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Chapter 13: Under the Bench

A wonderful sunny day in May. Almost hot. My heart sinks when I wheel into the empty parking lot. It’s so sad that no one goes to this garden centre with its wonderful variety of healthy perennials and its two hugely knowledgeable owners.

But my concern for the viability of the business wanes as I learn of a more pressing tragedy. Doris has died. Yesterday, early in the morning. She had appeared to be rallying and they had high hopes she’d pull through. Then she took a turn for the worse, and it was downhill from there. After three days, she hadn’t been cleaning herself, and Keith thought it might be a good idea to give her a bath.

They bathed her and wrapped her in warm towels. Her breath was laboured and Carolyn, heartsick, sat all night with the emaciated little thing cradled in her arms. “It was upsetting, it was painful. She was so thin, there was nothing to her, she hadn’t eaten anything for a long time.”

At about one in the morning, Doris drew her last breath. Keith sat holding her for half an hour after that, until in the end Carolyn told him it was time for bed. “Keith, we have to go to sleep.” So he laid the little creature on his chair, wrapped in the towel, just her head showing.

“He took it hard because he blamed himself,” Carolyn says. But who knows what caused poor Doris’s end? Meanwhile, life goes on and it’s been a struggle to keep up with the work. The heat has brought the plants on, but the weeds too. So cleaning up the pots takes longer. Carolyn suggested that instead of cleaning up the entire stock of a variety as is their normal methodical practice, they do three of each and get them out on the bench, leaving the remainder for later.

“He doesn’t like to admit I’ve had a good idea,” she says mischievously. “It took a couple of days and then he said, ‘Yes, I think that idea of yours was good.’ So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Keith’s coming out of the house. “Art couldn’t agree with me more,” he tells Carolyn. He was just on the phone to Art Drysdale, the gardening writer and broadcaster. “People are getting used to the fact that they’re going to lose a perennial. It’s alarming. He keeps telling people - going to the grocery store to buy a rose is foolish and ridiculous.”

“I had a man in here this morning wanting to buy vegetables,” Carolyn says. She told him vegetables aren’t perennials. She agrees when I point out asparagus, Egyptian onions, sorrel… But, she says, her conversation with the customer didn’t rise to that degree of technicality. He told her he didn’t want to go to the Terra garden centre – part of a local chain down on Highway 5 - because they’re too expensive.

Mind you, plants at Squires are not cheap. Prices start at $2.75 and go on up. The gold-leafed Bleeding Heart, a large plant in a two-gallon pot, is $25. The Anchusa, a sizeable healthy plant that will brighten a garden for years to come, was more than I wanted to spend at $18. The same appears true of other customers – there are a dozen pots of Anchusa left, their bright blooms withering.

Keith’s next comment is on the obvious. “See our parking lot?” he says. “There’s nobody in it. This is the middle of May!” The soaring price of gas is one reason for the downturn, he reckons And another is the one he’s been discussing with Drysdale – that most perennials being sold are green-house bred, soilless-mix starved and won’t make it through the first winter.

“Maybe people have had enough of being burned in other garden centres, buying plants that didn’t survive,” Carolyn says, turning to watch a Terra truck speed past, going west, after picking up a load from a grower down the road who’s under contract to supply Terra.

“That’s the second within a couple of hours,” she tells Keith.

“They’ve decided,” he nods.

“That it’s not going to freeze,” he explains to me.

“They’re going now,” Carolyn agrees.

“Annuals!” says Keith. “These crazy people who plant annuals! They rush off to the garden centres in April to be sure of getting the new introductions and then have to store them for a month in their garages. I don’t know whether it’s greed or selfishness… Every once in a while we get an annual grower in here.”

He mimics a hyped-up twitching annual lover rushing around, terrified of not getting the latest plants. It appears that perennial fanciers, by contrast, are relaxed and laid back. If they don’t get the plant today, they’ll get it tomorrow. Or some other time. “Tell me you’re in a garden centre in August buying plants for your garden. Are you? I’m here with 3,000 species! Unlike other garden centres that have empty benches, I’m here with full benches all year long.”

The latest excitement was that there was no water when Carolyn went to turn it on in the bedding house the night before. It’s the creek – “the crick” – that’s unpredictable

“The crick is this much lower,” Keith shows a foot or so with his hands, “than when we set the pump in mid-April. Fourteen inches and this is the middle of May. You don’t expect the crick to run down in May. So I had to go down and re-align the thing.”

Keith advises Carolyn to water the rear of the garden centre where the Oriental Poppies are drooping over their pots. “In case we do get a customer.”

“This is getting into a panic,” Carolyn says. “Fortunately we don’t have staff who have to be paid on Friday but I am getting hungry.” She laughs. There’s more to life than customers.

Liness strolls around the bench meowing loudly and has to be picked up and carried on a tour of the sunny scree garden at the front of the house. There, the Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ is in joyous leaf, rosettes of lance-shaped foliage, each a rich green defined by a pale yellow edge. The creeping Phloxes, each spilling out of a pocket in the cement blocks that edge the garden, are wonderful splashes of colour. A Dicentra (Bleeding Heart) with magnificent healthy foliage is just budding. It self-seeded. I’m surprised, because it’s a shade plant. “It should not be doing well,” Carolyn concedes.

The dwarf Iris cyanea just opened this morning, she says. And “look at the buds on the Genista ‘Lemon Spreader’. Last year, you couldn’t see the leaves for the flowers.” Looks like the same will hold for this year.”

Sanguisorba obtusa ‘Beth Chatto’ has a better leaf than the Sanguisorba I have – bluish. This reminds Carolyn of meeting Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd. Close friends, the two famous gardeners had been on a lengthy North American book tour together and were the guest speakers at a landscapers conference in Toronto.

