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Chapter 10: Show Time

It’s windy and grey and Friday the 13th. I’m headed to the garden show at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington. “I’m in the last booth,” Keith tells me when I call him first thing in the morning. Carolyn had been planning to hold the fort at the nursery but with the weather being bad, she’s decided to accompany him.

Outside, the beginnings of shoots on trees and shrubs… A magnolia that looks as if it’s ready to pop... Intimations that spring may be here one day.

Inside, warmth and light and fragrance! I wander through the exhibits. I want to buy everything! Weird conifers from Japan! Daylilies! Blown glass hummingbirds! Watering gizmos! Keith is indeed upstairs, sitting behind a table at the last booth, number 610, which is so last it isn’t even on the show’s printed map.

He hasn’t got any plants for sale, because of his refusal to sterilize his soil – it’s pasteurized, which kills off most weed seeds, but not sterilized because he believes the micro-organism are necessary. Unsterilized soil isn’t allowed IN the show for fear it’s harbouring an invasive pathogen.

On display instead Keith has three thick binders with pictures of the plants he could have brought with him, some extra laminated pictures of a few selected items and a whole lot of business cards. Also copies of the most recent catalogue, from 2000, (no photos) and an aerial shot of the Country Squires Garden property. Keith is looking spiffy. He’s swapped his usual baseball cap and work boots for a green herringbone tweed jacket, mid-green trousers, white shirt, green-patterned tie and highly polished black shoes. An English countryman look. Carolyn has gone walkabout, so I settle into the chair beside him. A couple of women stop, look, wonder what it’s all about.

“Can I help you?” he asks. A picture of a Lupin catches one woman’s eye. “I can never grow Lupins,” she sighs. “You want me to tell you what you’re doing wrong?” Keith asks. She looks at him straight on and nods. He launches in to his description of the poor plant that has never experienced winter because it’s lived its pampered life in a greenhouse, and has been grown in soilless mix.

“Right there you’ve got two strikes against you.” He holds up two fingers. “Everything I grow is frozen solid all winter, we don’t own a greenhouse.” The woman and her friend are intrigued, they get into a discussion of all the plants they’ve had that have died. Keith promises his plants don’t die because he’s done everything he can do to kill them already. What’s more, if she gets a Lupin from him, “I’m going to absolutely guarantee it.” They leave with his cards which have locator maps on the back, promising to visit. And as I watch the scene repeated through the day, many people make the same promise and I have a feeling they will be by – there’s something compelling about Keith. A combination of volume and intensity.

Carolyn turns up, eye-catching in pale blue cardigan and matching trousers, a white shirt collar showing at the neck, diamond studs in her ears, red lipstick and mascara. She has a way with colours and is a very handsome woman. It’s overcast, she tells me, so she didn’t have to stay behind to open the vents to the outdoors and cool things down in the bedding house. On a day like this, the fan will just be running to circulate the air. That’s going 24/7, pushing air through the vent tube. “You will not believe the difference in the bedding house,” she says. “Spring has definitely arrived. We have an Aubrieta in bloom and that’s five days after I noticed a Draba in bloom. When the temperatures are all above freezing day and night, the plants are just going, there’s no holding them back.”

But, she says, Keith’s son Stan is keeping an eye on the bedding house, because if the sun comes out, it can go up to 28 Celsius in 15 minutes and someone needs to be on hand to bring the temperature down. “I sort of go by how I feel,” she says. “If I have to take my jacket off, then I’d better get down to the end of the house to open the vent behind the main fan.” If it gets really hot, the vent behind the 48-inch fan at the near end gets opened too.

She has plant news. “You should see my thymuses.” The 36 little plants she made a month ago are sitting up and growing. Will they go on sale this year? She gives me a nudge and a wink. “I’ll put them into bigger pots first.”

Keith is asked whether the garden centre is opening - that’s what it says on his catalogue: April 15 to October 15. “I was supposed to be open this weekend,” he says. “But there’s no way, it’s too cold. I’ve got more sense now, see the white hair? I’ll be open next week though.”

“We’ll come and pay you a visit,” they assure him. “Be there once a month,” he commands. “I’m not your ordinary garden centre where they think the end of the world comes in June.”

Nobody gets past without Keith catching an eye and reeling them in. “Can I help you, sir? We specialize in winter-hardy perennial plants.” Everyone’s in the mood to buy in this prelude to the gardening season - but he can’t sell them anything… it’s frustrating. He has to impose the force of his personality and convince them they want to see his plants before they buy anywhere else. Does he get many customers from these events? Oh, yes, he nods gravely. I take another wander through the show and resist the lure of other vendors. I’m keeping my money for the Country Squires Garden.

Another potential customer. “This is my 63rd year as owner-manager of this business, and I’m fourth-generation, we go back 135 years.”

A woman bemoans the fact that her clay soil is hard to work with. “Everything I sell you is growing in clay soil,” Keith tells her. “When it rains it goes into cracks,” she replies. “So?” he responds. “See that garden there?” he points to a picture. “That’s a clay garden.” “Really?” She’s unconvinced.

Another woman drifts past. “Astilbe,” she says, “I have no luck with them.” They need moisture, he explains to her. They’ll do fine in sun or shade, you often find them in among trees because the shade keepS the ground damp. How to grow that kind of plant in the sun?

