not one of these books can tell you precisely how to cultivate your garden, because the author is not familiar with the niceties of your garden: it is totally unique. No two gardens are exactly alike; no two plants, even of the same variety, will grow in precisely the same way. Seasons vary in light, rainfall and sunshine, and there’s always more than one successful way of doing things. A certain technique might only work for you, but if it works and causes no harm to man nor beast, then that’s all that matters. In gardening, you write your own text-book, and you can only write that book by starting somewhere.


The risks taken in creating the Eden Project are too numerous to mention, but without Tim Smit’s vision this landscape might have been no more than cliff and bog


There is a concept in business called ‘fail fast’, sometimes followed by ‘fail often’, which sums up my attitude towards gardening. Very simply it means try stuff, but move on quickly if it does not work out. It’s perhaps not the best idea not to apply this philosophy to your whole garden at once, in case you are left with nothing that works, but it’s safe enough to play around here and there; even better if you have a means of disguising your failures and another wheeze as back-up. It’s the concept of ‘fail fast’ that encourages me to purchase plants which, at face value, are not the right plant for the right place. They may not be the right plant in other gardens, but they might just be in mine. If they prosper I am emboldened to try another, if they die I shrug my shoulders and move on. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Although the failure of a cherished plant or garden project can be a bitter disappointment, the experience will shape the way you garden in future.


I tried and failed with martagon lilies until I finally worked out that they prefer shade and alkaline soil. Now they flourish beneath a tree at The Watch House. If at first you don’t succeed…..


Had I planted only what the text books recommended, my garden would look entirely different from how it does now and not half as interesting. Trachelospermum jasminoides, for example, is not recommended for chalky soils and yet I have never seen any as vigorous as mine, which enjoy 9″ of soil before their roots hit pure white rock. Several plants survive outside all winter that should not according to the experts, because my garden has a unique microclimate, as does every other. The author of your text-book does not know about your soil, your microclimate and your experience, but do not ignore their advice altogether. There are calculated risks and then there’s madness: a cactus planted in a bog is not going to be a success however gutsy you are.


Christopher Lloyd made adventurous gardening acceptable, even fashionable. Here, colourful rudbeckia, amaranthus, dahlias, geraniums and Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’ grace Great Dixter’s Porch.


Other words of wisdom, attributed variously to Henry Ford, Anthony Robbins, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, say If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got”. This also resonates with me, although in gardening external factors guarantee that consistency of practice will rarely achieve the same results from one reason to the next. However, it does speak of the importance of change, which my friend Andrew reminded me of yesterday when he showed me the work he’s been doing in his beautiful garden at The Chapel. There have been many changes, and there are more in the pipeline. Whilst the garden in the interim may not be all Andrew wishes it to be, it’s on the way to its next moment of glory. Keeping a garden the same is impossible. If attempted, as in some historic gardens, efforts to make time stand still inevitably result in things slipping backwards. Initiate change before your garden demands it of you, and you will always remain in control. Humans are naturally suspicious of change, but gardeners who embrace it will always be more successful than those who do not.

Whether you recognise it in yourself or not, good gardeners are intrepid and adventurous. If you are just setting out, by all means read the text books and take advice from those more experienced than you. But, as your confidence grows, be prepared to set aside conventional wisdom and take a risk, then another, and another. Only then can you call yourself a real gardener. TFG.

Lead photograph: Arnhel de Serra/National Trust


At Le Jardin Majorelle, the brave use of a blue shade dubbed Majorelle blue has become the garden’s signature. Would we know this garden so well had the artist painted his villa magnolia?



Categories: Garden Design, Large Gardens, Musings, Plants, Practical Advice, Uncategorized

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

Greetings Garden Lover! Welcome to my blog. Plants are my passion and this is my way of sharing that joyful emotion with the world. You'll find over 1000 posts here featuring everything from abutilons to zinnias. If you've enjoyed what you've read, please leave a comment and consider subscribing using the yellow 'Follow' button in the bottom, right-hand corner of your screen. You will receive an email every time I post something new.

