A Lesson from the Garden

Of all the vegetables a gentleman farmer cultivates, tomatoes may be the easiest to grow organically. Aside from onions, indestructible optimists who require virtually no care whatsoever, tomatoes seem to provide the organic gardener with the highest success rate, the best fruit-to-labor ratio. They’re vines, and, like most vines, if they’re left to their own opportunistic devices, tomatoes will find a way to flourish — and to engulf other plants that don’t grow as aggressively as they. Sun, water, and a little compost, and they’re happy. 

But even tomatoes don’t succeed at everything they try. Much of the pruning I do on weekends is devoted to removing sickly or undernourished tendrils, cleansing the fertile trunk of energy-sucking offshoots that fail to produce sweet vegetables. My rough estimate is that for every ten attempts a tomato plant makes to blaze a new path, to establish a new colony of branches, at least 20% (one out of five) fail to mature into dark green, bee-attracting blossoms.

As I trim, I’m reminded that even successful organisms consistently fail. And I’ve started to become convinced that one of the reasons they succeed at all is because they’re willing to try again and again, willing to have their best efforts amount to nothing.

Nature offers a multitude of examples: salmon spawn, mosquito larvae, dandelions. They’re all successful species riddled with omnipresent failure.

So are baseball players who fail to reach base seven out of ten times. So was Thomas Edison, who “invented” plenty of stuff that never escaped his Menlo Park workshop.

Every day I spend in my garden leaves me more convinced that the essential element in success is a willingness to fail. Tomato plants don’t worry about looking stupid, confounding expectations, or being thought foolish. They’re not concerned with suffering innumerable minor deaths. They just want to live one major life.

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