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Most gardeners have felt the disappointment of experimenting with a new plant that didn’t quite deliver. No matter how much you plan, these things can happen to the best of us. 

As a new gardener (or just a perfectionist) this experience can be really discouraging. But, it’s not always your fault when things go wrong. 

Being proactive and finding bright spots in the situation will make you a better gardener in the long run. It will also help you to enjoy the race instead of fixating on the finish line.

In this post we’ll explore:

  • Common reasons things go wrong in the flower garden. 
  • How to salvage your flower garden after something goes wrong.
  • How you can learn from your failures and improve your flower garden next season.

Let’s get started!

If you’d rather watch than read, here’s a video I made on this exact topic. I’ll share a lot of the mistakes I’ve made as a gardener as well as tips for avoiding them in the future!

Common Reasons for Flower Garden Disappointment

There are several common issues that can affect new and experienced flower gardeners alike. So, let’s first take a look at some of the reasons you may be disappointed. And, in the next section you’ll learn what you can do about them. 

Suddenly Sick Plants: Pest/Disease Issues

Sometimes plants will get a disease or get eaten by a pest. This is often a temporary issue and something you can prevent next year. Other times, the plant is too sick and it needs to be removed.

If this problem happens to you, don’t get discouraged. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn more about your plants. Knowledge will help you to be proactive instead of reactive in the future. 

I make mistakes and deal with diseases and pests just like every other gardener. A few years ago I was caring for a new Crepe Myrtle ‘Black Diamond Pure White’ with foliage so dark it almost looked black. It was beautiful for a few weeks until I noticed white “dust” on its burgundy leaves. After doing some research I realized that I was actually causing powdery mildew by watering with a sprinkler. The water that was sitting on the leaves was creating a perfect environment for the mildew. Now, I know only to water at the base of my Crepe Myrtle and it hasn’t gotten powdery mildew since!

So, try to remember that being a gardener means that you will always have more to learn. 

Quote Graphic - Gardening is Learning Learning Learning by Helen Mirren

Gardening is learning, learning, learning. That’s the fun of them. You’re always learning.

Helen Mirren

As a gardener, you also have to deal with the outside force of Mother Nature. Remember that you can’t always control what happens. It’s ok to be sad if your plants don’t make it, but don’t let it stop you from trying again!

Plants that underperform is a super common issue. It can often leave you wondering… What did I do wrong? 

While underperformance can be your fault, it usually isn’t. Either way, there’s always things you can do to fix it! The first step is to determine why a plant is underperforming in the first place! 

Here are some common reasons why plants underperform.

Plants Underperform Due to Poor Conditions

Sometimes a plant will underperform if it’s planted in the wrong place. It may not like the amount of sun it receives. Or, perhaps the area has poor drainage, or not enough drainage. 

I like to think about plants as little people wearing clothes. 

Some plants dressed for a sunny day at the beach. Some plants dressed for a heavy rainstorm. 

So, imagine that you accidentally dropped a plant dressed for a very wet and windy day off at the beach in 100 degree weather. 

Do you think he will survive? 

Maybe… if you quickly realize you accidentally left him in the hot sand with his slicker on… and rush back to save him! 

Is he going to be happy about it? Absolutely not!

The difference between people and plants is that plants have “built in” clothes; they can’t change into a new outfit or take off their jacket. 

Plants don’t have legs, either. So, wherever they are planted is where they must stay. They can’t take cover from the hot sun or grab a glass of water when it gets too hot for them. 

It’s up to you and I, as gardeners, to learn about our plants and what they need from us so they can be happy and healthy. 

The good news is that once you determine WHY your plant is underperforming, it’s much easier to find a solution. 

Plants Underperform Due to Inaccurate Information

Sometimes, a plant’s description or photo isn’t quite accurate. It’s also possible the plant was mislabeled at the nursery. This is actually more common than most gardeners think. 

Regardless of the reason, when you put in the time and effort to research a plant, inaccurate information can feel devastating to your garden plan.  

Maybe the color isn’t as vibrant as you expected, it didn’t bloom when you thought it would or the form is a lot looser (or messier) than you anticipated.

While it’s unfortunate that this happened, try not to let it ruin your love for gardening. While you may not have control of misinformation, there are still things you can do to improve the situation.