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28 comments On "Why Good Gardening is a Risky Business"

  1. Fabulous post! I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that penstemon and heavy clay soil are completely, utterly incompatible. Yet I successfully grow four types of penstemon in soil that rightly belongs on a potter’s wheel. You never know until you try.

  2. Wonderful post, Dan! I hear you on the addiction. Rudbeckia are just about done here, in the wild. I snagged a few scabiosa today, and a few other things I have no idea what they are. Which I like the best!

  3. Oops, they’re not Scabiosa, they are wild Bergamot. I looked those up too! They go beautifully with the droopy yellow Ratabida in big vases with the purple Lupines I found. I learned my lesson a couple of weeks ago about getting too close to the spiky plants with big thorns 😉 And also about harboring an ecosystem of bugs. I now take my wildflowers straight to the bathtub for a good soaking.

  4. Enjoy your thoughts and great topic but risky yes and no. Most hobbies have some risk, but that’s the excitement. Experience is the main item to garden with confidence, sometime text books can assist. Enjoy your articles Dan.

  5. fter 10 years in this garden sometimes wish I could afford to tear it all up and start again. Well, perhaps not all, but quite a lot. I(t’s becoming a bit too much of a wilderness, but I’ve had a lot of butterflies this year, there’s always an up side!

  6. re. above, my beginning was chopped off, perhaps that’s telling me something? Is there a day/time next week when I could visit ? ( You made the offer earlier in the year, would love to come whilst late Summer things are blooming if possible)

  7. Great advice- for gardening and for life! I have two teenagers and am constantly telling them to reframe their ” failures ” as “experience “.

  8. Well said Dan…be a brave gardener and throw out the rule books! As a designer people say they are scared by their gardens and don’t know how to deal with its many facets…they ask for a low or No maintenance garden then say they like the Cottage garden look! It is my job to introduce them to learn to love their gardens to experiment being brave to leave their comfort zones and not to plant the same things as next door….their gardens are “their gardens” not next doors or the previous home owners or mine and as such need to reflect their unique styles, personalities and satisfy their needs! Be brave and be different and love your garden…it’s a dynamic space and so are you!

  9. A great post! I love the first picture. You are spot on with your thoughts, advice and philosophies.
    There is another quote rambling around that says you are not a real gardener until you have killed 10,000 plants. I try to teach my clients the idea that gardens and gardening are a journey.
    Presently we are having our whole house and back cottage painted. The painters, that I would never work with again, have over-sprayed and or smashed and ruined plants and hardscape near the houses. The only thing that is keeping me sane is all my years of gardening and the knowledge that I can look at this as an opportunity to redo it from scratch and I will enjoy the journey! Cheers!

    1. Nevertheless, it must be torture watching them trample your plants! I don’t think decorators and builders can see things that are green with leaves on. If they can, they certainly don’t value them.

      Meanwhile not sure even I have killed 10,000 plants yet. At least this makes me feel better about sending a few more to the great compost heap in the sky!

  10. I just stumbled upon this blog and it sings to my heart! 4 years ago we moved out of London to build a house I couldn’t name a single plant and knew nothing about gardening. Googling about gardening put me off, but my neighbour came to the rescue with her ‘stick it in the ground and see what happens’, ‘don’t worry if you plant them close together, you can always thin them out later’ and ‘just give it a go!” – Now I look stuff up on pintrest, buy it, stick it in and see what happens and it’s absolutely wonderful. I’m hooked! There is nothing more satisfying then a surprise – a plant you didn’t know could look like that, a plant that’s doing really well, a combination that looks fab together (verbena bonariensis poking out of my rosemary and cola plants delights me every day at the moment- who knew!) I learnt not to take it so seriously. A few plants didn’t make it, but one of my friends said ‘The gardener grows with the garden’ and that’s so true! Thanks for your blog!

    1. My pleasure. You are right, there’s ample time for refining your technique as you go along, but if you don’t get stuck in, you aren’t going to get very far. Glad your gardening adventure is proving joyful. That’s how it should be. Dan

  11. I forget now who originally said ‘fail, fail again, fail better’ but it certainly works for me.

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