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Chapter 17: Tough Love

I pull into the parking area – as usual, just the old van, no scent of a customer. I’m transfixed by the scree bed at the entrance to the garden centre. There’s a low-growing plant with wonderful foliage but I have no idea what it is. “It’s Alyssum,” Carolyn says when she come out. “Aurinia saxatilis ‘Dudley Neville’. It used to be Alyssum saxatile but they changed it, so we changed too – Keith said we do have to conform occasionally. Alyssum is confusing to people.  They think of Lobularia, it’s white or mauve and its common name is Sweet Alyssum.” 

Earlier, this Aurinia had thick clusters of yellow flowers but the solid mat that remains through summer and fall is an elegant ground cover, vigorous in these dry rocky conditions.

We step into the garden centre and I’m delighted all over again. Bench after bench filled with green and fresh looking plants, so unlike most plant purveyors where the wares are getting decidedly tired by July. Carolyn grins and explains that she and Keith are sometimes surprised by customers who come in and exclaim over how great everything looks when they’re all too conscious of the fact that some of the pots have weed seedlings in them.

But she understood what they were talking about when she was in Fortinos and saw the state of the garden section there. She came back and dragged Keith out to have a look. “I told him, ‘You have to see this.’ It was a sad sight. Four-inch plastic pots in fitted flats, some lifted out where customers had taken a look and been unable to get them back into their space, leaning sideways and drying out, everything struggling for space and moisture. They look so awful, they look so gangly.”

Here, each plant is in the right-sized pot, each spot is spaced just so, giving the plant room to grow and allowing the customer an easy sightline of all the different varieties.

“All we need is a customer,” Carolyn says wryly. “We had one yesterday. We had a number Sunday. The customer who was in yesterday was from Michigan. She has her mother in Hamilton whom she was visiting, and a cottage in Kirkland Lake she was buying plants for. I said to her, ‘as a matter of interest, how did you hear of us?’ She was listening to Art Drysdale a while ago and heard him interview Keith, and then she thought, ‘That’s not too far, I’ll stop by there.’”

An amazing plant is growing out of the ground by one of the benches – six feet tall with dramatic lance-shaped leaves and golden daisy flowers. Carolyn performs the introductions. “I don’t think you’ve met our treasure,” she says proudly. “Inula. Keith thinks it’s magnifica.” On the bench, there’s Inula racemosa, which will also grow to six feet.

The Gaillarda ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is in bloom – a delicate two-tone that’s a touch more refined than the usual brown and yellow blanket flower colours. “Is it long-lived?” I ask her. “It can be, if you don’t let it bloom too late. If it’s still blooming late in the fall, it’s more vulnerable. Cut it back so it won’t flower and set seed – I usually suggest some time around Thanksgiving.”

I laugh when I see the Viper’s Bugloss – Echium vulgare as it’s known botanically. This is a plant that featured in an article I wrote about Keith for the Toronto Star in 2004, when he was celebrating 60 years in business. I was taken by the fact that he had this common weed for sale. The bright blue spike is a familiar of the gravelly margins of country roads. It’s hard to transplant because of its long taproot and who would ever think to be bothered?

I described how Keith had collected the seed from this upstart – not even a native plant but an invasive from Europe – because he loved the blue of it. “A true blue.” And how Echium vulgare had taken its place on the bench alongside specimens of highly selected lineage. So there was a run on the humble Echium. Another complication arose from the fact that the photographer had taken a picture of Keith with Platycodons in the foreground so they looked enormous, as big as his head. People wanted the plate-sized Balloon Flower, the same as in the photo, and were disappointed to discover that the actual plant was only a couple of inches across. They wanted that plant. Big like that.

Keith bustles into the garden centre, grinning. “Who’s the blonde?” he asks Carolyn. I’m pleased - I’ve just had my hair done and Keith notices stuff like that.