Plants Underperform Due to Unrealistic Expectations

Sometimes plants don’t grow as quickly as we hope they will. In most cases, solving this issue is just a matter of adjusting your expectations. Is it possible that you’re expecting plants to grow at an unrealistic speed? I am admittedly guilty of this.

Remember the rule of perennials:
first year they sleep,
second year they creep,
third year they leap.

Impatience is super common, especially with new gardeners. Try to be realistic about how fast your plants should be growing. Then, enjoy the process.

Plants That are the Wrong Size

Do you have a plant that grew WAY larger than expected? Maybe it got so large that it swallowed up all the plants around it? Or, maybe it’s still super small and you were expecting it to fill in a large area? No need to panic. These are common problems that all gardeners face. 

If a plant is too large or too aggressive for where you planted it, you may need to make some edits. If a plant is a lot smaller than what you expected, consider moving it to the front of the border.

What To Do When Your Plants & Flowers are Struggling

Now that you know some of the most common issues that gardeners face, you may be wondering what to do next! 

Learning how to adapt when there’s issues that are beyond your control is going to make the process so much more fun and less stressful.

Here’s my process for solving common issues and making the most out of my gardening season, no matter what the challenges are.

Diagnose the Problem – Is it Temporary or Permanent?

There are so many unexpected things that can happen when you garden. First diagnose what went wrong.

Diagnosing problems and being willing to adapt is just as important as planning.

Next, determine if it’s a temporary (“this year”) problem or a long-term problem?

If it’s just this year, maybe you don’t need to do anything.  Just learn more about the issue and be proactive next year.

If it’s a long term problem, you may need to  be proactive to fix the issue.

Make a Pros and Cons List

When a plant is misbehaving in my garden, I always start by making a pros and cons list. It helps me to decide whether a plant is OK where it is or if I may need to move it elsewhere. No matter how much research we do, sometimes we still have to edit our garden.

I have a student in my Design Your 4-Season Garden course who was recently disappointed because her Agastache ‘Globetrotter’ plant wasn’t as vibrant purple as she thought it would be. While that’s definitely a bummer, a few weeks later she shared some videos in the course group of her plants buzzing with activity from pollinators, hummingbird moths and butterflies. 

The moral of the story?

While the color may have disappointed her, the attractiveness of this plant to the pollinators made up for that initial disappointment. In the end, she decided to keep the plant because the pros outweigh the cons. That’s why it’s always important to think things through and consider the pros and cons before making any rash decisions.

Keep a Gardening Journal 

I constantly make notes of what’s working and what’s not working in my garden throughout the year. Since most garden maintenance needs to be done at the end of the gardening season (in the fall), it’s easy to forget all of the important things you need to do to improve your garden for next year. That’s why keeping a journal is so useful!

Here are some things you can note in your journal:

  • To prune or divide an overgrown plant.
  • To move that mammoth plant to a new place, so it has more room to grow.
  • To find a better place for a struggling plant, so it can thrive rather than just survive.
  • A period of time that has little/no color, so you can fill the bloom gap.
  • To remember those plant pairings that have clashing colors, so you can move the culprit(s).
  • To remind yourself to research particular diseases, pests or other problems.
  • To move or remove plants that you just don’t like or aren’t what you expected, so you can find your joy.

I find that if I don’t write my observations down as I see them, I won’t remember come fall when I’m actually able to do something about them. So, every fall I pull out my journal and use it to make a to-do list. This can help you address all of the issues you made note of throughout the season so that your garden looks great next year!

I personally use Evernote as my gardening journal. It’s a notes app on my phone that allows me to digitally collect my thoughts on the go. But, a garden journal or even a small notebook also work great. Below are some physical garden journals I’ve tried in the past.

Garden Journals I Love

Whatever you decide, just find a system that works best for you… however fancy or simple that may be!

Replace the Plant with Something Else

If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and still are unhappy with a particular plant, you can always replace it! This is a totally acceptable thing to do and will likely make you a lot happier in the long run. 

Just remember that once you remove the plant, you’re going to be left with a gaping hole in your garden bed. So, decide what you’ll put in its place ahead of time. 

I often use annual plants as a temporary solution. They can really “save” a disappointing garden and turn it into something magical. It also buys me some more time to decide what I want to permanently replace a dying plant with. 

Dwarf sunspot sunflower with 6 heads
When I realized my Little Bluestem grass was going to bloom much later than I thought, I grew some dwarf sunspot sunflowers from seed to fill in my garden (2021). Photo by PrettyPurpleDoor.