“On the Saturday night there was a dinner at a large hotel and somehow, we met. Everyone was milling around before dinner and Keith struck up a conversation. We all got chatting – they had a real plantsman to talk to! All of a sudden I realized the background din of noise around us was quiet. I looked around, everyone had gone in to eat.”

Lloyd and Chatto and the Squires followed the crowd and joined a group and a good time was had by all. “I had to pinch myself under the table,” Carolyn said. Later, when they read one of Lloyd’s books, they were delighted to recognize the author’s voice. “He writes exactly the way he talks.”

I’m helping Carolyn clean some pots – take out the weeds, being very careful to extract the dandelion root because a topped dandelion comes back with renewed vigour, dig out the moss with all detritus carefully saved in a bucket for composting, and top up with fresh soil.

In the garden centre – customers! A young couple. “What’s this stuff?” the woman asks, bending down to touch a plant growing in great profusion under the bench.

“Pick a leaf,” Keith tells her. “Smell it. It’s a scented-leaf geranium.”

“It’s almost edible,” she says. Looking around at the profusion of plants, she pronounces: “It’s going to be hard to decide.”

An elderly pair wanders in. “Can I help you?” Keith asks.

“I don’t think I’ll find what I want here,” the woman answers. What are you looking for? “A pink foxtail lily,” she replies. “It’s not hardy,” he says. “Yes, it is,” she says. “We have it.” “It’s not hardy in this area.” She gives him attitude. “We don’t even cover it,” she says self-righteously.

“Where are you? “ “Acton.” The woman turns to her husband, disbelieving. “He says foxtail lily isn’t hardy.”

“I know the plant alright,” Keith says, “and there’s no way it passes the hardiness test.”

She has another stunner: Agapanthus, Lily of the Nile. It survives in their Acton garden through the winter too, she says. That’s really surprising, Keith says carefully. “You tell me it grows where you are and I’m happy to hear that.”

Somewhat mollified, she confides that her daughter works at the Royal Botanical Gardens and people there have been very surprised they can winter Agapanthus. “I think that’s wonderful,” Keith says.

They leave, not buying anything. The young couple have gathered up some purchases and I’m off to help Carolyn carry the pots she’s been cleaning out to their appointed spot in the garden centre. When Keith joins us, Carolyn has to hear the interesting news about the Eremerus (the foxtail lily’s botanical name, and the only one Keith would use). That spot in Acton must have an extremely protected microclimate, we agree. Here, the plants the Squires grow face an extra challenge because they overwinter in pots – the roots are above-ground and that much colder. That means that when Keith says a plant is hardy, it truly is.

Here’s something else under the bench: Bellis perennis, the low-growing daisy that pervades lawns in England. I tried to grow it when I first came here for nostalgia’s sake – I wanted my girls to be able to make daisy chains - but it wouldn’t take. And, says Keith, he can’t get it to survive in a pot. But the year he had it, it seeded itself under the bench and has established itself happily there. “Just don’t put it in a pot.”

A delicate tree: Ulmus americanus. Keith has just a couple of pots. It’s the elm that’s been wiped out by Dutch Elm disease. “The University of Guelph is trying to get people to grow some Ulmus to see if in 20 years time it will produce viable seed,” he says. “They don’t know enough about Dutch Elm Disease to know if it’s in the seed.”

I go to the back to help Keith move some flats out of the bedding house that’s getting too hot for this year’s young seedlings and into a hoop house where there’s a wonderful variety of Bergenia called ‘Sunshine’. That’s a nice colour of Bergenia,” Keith says approvingly. “The green stamens really make it.”

It’s hot work, in and out of the greenhouse, taking the flats to the wagon. “People say I should retire,” Keith laughs. “I say, ‘Come and follow me around for a few hours’.” He hops onto the tractor and drives the flats over to a hoop house. We carry them in, lining them up, with the less-advanced ones at the rear, the ones that are ready to be pricked out into their own individual pots at the front – and there are many. When are they going to find the time?

Keith bends and picks off the tops of some weeds at the rear entrance to the bedding house and offers me a handful. “My mother used to send me out for the stuff at this time of year,” he says. The young leaves taste fresh and sweet: Lamb’s Quarters, an Old-World weed that springs up in disturbed soil. “Better than spinach,” Keith says. And it is, steamed or stir-fried and topped with a knob of butter. And, unlike spinach, Lamb’s Quarters is not in the least bit fussy about growing conditions.

Back to the garden centre with the larger plants from the bedding house, now ready for sale. If the Anchusa was the star of my last visit, this time it’s the Incarvillea delavayi – the perennial Gloxinia or Chinese trumpet flower. Marvellous pinkish-mauve blooms on long stems with feathered leaves. These knock petunias into a cocked hat, I tell Keith. Carolyn is talking to a female customer. We start moving the pots onto benches. I learn the three-pot in each hand trick – it’s hard because Keith’s pots are heavy - and start filling up the Astilbe bench. The pots must be lined up perfectly, each label displayed at the back, facing front, clearly legible. The customer wanders by, having left Carolyn. I ask if I can help. She says she’s just looking around at the moment. I ask her how big her garden is. Two acres, she says. When it’s time for her to leave, she buys one tiny pot of something. What is wrong with this lady? It’s planting time!

I leave around 6, after helping unload the whole wagon. The Incarvillea gets pride of place – Keith has a couple of dozen and they look amazing. “Perfect for Mother’s Day,” he says proudly. Mother’s Day is tomorrow. At the end of the day I buy a wonderful Sedum ‘Xenox,’ a new introduction with a deep burgundy red leaf, for $14. And I want the Ulmus americanus. Keith refuses to charge me for that. I’ve worked hard and it needs a home, he says.

Chapter 14: Against the Tide