The Adequate Gardener Buys Three

Guest post by Jane Eaton Hamilton

“It never crossed my mind that the experts were giving bad advice.”

All the books said buy three or five or better yet seven of every perennial so the plants wouldn’t look like green toothpicks stuck in a frosting of dirt. Well, I couldn’t afford five or seven of anything, so I’d chew my lip and purchase three. Then I’d hang over the nursery table hungering after a Meconopsis grandis which I couldn’t afford because my buggy was filled with three ho-hum pink and three so-so white astilbes. I always assumed my frustration stemmed from not having enough money. It never crossed my mind that the experts were giving bad advice. Or not bad advice, maybe, but advice meant for someone else. Someone in England. Someone with a peerage.

Sure, if I had an acre, two acres, three… Imagine the sweeps and drifts. But I only had a city lot in the usual east-side Vancouver measurement of 120 feet by 33 feet, with a century-old farmhouse galumphing smack through the middle. Did I really need six astilbes? All the books assured me I did. All the newspaper articles said so.

Gives necessary impact, the writers advised.

Never mind that by the very next year I’d figured out that I didn’t really care for astilbes, and that a year after that we dug them out and donated them to our garden club plant sale. (This year, just because I decided to hate them, the astilbes are back with a vengeance. Who needed six when one would have self-seeded just as readily?)

Oh, experts! I so took their advice to heart about buying three plants that I carted home three goutweeds, which proceeded to eat my east sun bed then my cat. Last I looked, they had managed to string one of their roots around our daughter’s ankle and were determinedly tugging her beneath the soil. I also bought three plume poppies. Yup. And planted them at the back of the sun bed. Beside the three gooseneck loosestrife the books said I should have.

” What I need is not three identical plants, but three lives, because that’s how long I’m going to be spending trying to get rid of my triads of invasive plants. “

And one time I hauled home the regulation three Oriental poppies–salmon, said the tag, with purple basal blotches. I happily planted the dears and mooned over their sites until March when the tips of their foliage feathered up through the winter cold slick of wet leaves. I was quivering with anticipation. What fertilizer is to garden plants, poppies are to me: necessary for existence.

Still, still. I have to admit to something the adequate gardener did that the perfect gardener would never have done in a billion springs. She stole out when that first three-pack of mollycoddled Oriental poppies were finally budding–rotund, green and hairy–and, checking both ways to ensure no rogue gardener (there wouldn’t be anything but a rogue in our cement neighbourhood) was looking–peeled a bud open. Which is, incidentally, how I learned that a bud unready to open is, well, actually unready to open. The buds resisted. Resisted, if you can imagine, like they were dead bolts and saw me, the adequate gardener, rollicking towards them with a lockpick.

But I am nothing if not brutal, so eventually I was able to start teasing back a slice of cold bristling green skin, hoping to expose– Oops–Joy caught me. Why did that single moment have to be the single moment she wasn’t utterly distracted by the green snouts of her eighteen thousand cannas? At least by then I didn’t care that she was scolding me because I was exposing not smooth, tight-packed salmon petals but screaming shrieking orange petals. Orange like our bad soil. Orange like an orange. Orange like a seventies countertop. Bright, snapping, popping, look-at-me-to-see-how-I-clash orange.

Our one banned colour.

While we watched in dismay, the flower unfolded like discarded scarlet Kleenex. Bloodless. Anemic. Bent in discouragement like an old tulip. I could tell it was no happier being orange than we were in having it orange. (Either that or it objected to my molestation, and of course that’s unlikely.)

Out they came. That minute, the three of them, spade shoved into ground deep as we could get it.

Guess what we learned? Dig up “buy-three” Oriental orange poppies and their thick-knotted ropes of tap roots break and then, like bindweed, shatter, so that the next year you get–you guessed it–double the already triple banned orange poppies. Which is six.

So much for the experts. All the experts ever got us was three times the problems we would have had left to our own devices. Three orange poppies in year one, six orange poppies in year two, twelve orange poppies in year three and no doubt by the time I die a billion and four orange poppies taking over every unspare inch of my measly “three-bought” city garden. Moving on to push through the neighbours’ cement pads. Moving on, I hope, to the nearest expert’s garden. Moving on to take over the globe.

We made a determination this year not to try digging up that grove of orange poppies. Rather, kingly–why, exactly as if I was actually British–I chopped off their heads and watched them roll, whitely bleeding from their severed necks, into the roadway.

What I need is not three identical plants, but three lives, because that’s how long I’m going to be spending trying to get rid of my triads of invasive plants.

Why buy five or seven of anything when you don’t have the money? When you have a small garden? When you don’t know if the tag is accurate? When you don’t know if you’ll like it?

Nope. Buy one. If it works out the way you hope, then you can get more for impact–if the plant itself hasn’t already seeded or clumped or sent runners for more impact than you planned.

I just read an article in a British magazine by a woman who had decided not to listen to the experts. She wasn’t going to buy just seven of anything. Why waste the time? She’d be ahead, wouldn’t she, if she bought nine to start out with? Or eleven? Or thirteen?

Hmm…thirteen orange poppies doubling in size every year. Wish I’d thought of that.

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the award-winning author of four books. She grew up in Ontario, lived in St. Louis, Phoenix, NYC, Alberta, the Kootenays and on Salt Spring Island before settling in Vancouver. You can find out more about her at


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