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Books For Sale

Chapter 11: Small is Beautiful

There’s a magical sight on a trailer outside the bedding house door. A collection of little conifers of the kind Keith loves, the ones that hardly grow an inch a year, covered with droplets of rain that intensify their subtle tones: Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’ is a blue-tinged false cypress. Thuja orientalis ‘Rosedalis’ – which is of the same family as our native Eastern White Cedar - has fresh yellow growth on its flat shoots. Microbiota decussata, also known as Siberian Cypress, has a pinkish-bronze tint to its fern-like foliage.

The little trees seem to be revelling in the soft light and gentle rain. “I have never seen one over three or four feet,” Keith says of the ‘Boulevard’ – “except for Niagara Parks, that has a 15-footer.”

Keith outlines the plight of the urban gardeners who buy a tree that outgrows them and becomes a nuisance. “They don’t understand they have this available to them.” He indicates a two-foot gem. “This tree is easily 20 years old. But when I tell people that, they don’t believe it.”

A commercial grower, Keith says, would be inclined to graft the dwarf onto a more vigorous rootstock. “Then they’ve got a twenty-year tree in three years. They won’t wait. I’m going to grow it on its own root from a cutting. I’ve got to wait. Because it’s a true plant. It’s true to its name.”

He takes me into a nearby hoop house and there are two flats with two dozen cuttings of these little trees. “It’s five to 10 years before they’ll get to the garden centre. Then what I get is people screaming about the price - $35 to $50, which works out at about $1.50 a year.”

The bedding house has row upon row of finished pots, with more outside to benefit from the nitrogen in the rain. Sempervivum arachnoideum minor is interesting, it has cobwebs. These were once used in construction: planted between roofing tiles, they were believed to ward off lightning. Carolyn took seven pots and has split them into 24.

The back section of the right side of the hoop house has plants that are coming through the testing process. Centaura odessei is a compact Centaura, buds showing above the star-shaped corolla. “We only had it through two winters and it’s coming into bloom for the first time so I’m a little bit excited. We just saw it written up in one of the journals we get, so it’s interesting that we’ve got it in test already.”

Hello, Carolyn says to the Lewisia nevadensis. Hello, she brushes her fingers over the Lychnis alpina. “This is good to do because it’s like wind, it toughens the plant up,” she explains. She shows me a miniature Astilbe, crispa ‘Lilluput’, it’s compact with a very green leaf and just beginning to show a pink flower “Nice, nice,” she says approvingly.

On the other side are this year’s seed, the flats that were out under the snow a few weeks ago. Erigeron ursinus, a western North American native, is up, it will have a pale lavender flower. “It’s new,” Carolyn says, “and that’s a new Gaillardia, ‘Oranges and Lemons’, also coming into flower. We’ve never had it in our garden centre before and it’s new to me.” She nods when I say that must mean, new to the trade. We talk about the excellence of Gaillardia, a showy perennial daisy that’s in bloom all summer. Carolyn says it’s one of the plants her grandmother grew, her grandfather’s market garden in Etobicoke was on sand and so she knows that her grandmother’s favourites all do well on sand – Gaillardia, Coreopsis, Lychnis.

Linaria “Keith Squires” is in another little flat from this year. It will grow three- foot spires in varying colours from yellow to pink to white, in which it differs from L. purpurea, which is plain old lavender. “He cross-hybridized it years ago and he got colours - the baby pink is the cutest pink… We don’t know what colour it is until it flowers, that’s the problem, if it is a problem.”

Back in the garden centre, Keith shows me the buds on his tree peonies. This is the second year he’s had them “First year, nothing. The greenhouse men would clear them out if they did nothing.” I ask about the new ones, that he was so delighted with. They’re on the bench too, “I have three that I think will bloom – which is another positive.” He pauses in tribute to the skilful grower on the other side of the world who, instead of grafting, waited for the original plants to get big enough, divided them, grew them on “and did it all with a great deal of care. They’ve got to get through the first 30 years.” After that, he does the math on how each year there will be 50 or 100 for sale, another lot growing on and so on exponentially until there are hundreds.

“It takes five to 30 years and then you’ve got it.” And then some one comes along and is horrified by the price. “If I know them well enough I can give them a proper retort. Others I say nothing. Because you could tell them 25 times, they wouldn’t get the point.” On the bench a Geranium, “Carolyn Squires.” It’s a different form of Geranium phaem, Keith says. “It’s pink, a rather pleasant unusual shade. Left alone in the right location, it’ll be there for years.”

