April 21 was my last day at The Vancouver Sun, after 38 years, 26 of which were spent writing gardening stories. My last column was in the paper April 22.
I am not forlorn, just sad that the decline of the newspaper resulted in such serious staff reductions.
I still believe people here want a newspaper they can be proud of – the same way they want an art gallery they can be proud of and a symphony orchestra and a botanical garden they can be proud of.
However, this will be very difficult to achieve, especially since so many talented people have now left. I was privileged and humbled to work alongside many of the best writers and editors in Canada. But onward and upward.
Today I’m thinking back over the 26 years of my career as a garden writer and remembering all the lovely gardens I have seen and fun times I’ve had interviewing talented gardeners.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
I joined the paper in 1979, but it wasn’t until I went to work for Ann Barling, editor of New Homes, at the start of the 1990s that I began to write about gardens and gardening. Ann was a kind, professional and competent editor who allowed me to try my hand at writing some garden pieces.
My first was a review of Toronto gardener Marjorie Harris’s new book, The Canadian Gardener. I also did a review around the same time of a book on propagation by Bruce Macdonald, then the director of the University of B.C. Botanical Garden.
Soon after, I began writing about local gardeners, starting, funnily enough, with a feature on my neighbour, Kay Huffman, an avid greenthumb who lived across the street from me in Burnaby.
At first, Kay was a little difficult. She didn’t care whether I wrote about her garden or not. She made me wait and wait for an interview. Then, one day, she called me up and said, “Okay, let’s talk.”
In the story, I mentioned how she had lost a grandchild and was consoled by the peace and beauty she found in the garden.
The story touched a positive nerve with readers. Kay was surprised by the sudden flood of compliments on her garden and kind support. Ann Barling was also pleased; she liked the reader feedback and encouraged me to do more garden stories.
Bruce Macdonald pointed me in the right direction. He said I should start by talking to Margaret Charlton, a well-known and knowledgeable gardener living in the Woodlands district of North Vancouver. She still lives there today.
I went to chat with Margaret and she ended up giving me a list of names of all the people she considered to be the movers and shakers in the local gardening community – people who either had great gardens or were responsible for maintaining or building great gardens or were specialists at propagating or breeding plants.
Margaret’s list became my story worksheet for the next few months. I took her advice and interviewed pretty much everyone on the list.
She pointed me to Francisca Darts, Pam Frost, Don Armstrong, George Radford, Kathy Leishman, Phoebe Noble, Roy Forster and many others. Once I had interviewed them, they pointed me to other people.
Over the next year, I ended up interviewing pretty much everyone who was anyone in the BC world of gardening. It didn’t take long before gardeners started to take notice.
Of course, I didn’t know much. Bruce MacDonald was extremely kind at the time, saying that he thought what I was trying to do was “very brave” because he knew how much criticism I would face, making any mistakes as I learned.
But I concentrated on telling stories about people and their passion for plants and flowers and gardens. That was all I needed to do and try as hard as I could to get botanical names spelt correctly. They were wonderful days of discovery.
As I did more interviews and met more and more knowledgeable gardeners, I started to learn. Pam Frost introduced me to euphorbias. Francisca Darts showed me the beauty of aquilegia. In Victoria, mathematics professor Phoebe Noble told me all about hardy geraniums and sent me home with plants for my garden.
And so it went.
You have to understand that when I interviewed experts, I would spend hours with them in their garden. I recorded everything and went home and transcribed every word they said. But I didn’t use everything. In fact, I probably used less than half of what we talked about in any given interview.
After six years of doing this, I had interviewed dozens of experts, many famous gardeners: Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey, John Brookes, David Stephens, Marco Polo Stefano, Stephen Lacey.
Next, I was asked to write a book by Sun editorial executive Daphne Gray-Grant. It was a big surprise.
I told Daphne I knew about 100 plants well. “Okay, then, write that – 100 Best Plants.” And that is what I did. Daphne edited the book and it was a No. 1 bestseller, staying in the top slot of the BC Bestseller list for 13 weeks.
Whitecap, the publisher, asked me to write another one – 100 Best Plants for Ontario – and then another, The Blooming Great Gardening Book, and finally one called The Vancouver Sun Best Plant Picks. They all sold very well.
Other highlights in my 26 years as a garden writer?
Well, David Lam, BC’s lieutenant-governor took a shine to me and very kindly invited me to Government House when Queen Elizabeth visited.
I got to fly to Victoria and walk into the grounds of Government House and was admitted to the exclusive compound with the Queen.
The fun part was the moment when I noticed all the news media standing on the other side of the barrier.
I wandered over to the ribbon separating us to see my colleague Moira Farrow from the Sun.
When she saw me she gasped and exclaimed: “How the hell did you get in there!”
“Now, Moira,” I said, “just remember to stay on your side of this ribbon.”
I have been honoured a couple of times with awards that meant something to me. I was named Communicator of the Year by the BC Landscape and Nursery Trades Association. That was an unexpected honour, something I always valued as it was given by leaders in the horticultural industry.
I also was named Canadian Garden Journalist of Year by the Canadian Garden Council in 2015 which brought me more kind emails from friends and colleagues than I ever expected.
I have many other memories. Too many to recount here. I’m actually thinking it would be fun to write a more detailed year by year account of my time as a gardening writer, recalling all the wonderful people I have met and what they taught me (taught all of us) and the wonderful gardens I have been privileged to visit plus some of the odd and quirky behind-the-scenes stories. It could be fun to do it.
My wife, Loraine, doesn’t want me to work harder now I am “retired” than I did when I was the paper. I agree. I have no wish to put myself on a tedious treadmill.
But I think I can still have fun and make a contribution. That’s really what this new website is all about. I hope you like it. Please give me your feedback.
It is by no means finished. It will continue to grow. Who knows how good it can get.
Next month, I will be heading off to England to lead two garden tours out the Lake District in England into North Wales and over to Ireland and then down to London for the Chelsea Flower Show.
I plan to write about the places we go and the gardens we see and I will also be posting photos and some video of Chelsea, so stay tuned.
Anyway, as I come to an end here, let me thank all of you for your support and encouragement. It has been an amazing adventure over the years.
A smarter person would have learned a lot more given all the opportunities I was given. But, hey, I did what I did, and it is what it is.
I’m looking at this time of change positively, as the end of one phase and the start of something new and just as much fun.
I hope you will stick with me and see where we end up. Together.