At the end of last year, I planted some beautiful Little Bluestem ‘Standing Ovation’ grasses. I purchased them late in the season and they were already in bloom. I’ll admit that I didn’t do much research on this grass and found myself disappointed that in mid-summer it still was a small tuft on the ground. I was expecting it to bloom much earlier in the season, but came to learn that it’s a late season grass. Instead of being upset about this garden area the entire year, I decided to plant some dwarf sunspot sunflower seeds instead. And, it was absolutely magical. Instead of being bummed out all year, I was able to try something new. I absolutely loved the way it looked and I plan to use sunflowers again next year because of it! 

Annuals can be great solutions for so many other garden problems, too. Here are some other ways to use them:

  • Temporarily replace a pest eaten plant with an annual of the same color or similar style.
  • Supplement new perennial garden beds with annual plants. It’s a great way to create a fuller, more mature looking garden while you wait for everything to grow.
  • Experiment with new color schemes and ideas using annuals. If you don’t like the way it turned out, try something new next year!
  • If you don’t have the budget to buy a lot of annuals, consider growing your own from seed! Growing from seed is a very rewarding (and addicting) hobby.  

I usually do a mix of growing from seed and purchasing annual plants, depending on what my budget and schedule allows.

Go Easy on Yourself

I often hear from gardeners who are disappointed or downright disgusted with their results. And it really makes me sad. So my advice is to go easy on yourself. 

Sometimes plants die and we don’t know why.

Sometimes we deal with extremely unpredictable weather.

Sometimes we extensively research plants and even though they appear perfect on paper, they still don’t work.

It’s one thing to have a few failures or a bad year in your garden. It’s another thing to beat yourself up about it or give up on gardening altogether.

The truth is that every single gardener has successes and failures. But it’s the gardeners that learn from these mistakes and keep on trying that truly experience the joy of gardening as a lifelong hobby.

The trickiest thing about gardening is that it’s part art and part science. Artistic failures can kill your spirit when things don’t look like you expected. When your artist’s heart is getting in the way, it’s often easier to focus on the science side of gardening. This can help you to be more objective and ultimately from any mistakes so you can improve your next garden “painting.”

Remember that every problem is also an opportunity to learn and grow as a gardener!

How to Avoid Flower Garden Disappointment in the Future

Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why our gardens can disappoint. And, now you know that there are also solutions to many of these issues, even if they’ve already happened. 

But, what if we could anticipate some of these issues and avoid the disappointment altogether? Here are some of my favorite tips for doing just that.

Take Advantage of Tried & True Plants

It’s easy to get caught up in researching unusual plants online and buying plants from online nurseries when you can’t find them locally. But, there’s a reason some plants are found everywhere.

The reason some plants are so popular is because they just work. Don’t dismiss them!

Most landscape designers have lists of “go to” plants that they know will be effective in just about any situation. And, as you learn and grow as a gardener, you’ll also discover what plants are go-tos in your own landscape. 

My advice is to divide these wonderful gifts and spread them throughout your garden. Be thankful to have them!

If you don’t have any tried and true plants in your garden yet, head to your local nurseries. You will notice quite quickly which plants are being sold EVERYWHERE. These are the tried and trues of your area. You should try them, too!

New gardeners often say to me that they don’t want to use these tried and true plants because everyone else has them. They want their garden to be unique.  But, that’s not the case at all! 

Tried and true plants don’t have to be boring. Use these plants in unexpected ways in unexpected combinations to make it unique.

Many of my favorite plant combinations, like the ones below, were created with at least one “tried and true” common plant that you will find everywhere!

pink sedum autumn joy mixed with circular dark pink flowers
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is a tried and true plant for good reason. But, so many people use it that it can get boring in the landscape. This year, I paired it with the hot pink, round button blooms of gomphrena for a whimsical combination in my front garden bed. Photo by PrettyPurpleDoor.
Lime Green Zinnias with Dark Purple Foliage of Ninebark
‘Diablo’ Ninebark is a common, tried and true shrub. But, pair it with ‘Bernary’s Giant Lime’ Zinnia and it makes a unique and striking combination. Photo by PrettyPurpleDoor.

So, the trick to making tried and true plants look special in your garden, is to use your creativity to combine them with other plants in unique ways!