The parent plant seeded under the bench, where it still is. “I guess it doesn’t like highly fertilized topsoil” he says approvingly. “We done five years work on it,” he adds. “We now have five plants we can sell. They’re $16 and somebody will squeal at the price. We forgive them because they don’t understand. Nevertheless we’re not backing down on the price. For $16 you can have something no one else in the world has.”

The species Gladiolus have needed patient work, year after year. Plants that form bulbs may be grown from seed, but before they do anything else, they get their energy stored up in a bulb. “That means it’s going to be years and years and years down the road before we have a bulb big enough for it to flower,” Carolyn explains. “The seed grows into a bulb, a tiny little bulb, and it sends up one little leaf on a little petiole which is the leaf stem and it’s just a little flag that says (high voice) ‘I’m new here, don’t throw me out.’ And then we have to plant it on into a bigger pot so there’s more room for the bulb to grow. If we left it in that pot it wouldn’t grow. It would stay that size. I think it was in three different pots altogether once we planted them out.

“We can grow it on then, now that we know it’s going to do that, and we can skip a couple of stages. Now that we’re confident.

“I think it was seven years before it made its first bud. Keith was totally amazed, because they kept coming up, and he said, ‘It came up! It’s gone through the winter frozen solid and it’s come up! I think this bugger’s going to bloom, this year, we’re going to have to sell some.’ To recoup some money from all the years of watching it and repotting it every year into a bigger pot so it would grow. He finally introduced it the first one, Gladiolus imbricatus, I think it is, gee, it must have been five or six years ago now. I think we’re now up to four different species and I think we have two of them now in the garden centre, we introduced the second one last year. We might sell eight or ten. Or we might sell one.

“People come in and say, ‘I hear you grow a lot of things that are different. Show me something that’s different.’ You spend three quarters of an hour showing them different plants that they’ve never seen before.

“They want to look at these plants but it’s a hard sell. If the person three doors down has got one in their garden, they might be interested, but if nobody on their street has got it, boy, they have to be terribly courageous. They’ll see something different and get excited about it but then they say, ‘Gee, I don’t know.’ “

“So they look at it and they say, ‘Species Gladiolus, isn’t that cute, that’s so interesting,’ and they ooh and aah over it. And they go over to the Delphinium bench. We just find it interesting that we’re growing this tiny little species Gladiolus, all these years after Keith gave up growing the big annual Gladiolus.”

We make our way back to the garden centre. Two people have arrived. A man in his 30s, wearing a leather jacket who’s zooming round the benches, examining each plant. He shakes his head when Keith offers help but they chat about the weather – March was so good until the end, then everything got set back. He’s from Niagara Falls. And a woman who walks in, asking, “Do you have any hanging plants?”

Carolyn gravely shakes her head. “We don’t do those, this is a perennial nursery,” she explains. They get into conversation, the woman explains she’s doing her mother’s garden. She spots a stunning flash of blue from half a dozen large pots of Anchusa italica ‘Loddon Royalist’, already two feet tall with amazing spikes of deep gentian – such a welcome shot of colour after our long bleak winter. “What’s that blue thing?” “That wouldn’t normally be in bloom,” Carolyn says. “Oh?” the woman looks blank. Carolyn explains that it’s been forced. “Will it keep coming back?” she asks. It’s Carolyn turn to look blank. “It is a perennial.”

I wander off, certain that there’s going to be no sale here. But when I return 10 minutes later, the woman is leaving with a pot of Anchusa. So very blue. That’s for me too, I say to myself. The guy – a regular - has gone already, with a couple of Japanese aquilegias. “He knows what he wants when he sees it,” Keith says. “He’s a good gardener.”

I make some purchases too. It is spring after all. The Dianthus ‘Nyewood’s Cream’, the Geranium phaeum ‘Carolyn Squires’ and a plant with a nicely sheened grey leaf, Potentilla hippeana. I pass on the Anchusa, the $18 price tag giving me pause. I think I might try and grow it from seed myself. It’s a purchase deferred – in the end, two years later, I buy it and wish I’d had it in my garden earlier.

Chapter 12: All of a Sudden