Aphids, Squirrels and the Constant Battle Against Perfectionism

While some might argue that a garden is no place for perfectionists, I think that a garden is the perfect place for perfectionists, and that gardening is a perfect activity for anyone who wants to challenge this tendency within themselves.

For me, the 2021 gardening season offered plenty of opportunities to do just that. In June, there was both snow and bitterly cold temperatures in Toronto – right after I’d planted my beans. Old sheets, frost cover and tarps saved the plants from permanent damage but I’ll never forget the way I took the weather almost personally, as if I were somehow to blame for the scarring and setbacks the cold snap had caused. As rainy July gave way to scorching heat waves, the heat and humidity combined into a toxic soup for plants and humans alike. I couldn’t water the beans enough. Again I blamed myself, this time for planting too many of them in too small a space and for choosing black containers that conducted heat rather than deflected it.

As my plants suffered, I suffered right along with them, certain that every chewed or wilted leaf resulted from something I did or did not do:

-I started my plants at the wrong time (during a heat wave) and used the wrong sized plug trays

-I didn’t plant in heat-reflective containers

-I didn’t water enough or I didn’t cover the plants fast enough during torrential downpours

Did the beans conk out? No! They went on to produce in record numbers. But the stress of all that self-induced guilt followed me through into autumn.

Autumn gardening was WAAAAY different than spring or summer gardening. There was the shifting sun to contend with. My full-sun garden had morphed to partial shade for most of the day and I had planted some full-sun crops, like beets. Squirrel damage was much more severe in the autumn as the little blighters were busy burying everything they could cram into their mouths. I’d built cages around my plants but I had to go back to the drawing board after the squirrels decimated the plants in several containers. Aphids too, descended on my plants like a plague of tiny locusts. Floating row cover did NOT keep them off my kale. Determined mama aphids crawled through microscopic holes, already pregnant, and I only discovered the population explosion when I uncovered the kale for watering. I’d read that aphids will not bother older, healthy plants but they almost ruined my entire kale crop.

For a couple of weeks, I sprayed off aphids with blasts of water from a hose, just like I’d done during the summer. Unlike the summer however, I couldn’t count on spiders for insect control. A lack of spiders coupled with unseasonably warm weather caused another aphid explosion that soon migrated to the rest of the garden. I tried a combination of neem oil and soap spray but I didn’t spray soon enough or often enough to control the population. Why? Because I had a writing deadline. My first-ever non-fiction submission had just been accepted for publication and I was hard at work crafting my article. Writing comes first for me. Making that choice meant accepting some crop loss in exchange for a good article.

Still, unhelpful thoughts kept circling like vultures: OMG, my garden looks like crap! And I’ve just started a blog!

The truth is, my garden did not look like crap. It looked like, well, a garden. Why couldn’t I see this?

Because the most destructive pest was not any of the creatures who visited the garden but an attitude that soured my very perception of the garden itself. Instead of seeing this:

Chives and Parsley

Or this:

Romaine Lettuce

My vision was clouded with everything that had gone wrong:


And this:

Daikon Radish

The perfectionist in me almost failed to notice the way regeneration often follows disaster in the garden – much like a classic narrative arc in fiction:

Stem Regeneration on Kale

My Beloved Fun Jen Mustard, back from the dead, just in time for Halloween!

In the introduction to her book, The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, Carol Deppe writes:

“There were plenty of times my gardening fell apart or overwhelmed me instead of sustaining me. There were medical emergencies that took my full time and attention for weeks. The garden wouldn’t get tended until they were over. Many times I lost entire crops and much of the season’s labour because of my inability to tend the garden at critical times. I myself sometimes suffered from health problems or injuries that interfered with gardening. When I most needed help, my garden often created pressures and contributed to my problems instead of relieving them.”

I would substitute the word ‘perfectionism’ for ‘garden’ in the last sentence. Still, I agree with Deppe that gardens should be designed for the ups and downs of life, taking into account the full breadth of a gardener, their commitments and obligations, the fact that hard times are normal in the life cycle of a person as well as a garden and that other things sometimes take precedence.

This is, in fact, resilient gardening.

These are the kinds of gardens I want to learn how to design and plant, gardens that leave enough room for writing, gardens that are built for the good and not-so-good times, gardens that spotlight the regenerative power of plants and reduce perfectionism to an unnecessary distraction. I’m not there yet but I’m hungry.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and cut a salad.