Try Out Plants Before Purchasing in Bulk

I always tell new gardeners to plant in drifts of 3, 5 or even 7 plants. I am forever preaching to get you to stop with the “onsie twosie” plant purchases, and opt for planting in mass. I definitely stand by this statement wholeheartedly.

Except when you’ve NEVER grown that particular plant before.

Or if you don’t know anyone else who has grown this plant before….

Or if you’ve never seen the plant growing in your local area before…

Maybe buying 27 of that plant online is not a great idea? 

You could be setting yourself up to fail. 

I think that you should always experiment with new plants. But, why not buy 3 plants and try them out first?

Yes, you will have to wait longer to achieve the look you’re going for. But, ultimately this tip can save you thousands of dollars.

Related Reading: Here are some more garden design tips that will save you time & money.

Do Your Research

I can’t tell you how important it is to do your research before you plant. In fact, it’s so important that I’ve created an entire online course to teach others how to properly conduct plant research and find the right plants. Here are some of my best tips.

Match Plants with Your Conditions

Ever heard the common phrase, “right plant, right place?” 

This is such great advice, because every single plant has preferred conditions. Some common conditions are your soil type, moisture levels, amount of sun in a particular area. When you match your conditions with plants that like your conditions, you will immediately improve your success as a gardener. Your plants will look healthier and require less maintenance!

Instead of trying to make that hydrangea work in full sun with drought-like conditions, you may need to choose a plant that’s more suited for that location.

While sometimes this means that you can’t have EVERY plant you want… it will teach you to seek out new plants that you may have never considered before. Who knows… they may end up being some of your absolute favorite plants in your garden. I know this has been the case for me on more than one occasion.

When you stop fighting and start matching up your plants to the conditions you’ve been given, gardening will be a lot more fun with a lot less effort. You’ll have happy plants that will reward you for giving them what they need. And the best part is that you won’t have to “fuss” over them like you do when you have the wrong plant in a particular location.

7 tips for choosing the RIGHT plants

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Learn Proper Pruning and Maintenance Techniques

Sometimes plants get a little ragged looking. This is a common “state” of many perennial plants once they go out of bloom. Learning proper pruning and maintenance techniques can keep your plants looking tidier. Proper pruning can even encourage more flowers and healthier looking plants. Here are some techniques you can try:

  • Chelsea Chop” late-blooming perennials (like asters) in late May or early June so they don’t get so tall and leggy. 
  • Shear spring-blooming perennials after blooms are spent to tidy up the plant and encourage a second flush of blooms later in the season.
  • Deadhead heavy blooming plants to make them look tidier and encourage even more flowers.
  • Before you prune a plant, learn when you should prune it (early spring, late fall… or never).

Some gardeners choose to let their plants just grow naturally. So, you can also just embrace what you have and let your plants grow as they like. There’s even an entire garden style dedicated to embracing this wild and unkempt garden look. New perennialism, often referred to as naturalistic garden style or even “bedhead” gardening, embraces the look of an unkempt garden. I personally love the term bedhead garden! So fun!

Naturalistic gardening is often a more wildlife friendly and low maintenance option, too.

Learn From Your Mistakes

It’s ok to make mistakes. I make mistakes in my gardens all the time. The key is to learn from what happened so that we can be better gardeners in the future. 

So, make sure that you document the mistakes that happen in your garden (use your garden journal). And, don’t forget to reflect on past mistakes so that you’re better prepared in the future!

I often find that after I research a plant issue and know the warning signs, I’m much more observant of the problem and can act more quickly the next year.

Don’t ever stop learning!

Wrapping up

Gardening should be fun. Especially if you have a system to follow like in my online garden design course. If something goes wrong, I know that my students will have the knowledge and skills to adapt and ultimately fix these issues. I’d love for you to join us, too!

Knowing that gardens change and evolve over time takes the pressure off. Enjoy the process, it’s not a race and it’s never going to be perfect. 

If you’re not killing plants you’re not growing as a gardener.

I always say that if you’re not killing plants you’re not growing as a gardener.

So, congrats, you’re getting better with each and every failure you have – as long as you’re learning from these failures instead of beating yourself up over them.

That’s why I love gardening so much.

Learn how to prevent even more of the most common mistakes I see home gardeners make in this free online training video.

And, if you love to garden and are looking for a step by step process to follow, definitely check out my Design Your 4-Season Garden course.

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