The Adequate Gardener

Guest post by Jane Eaton Hamilton

” I used to try to be perfect. “

The perfect gardener, me? Hah. I wouldn’t even try. I garden on the adequate system. There’s no point in going for anything else, not if, like me, you still always come up short. Short on resources, short on energy, short on time, short on skill, and even, yes, short on perfection in the garden. Let’s face it. Life’s a lottery and my green thumbs didn’t wind up printed with a pair of sixes.

I used to try to be perfect. Twenty years ago, to me, the definition of a perfect gardener was a vegetable gardener. I was, more or less, a hippie, and the hippie rule book decreed that vegies were mandatory, whereas flowers…well, sniff. Flowers didn’t have any utility. They were okay wild in a field, or embroidered on a baggy dress, but as for growing them? My friends said, For what?

To look at? I answered.

My friends just shook their heads and regarded me with something like pity. So I thought if you didn’t grow enough zuchinnis to feed the local uranium mine protesters, well, you didn’t deserve your own secateurs. You should just use scissors. Or maybe, like my next door neighbour recently seen pruning her lilac, a meat cleaver.

So there I was with no more time than money to rub together, out hoeing between rows of carefully seeded carrots and tomatoes. Barefoot, pregnant, long hair parted in the middle, no makeup. I took up cooking, which I wanted to like but actually hated. I took up crafts, which part of me liked and part of me secretly loathed. I took up Birkenstocks.

There was a nemesis riding on my shoulder and when I looked appreciatively at a fuchsia basket she slapped me. Vegetable gardeners good, she whispered. Flower gardeners bad.

(If you’re not a giver, you’re a taker, she said. If you’re not part of the solution, she said, you’re part of the problem.)

I liked it out there in the garden. I liked the sun on my neck and the smell of the loam and the tall whisper of the corn rows. I liked how the vegetables grew from mere specks. I liked the fat orange bellies of the pumpkins. I liked the long orange snouts of carrots. I liked rolling hot peas from their pods. But I still longed for flowers.

Now what? I asked my friends in late August when things – too many things – were maturing all at once.

Why, said my friends, you just put everything up.

Up? I asked. Up where?

But they just laughed.

Up, it turned out, was not exactly up. It was in. In canning jars. Jars with complicated lids that kept springing free and whapping me. Jars with flat gold lids with soft white undersides and red rubber rims. Jars with second lids that screwed over the first lids. Watch out, admonished my advisors, for signs of bacteria, rust, dents, discolouration.

Putting food up, it was explained, meant a whole raft of things I wished I’d never heard of–not just mason jars but blue speckled canners the size of Toronto, tongs Godzilla could have fit his hands around better than I could my little ones. And in the fry heat of late August, a stove with all its burners turned to high. My hair in a scarf with humid tendrils glued to the side of my face. My baby flushed and cranky. My dog lethargic. Trying not to worry about a writing deadline so I could just “be there” with the veggies. Being there was big in those days. (We had to be there even during childbirth, when drugs were forbidden. We called our contractions “rushes” with the idea we wouldn’t notice they hurt.) Now I was expected to be there with my canning. Blanch, seal, pickle, pop.

I had ten dozen (120!) jars hot as Hades laid out on newspapers leaking dyes onto my kitchen floor filled to the brim with stewed red tomato pulp and floating yellow seeds while I hovered over them on my hands and knees listening for the ping to tell me the jar had successfully sealed and we wouldn’t be getting ptomaine poisoning. And then it occurred to me: I didn’t like tomatoes.

I didn’t like fresh tomatoes. I didn’t like tomato sauce on spaghetti. I didn’t like tomato sauce in casseroles and I didn’t really even like casseroles.

I looked across the kitchen at the daughter who’d fallen asleep with her politically correct cloth-diapered bottom in the air and realized it was a little too late for realizations.

I wanted to be good but I hated canning.

My friends said this:

Why did you can so many tomatoes?

I don’t think all those lids have sealed. You’ll notice a depression if they’ve all sealed. Is that a depression? I don’t think I see a depression. (That’s because you’re not looking at me, I thought.)

Why did you use pint jars?

Aren’t you just exhausted?

Well, yes, I was. I was a perfect, wilted gardener. And my little daughter was fed up for wanting more attention. And my back hurt. And my partner just turned up his eyes at all the new food which we didn’t have room to store, or months enough to eat before it was gardening season all over again. It took me a bunch more years before I discovered I didn’t have to be perfect–not at gardening or anything else. I didn’t have to second guess what other people expected of me and then try to accomplish it.

Nope, I figured out I could manage life on the good-enough system. No more Supermom. No more Superspade. Do a good enough job raising my kids. Do a good enough job in the garden.

As a result, not much changed. I stopped busting my butt and nothing fell apart. Things didn’t go to wrack and ruin. Sure, maybe there was a little more black spot on the roses, but as Audrey Litherland, the famed Vancouver gardener says, I like variegation.

And anyway, you’ve got to admit that five foot tall weeds are easier to spot.

Didn’t Roseanne say it best? “If my kids are alive at the end of the day,” she opined, “I’ve done my job.”

She was right. If the garden grows, if my plants aren’t shriveling up and dying, if I make an occasional mistake and rectify it later when I have time, nothing awful happens.

A friend from my hippie days just came to visit me. Flowers? she said, sniffing. But where did you put the vegetable patch?

I had to admit I didn’t have one. I just grow ornamentals. And not perfect ones, either, but adequate blooms in adequate colour combinations doing not too badly–and no matter what she or anyone else thinks, the world is a little better off for all the aimless beauty in my yard.

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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