Keith discloses his special peat trick. “Buy another Astilbe. Lay a double handful of wet peat underneath, two inches of soil on top of that and then the plant.” He explains that the peat will absorb six times its volume in water so it has to be soaked repeatedly before it’s used. Once well-covered, it will stay wet with the occasional recharging from rain. “Put a pocket of wet peat under the plant, it’s got moisture for ever and ever and ever.” Emphasis on the “evers.”

“You’re Keith Squires,” a well-turned out elderly lady says. “Yes,” he replies. “I’m Cheryl Turner, we went to high school together.”

“That’s a long way back. Port Credit High School. I used to get invitations to reunions but I haven’t heard from those guys for 20 years.”

What was Keith like back then? “I didn’t know him that well,” she replies diplomatically. “Thank you!” he exclaims with a twinkle in his eye.

She grins. “I hear you on the radio from time to time,” she says. “I’m speaking at 2,” he tells her. “You want an entertaining hour? On scree gardens.” She looks uncomprehending. “No soil! Granular A gravel! No fertilizing, no weeding, no watering.”

Jim Lounsbury of Vineland Nurseries and landscaper Sherry Hayes are the speakers before Keith. Around 40 people give them a heartfelt round of applause and drift out. The pair are knowledgeable and personable, a tough act to follow. I wonder whether Keith, some 30 to 40 years older, will be able to establish the same bond with his audience.

Keith walks into the room with a bulging plastic bag. He takes out a large colour picture of his scree garden and places it on an easel. He takes out a baking tin. He hands the RBG official his carousel of slides. A picture goes up, it’s teeny, about a quarter of the screen. “You’ll have to move that back,” he tells the young man. “I want the whole screen, can you give me the whole screen.”

“We’ll do our best,” the young man replies as the room fills up. It takes quite a lot of fiddling, what with the electrical cords and the relocation of a gentleman in a wheelchair. Finally the equipment is moved half way down the aisle and then the picture is full size. It shows one of Keith’s scree beds, the plants looking small and insignificant. Not very inspiring, I think.

An announcement comes over the public address system that Keith Squires is about to speak, and there’s a final influx of people. Carolyn hands around a printed list of the plants Keith is going to discuss. Keith, a diminutive figure on the stage, produces a plastic bag full of gravel and empties it onto his baking tray.

The young man offers him a microphone and Keith waves him away. “I don’t need it,” he says in a voice that’s a little reedy with age but carries to the back of the room nevertheless. He holds up the baking tray. “This is what we are going to be talking about,” he says, stepping down and proffering it along each row of chairs, encouraging people to get their hands into the gravel.

“This is one hundred per cent of what these plants are planted in. This is granular A gravel. You drove on this to get here – any gravel pit will sell you this.” He points at the picture on the screen. “There’s no soil in this garden. Maybe a little bit of soil stuck to the roots when the plants go in. This is a scree garden – scree is a rockslide off a mountain that falls down over the centuries to build up a garden.”

Back to the picture on the screen. “This is a scree garden two months after it was planted.” He clicks through to another picture. “This is the first spring. It’s looking good but there’s still a lot of space between the plants.” He clicks again. “Second year.” The garden is growing into balance, the plants have filled in and are in bloom. There are oohs and aahs from the audience. “This garden is never, never, ever, ever watered.” Now there are murmurs of surprise. Keith smiles benignly at his listeners. “I know this shakes everything you think you know about gardening.”

He has their attention. White, middle-class, skeptical, they have questions.

Does it get water naturally, from the rain? “Of course it does. God’s water. Rain is a natural source of nitrogen. And the minerals in the gravel provide all the nutrients these perennials need.”

A man has a dog that likes to dig in the flowerbeds. “He won’t touch it,” Keith assures him. “Not in full gravel.”

Winter protection? “No need.” Are there plants that don’t thrive in scree? “Very few.”

Would it work in northern Ontario? “You can put this type of garden anywhere you like.” Keith clicks through to another picture. “Third year.” Admiring exclamations. Now, it’s an eye-popping show, all the plants vibrant with colour against the soft grey of the gravel. “Does this garden look like it’s suffering?” Keith asks. “It’s in bloom now, it has been in bloom since March and it will be in bloom until November. There’s always something in bloom.”

He explains that it’s critical to have sufficient depth of scree – “knee-deep, minimum.” That’s so the plants’ roots can stretch down where it’s cool and moist, and not remain close to the surface, where they’ll get into trouble.

What about weeds? “None. There’s no weeding. You might walk around this garden and once in a blue moon you might find a weed. It’s much too hot on a summer’s day for a weed seed to float in there and take root.”

What do you use to fertilize it?

Keith looks at his audience in feigned exasperation. “What do I have to tell you for you to believe that you don’t have to work in this garden? Buy yourself a nice lawn chair, settle down with a cool drink and just watch the darn thing grow. Because you’re not going to have to do anything.” He pauses and smiles broadly. “Are you alarmed at how easy it is?”

Silly me, worrying that he night not be a success. Keith’s a showman. He’s a square-dance caller, after all. Back in the old country, a few generations back, there must have been a Squires or a Paddon or a Goldring who could get a good price for a heifer at the county fair because he knew the people, he spoke their language, he connected. And that’s what’s happening here. This eclectic collection of middle-aged yuppies, elderly hippies and young couples – these are Keith’s people and he connects, in a genuine and unaffected way. The room is packed. They're enjoying themselves. The Keith Squires name is a draw.

Chapter 11: Small is Beautiful