In praise of real gardeners

Janice Wells
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I am telling myself that there is no pressure on me with the loss of J.J. Strong’s gardening column. After all, everyone knows that J. J. Strong is a real gardener and I am a gin and tonic gardener.

No one in their right mind will expect me to provide the kind of solid practical advice that Mr. Strong has provided Telegram readers for an impressive 27 years.

I can, however, share my enjoyment of gardens and my experiences and hope that I might even convince other people who aren’t “real gardeners” that there really are plants and techniques you can use to enhance your garden and your whole property without knowing much about gardening or doing a lot of work.     

One of my definitions of a real gardener is someone who is determined to be the best gardener he or she can be. I used to be a really determined gardener, which, unfortunately, is not to be confused with being a really good gardener.

A good gardener does all kinds of things that I know I should do but often put off until it’s too late. A good gardener is a doer, not a procrastinator. A gin and tonic gardener is good at ignoring weeds and planning to do things and imagining what the garden will look like when all these things are done. Therefore gin and tonic gardens are quite often better in the gardener’s mind’s eye than in reality.

When I started gardening way back when, I think I believed that my enthusiasm would automatically reward me with a garden like my mother’s: full of colour all season long, with dozens of varieties of perennials and roses. I devoured gardening books and magazines and kept a journal of everything I planted; when and where and how it did, when it bloomed. I had (and still have) some wonderful successes and some spectacular failures.

I used to stress about it. What was I doing wrong? After a few years and a few gardens and a fair amount of frustration, I decided I was being too hard on myself. So what if my thumb wasn’t as green as my mother’s? So what if my garden would never be on a garden tour or featured in a magazine? I am compelled by something in my DNA to garden, so I might as well relax, not take it or myself too seriously, and just enjoy the blessing of having a bit of soil to putter in.

Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about gardening and plants. I know a whole lot more than a person who isn’t a gardener at all. I know a fair bit about what’s easy to grow and what gets sulky if you don’t pay enough attention to it. I’ve learned not to keep things like that in my garden because “know thyself” is an important motto to remember if you want to avoid feeling guilty in your garden.

But even gin and tonic gardeners like to learn, so thank you J.J. Strong for the wealth of knowledge you have shared over the years.

And thank you to readers who write to share tips and experience, like R. Hall, who explained my morning glory failure:

“Janice, your answer is in your post: ‘They quickly grew up and over the backs, but I did not see a bloom first nor last. I had good potting soil and also fed them, but nada. Zilch.’ Morning Glory vines will grow well in rich soil but will not flower. The answer is to plant them in the poorest soil you can find, avoid watering after the initial establishment and never ever feed them. Morning glories are the poster plants for ‘killing with kindness.’ Poor soil, a sunny spot and very little fussing will usually deliver a strong plant which will bloom profusely within 60-120 days (depending on days of sunshine).”

 Nasturtiums also prefer poor soil, by the way — a tip I learned almost literally at my mother’s knee.


Janice Wells lives in St. John’s. Her latest book, “Newfoundland and Labrador Book of Musts,” was published in October 2010 by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc. You can reach her at Note to readers: please do not send thumbnail-size photographs, as they are too small to publish.

Organizations: MacIntyre Purcell Publishing

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