The Adequate Gardener: Fine Gardening Comes Calling

Guest post by Jane Eaton Hamilton

“Fine Gardening commissioned an article on poppies, and they wanted to fly up to Vancouver to photograph mine.”

Joy and I started gardening with one proviso: We could garden our little hearts out, landscaping and tilling every inch of our 120 foot by 33 foot lot into beds and paths and even grottos, but we would never-ever-say yes to being on a garden tour. Sure, we craved the notice. What gardener doesn’t? This is a big green-eyed beast, this ego stuff. Almost as soon as Joy and I had started to dig, we longed to hear that our garden was beautiful, timeless, serene. Why, look at your drifts! Your clumps! Your cascades! We’re rabid for praise. We want to know through others’ eyes that what we wish was true really is true: There’s been no other garden in history as lovely as ours. (Or at least as lovely as ours was last week. If only the visitor had seen it when the roses were in full bloom, when the blue poppies were flowering, just after the grass was cut, before the storm dragged the peonies to the ground.) If we said yes to a tour, we’d be big shots. We’d be the Hobhouses of Hatterly. The Sackville-Wests of Simon Avenue East. The Hinkleys of Huron. It could happen. It could happen to us! Why not? Why not us?

But any notice that came our way, we suspected, would be bound to swell our heads. Which in turn would destroy the purity and pleasure of gardening. Stamping our feet over newly planted bulbs, we agreed we would never-ever-assent to having our garden photographed for a magazine. We began to garden because we love the process-the peace, the beauty, the relaxation, the hard physical workout of it. We wanted the yard to function as respite from the rush and noise of the city around us: a place to rest our weary spirits. Loveliness for the sake of loveliness, not editors.

But boy hardy, never say never. Fine Gardening commissioned an article on poppies, and they wanted to fly up to Vancouver to photograph mine. I admit that I didn’t even contemplate declining. Writing is what I do for a living, and if a garden shoot is part of the gig, well, who am I to say no? Values? Out the window. The editor and I settled on the last week of June, the likeliest time for the biggest variety of annual poppies to be blooming.

“Joy and I began to chant, like some funereal dirge: Fine Gardening’s coming Fine Gardening’s coming Fine Gardening’s coming.”

This was in March, when Joy and I were smack in the middle of a frenzy of renovation. Idiots that we are, we had decided to install a hottub, but the porch needed to be demolished, and a cement pad poured, and a door cut into the side of the house, and a change room built, and a deck laid, and trellis erected, and then, because our electrical wasn’t upgraded, we had to replace our stove with one fueled by gas, only when it arrived, it bumped up against the closet, so we had to knock it out, but the closet had a sunken floor and a raised ceiling, necessitating great swacks of drywalling. Meantime, due to overhead wires, the hottub was craned into the backyard from the street-over the neighbour’s house. Everything got delayed and delayed again. Tempers flared.

Joy and I began to chant, like some funereal dirge: Fine Gardening’s coming Fine Gardening’s coming Fine Gardening’s coming. Threatening the workmen. Threatening each other. Any upkeep or improvement that might have been fun given a leisurely schedule was now accordioned into two short months, and included such unlikely tasks as oiling and sharpening garden tools lest the FG editor catch a glimpse of them. Have you ever painted trellis? I did, around the hottub, triangle by repetitious two-sided triangle until I wanted to twist the stem of every poppy that had led me down this vain garden path. Everything had to be perfect. Do you hear me, Joy? Perfect! Perfect, I say!

Most foolish of all, I grew annual poppies in seed flats instead of sewing them where they belonged, scattered among the beds where they’d rise in naturalistic waves. I was paranoid that FG would need to know the exact variety of every poppy they saw (like Papaver rhoeas ‘Angel’s Choir’), for labeling purposes, and what if I didn’t know, exactly? What if I hadn’t quite memorized every last one? Ever the zealot, I had snatched up nearly 30 unique seed packs from a wide assortment of nurseries. There’s a problem transplanting poppies because of long tap roots which hate disturbance, so feeling congratulatory and brilliant, I sprinkled my oh-so-plentiful seeds on top of luxuriously deep toilet paper tubes I could, ostensibly, just transfer to the ground come April. But the seeds only reluctantly germinated, no matter how I stood over them huffing and puffing. More worrying still, there seemed to be hardly any back-up poppies coming up in the garden beds.

“Grow, I pled each morning. Grow, I whispered each evening, and grow they did, by leaps and bounds, in nitrogen-rich handfuls of greenery.”

Oops! It didn’t quite take until April for the toilet paper tubes to biodegrade. Within days the constantly damp cardboard disintegrated into a moldy mess, taking with them down the drain much of my damped-off crop. I murmured sweet nothings to the rest, and they at least flourished. Eventually, when I could spare a minute from the ferocious demands of renovation, I tweezed tangled tap roots from the undifferentiated mess of potting soil and black moldy toilet paper tubes, and lowered them like rescuers on ropes into pre-dug holes. Grow, I pled each morning. Grow, I whispered each evening, and grow they did, by leaps and bounds, in nitrogen-rich handfuls of greenery. Oops again. In March, just as soon as I accepted the assignment, Joy and I had dumped the finest top soil we could find, half a foot of it, all over the beds in a foolhardy attempt to impress the editor with the lushness of our garden.

It was lush, really lush, but with hardly any flowers. There was nary a poppy bud to be seen.

Late June arrived, and with it the editor. Our garden was beside itself with beauty, putting on a show to rival New York’s Broadway, except there was-

Well, you can see it coming, in this slapstick idiocy I call my life, and you’re right. Yup — not a single annual poppy in bloom. No somniferums, no rhoeas, no nudicaule, no californicas. The article had to be entirely illustrated with poppies from other people’s gardens.

Hubris, that’s what the whole thing was. Mine. All around town annual poppies bent in gentle breezes, letting the editor from Fine Gardening know the failure wasn’t Vancouver’s oddly cold spring, but rather me, the inadequate gardener, so desperate to impress that I’d blown the whole experience.

And my poppies? They bloomed as if sniggering at me, hundreds upon hundreds, exactly two weeks late, splendidly.

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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