The Adequate Gardener Puts Her Garden to Bed

Guest post by Jane Eaton Hamilton

“…we had plenty of expensive, susceptible, fragile exotica that needed winter protection.”

It was August. And then it was September. We’d put in a whole lot of tropicals and sub-tropicals and still hadn’t solved our winter storage problem. Which was stupid, since 16 months before we’d bought a lotus, a $90 plant which was now a sad, mucky, mosquito-breeding, deceased mess of soup waiting in its muddy plastic pot to be carted to the compost bins, and that now–again, idjits that we were–we had plenty of expensive, susceptible, fragile exotica that needed winter protection. We hemmed and hawed and fretted about what to do. A greenhouse? But there was no room, unless we built it on our more-or-less unused second story deck and committed to hauling plants up and down the stairs.

So, a second-floor greenhouse. Mind, such a greenhouse wouldn’t just appear. It would necessitate finding a worker to construct it, and we haven’t had a lot of luck with workers. There was Billy with the walrus mustache who started to re-do our drainage tiles by digging a six foot pit along the side of our house –shovelling the dirt up against the rot-susceptible fence–before knocking off for the day. And apparently the week. Then a whole month. To traverse our property, we had to climb up this crumbling mountain and skid down the other side. It took us more than two years to get around to filling his hole back in, and we never did fix the drainage. Then there was Gary who erected the fence posts without concrete supports so that the fence fell over in the first wind. Or Colin who planted our dogwood still tied tightly into its burlap bag so it sat there stunned and sulking. Or Henry of the ponytail who fixed the leaking basement door by pouring cement around the drain, removing the only water reservoir and compounding the problem dramatically. And lest we forget my personal favorite, Neal, who when I complained about him not showing up, said bitterly, “I have all the work I need. I can treat you any damn way I want to.”

“Something like three years elapsed while I churned in my seat waiting for an entire sentence to meander from Rex’s mouth…”

So we decided to ask one of the only guys who had ever worked out, an electrician, for a referral. And we got Rex. Rex joined us for tea. Something like three years elapsed while I churned in my seat waiting for an entire sentence to meander from Rex’s mouth, but when he finally spoke, I liked what he had to say.

He was willing to work to our admittedly peculiar specifications. We wanted a series of tempered glass windows around the circumference topped by–well, we weren’t sure. Did Rex have suggestions?

He scratched his head and chewed on a toothpick and poured some more tea and stood and resat himself. He tapped his pencil on the table. He kicked the table leg. He sent his eyebrows crawling up his forehead like caterpillars. Finally, he puzzled over potential snow loads and whether the current porch posts could support roof weight. Slowly, with his pen dipped in molasses, he sketched the design. He went upstairs to look at the space. He took measurements, his tape snapping back into its casing with a snake’s hiss.

“Gimme a week,” he said. He planned to work up plans and a budget.

We spent the time in the yard huffing on our babies to keep them warm.

Rex came in with a solid plan (we thought) and a reasonable budget, only five days late, but couldn’t start for a month.

On the long-awaited morning, Rex knocked, turned his cap around in his hands on our front porch, wouldn’t come in. “I was thinking,” he said. “You folks’ll be needing–” He couldn’t bring himself to finish his sentence. He scratched his head, looked up at the porch roof. I said, “Insert predicate here.”

Finally: “You folks might need a gutter.”

Puzzled, I waited to see where he was going.

He moved a toothpick around his mouth then pushed it out with his tongue, so shredded I thought it was likely the same one he’d been chewing the month before.

“Plus, way I figure it, you’re gonna have a gap couple a inches wide where the windows don’t meet the roof.”

My blood was battering its way through arteries undesigned for the sudden force–I could actually feel my pressure rising.

“Cause, see, the way I’ve got it designed, the roof won’t meet the walls. So, er–” Enthusiastic messing of hair. “–is that, like, okay? That’s fine, right?”

“Won’t meet the walls,” I said. “Right. Thing is, Rex, we can’t really have a gap there, Rex, since we’re trying to save our tropicals from freezing, Rex. We’re planning to heat the greenhouse, remember, Rex? We’re trying to keep the weather out, Rex, right?”

So Rex looked at me a long time. He said, “Guess I don’t really want to bother, Ma’am.”

And geez, whaddayaknow, the guy walked off.

“In the spring, we placed 97 pots of canna in the kitchen by the only windows in the house that get any type of light.”

It was late October and we didn’t have a greenhouse, even Rex’s knocked-up, slipshod, half-open-to-the-elements greenhouse. And we needed a greenhouse. We had already bought and caulked fourteen unreturnable greenhouse windows. We called the store where we had bought them, frantic. Helpfully, they could also be used as windows in a tiny, pre-fab, lean-to greenhouse, which could be delivered, the store said, by Valentine’s Day.

We would mulch instead.

We drove to a street with a good selection of maple leaves and homeowners who raked them and when we were sure no one was looking, we heaved sodden, heavy bags into the back of the Nissan and took off like bats. We stood in the yard feeding leaves into a garbage can bit by bit, like flour into a cake mix, and chopped them into fragments with our weed eater. This task was undertaken because perfect gardeners had assured us maple leaves made exceptional mulch and that chopping them into pea-size particles prevented them from forming a suffocating mat.

This task was stunningly time consuming. When we were done, it was dark, dead dark. No chance to pack the nuggets into elaborately constructed cages around pathetic looking bananas and agapanthus, so we tossed them into garbage bags and tucked them out of sight behind our composters. When we went to retrieve them the next weekend, they had vanished.

So we tied burlap around our windmill palms and packed it full of dripping oak leaves from the nearby schoolyard, capping it off with a bonnet of plastic. We carted cannas and brugmansias into the heated basement, except for one pathetic brugmansia with spider mites which we lifted screaming from its pot and tossed, exposed, onto the top of the compost heap, where it lay kicking its bedraggled roots and wrinkling up its stalk. We dumped leaves around our romneya, wound bubble wrap around our outdoor pots, tucked up the tree fern under an overhang.

But rats and starlings made it through the winter better than our plants. In the spring, we placed 97 pots of canna in the kitchen by the only windows in the house that get any type of light. This meant that we couldn’t access the door even to water the tree fern, which groaned and died. We lost the romneya following a hard frost in March. The wrapped palm had fungus rot. And every brugmansia, which we had likewise neglected to water, was pushing up daisies, except, of course, for the one tossed onto the compost heap, which had leapt to its roots singing songs of atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine.

Before we took delivery of our little lean-to greenhouse, the supplier went bust. The store let us buy the demo, but they insisted we take the thing apart ourselves. So off we went to get our drills and screwdrivers before spending an afternoon unscrewing the damned thing. The employees hadn’t done a great job of assembly to begin with–some of the boards were split. Money off? Well, no, said the manager. We’re already doing you a big favour.

Never mind that the thing came apart to a gazillion pieces, some of them no bigger than eyelashes, and without instructions.

Once it’s erected, watch out.

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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