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  • Melissa Westemeier

it's not nice to fool (with) Mother Nature

Years ago I had a wonderful strawberry patch in a raised bed in our front yard. The berries were dependably sweet and abundant and for years I harvested them every summer. I made jam, I froze them, I baked them into pies. Because I am a person who struggles with leaving things alone (hey! there's always room for improvement, right?), I got it in my head to haul a few loads of that nice rich dirt from the creek bed behind our house up to the patch as a way of enriching the soil. I figured all of those layers of composted leaves breaking down every summer would make a fantastic additive.

I dug and trudged four wheelbarrows full of "good dirt." My wonderful berry patch would be even better thanks to my help. A few weeks later an unusual amount of weeds began popping up. I got in there and almost immediately yelped when my ankles and hands got stung. Growing close to the ground, the same height as the berry leaves, was a prolific amount of stinging nettle. Yes, in my enthusiasm to bring up nutritious soil, I introduced a whole bunch of dormant weed seeds to the patch. I also introduced my skin to a burning, blistering rash.

Valiantly I attempted to get the upper hand on the situation, but there was no winning the battle. If anything, stinging nettle was encouraged by the shady, low growth of the berry patch and no amount of weeding by hand or mulching around the plants could fix the problem. I ended up throwing in the trowel and smothering the whole raised bed for the rest of the growing season. Meanwhile, I ordered new berry plants and attempted to grow a new patch in a new raised bed. The old raised bed lay dormant, a barren symbol of my failed efforts to improve nature. Meanwhile, the new berry patch never quite took. It did fine, but not great. The plants spread but three seasons later I would only pick a gallon's worth of fruit. I battled a constant invasion of grass. The berries didn't grow very big or proliferate.

Two years ago I decided to give the old location another try. I ordered a new batch of strawberry plants. Adhering to all sage gardening advice, I layered fabric cloth and mulch over the original raised bed and carefully inserted the new plants. A year went by and three of twenty new plants survived. They never blossomed, but they also didn't wither into crumbly brown stems. Another season and the three spread into a passable start.  A few blooms appeared and the birds snacked on the fruit.

This year I'm beginning to taste success. Check it out:

Can you see those red berries? They're good sized and enough to eat our fill while sharing with the birds and mice. And next year I'm feeling confident that I'll have a big enough patch to make a batch or two of jam.

Gardening involves a lot of trial and error. My failure in this area definitely makes this success taste sweeter.

Spill it, reader. What's your biggest gardening mistake? 

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