Water woes continue. “The crick’s as low as I’ve ever seen it.” I mention that in Elmvale, we’ve had three thunderstorms in the past week – one took a huge branch off our aged Manitoba maple, and many plants got flattened by rain. Nothing like that happened here in Niagara. Storms were predicted, and they could see them passing to the south, “but all we got was a mist,” Keith says sadly. The last rain was Friday, four days ago.

Keith is clutching a knife and a list. He’s going to get some Alyssum, he tells Carolyn. This is the time for softwood cuttings. “Just as well they grow in sand, because I’ve got no soil,” he says. “The pasteurizer blew a fuse. We’ve been calling the electrician for over a week. I haven’t got enough soil for a four-inch pot.” Today’s his day off, so he might come – he’s a firefighter, like Keith’s son Stan.

The pasteurizer is an ancient machine in the back barn, manufactured some 50 years ago by the Johnson Machine Company Ltd. of Burlington, Ontario. It’s a wooden box, five feet high, with metal slats inside, and will heat fifteen bushels of soil at a time. “Mr. Johnson’s been here. He’s the same age and size as Keith,” Carolyn says, amused at the memory of the two old guys together, poring over the recalcitrant heater. “He had his staff take it apart and put it back together to find out what’s wrong. They couldn’t find anything.”

“Why is it blowing fuses, tell us why?” Keith implores the absent Mr. Johnson

Thinking of how healthy the plants look, I ask them how it is that I don’t see any pests. All the leaves on my potted Aquilegia canadensis, for instance, turned out to have been eaten when the time came for me to take them to the village’s Canada Day sale. They laugh at this familiar predicament. Aquilegia, or Columbine, comes in all shapes, colours and sizes. My favourite is the delicate orange native that I once saw in massed bloom in the wild, its orange spurs carpeting an oak forest on the shores of Lake Huron.

Here, huge pots of the more highly-bred Aquilegia vulgaris ‘William Guinness’ have attracted my attention. When in bloom it’s a deep chocolate maroon with a white frill, but this year, for some unknown reason, it didn’t bloom. Neverthless, its foliage is perfect. The little green caterpillars – ‘worms’ as they’re often called – haven’t had so much as a nibble.

“You need to discover the damage while it’s being done.” Carolyn explains. “It’s called a leaf miner. Keith calls them rubber bands because that’s what they feel like when you pull them off the underside of the leaves. You pull them off and squish them between your fingers.”

She laughs at my dubious look. “When it starts eating the money out of your pocket, you don’t feel squeamish.” Lesson learned. Every summer now, when I pass the Aquilegia, I run my fingers along the leaves and squish the caterpillars without a care for the ick factor.

The Baptisia australis ‘Blue False Indigo’ reminds me to tell them of mine – every leaf taken off by rabbits. I’m annoyed because I had grown it from seed and it was one that developed an attractive variegation to the leaf. I didn’t even get to see the pretty blue pea-like bloom. Carolyn tells me they use a mild solution of cayenne pepper to deter rabbits, and when Keith described this remedy in a talk to a horticultural society, a young woman accused him of animal cruelty. “No, you don’t harm the rabbits,” he assured her, “they take one taste and they stay away.”

Another winner in the foliage department has been set out on the bench:  Salvia Lyrata ‘Purple Knockout.’  “That’s the best red foliage I’ve seen in years,” Keith says. Indeed, the colour is very strong – a deep purple on top, a lighter red underneath. It will flower, but the flowers are often insignificant – although still attractive to pollinators. Another plus, I discover when I research this plant on the net: it self-sows and becomes a dense groundcover.

“Look!” Keith says, “the Primula is in bloom.” In July? “This one’s on a different calendar.” It’s Calceolaria falklandica. Also known as Lady’s Slipper for the shape of its pretty yellow flower, it’s a native of the South American islands off the coast of Argentina. “August is winter. December is summer,” he explains. “Rare and unusual!” he adds significantly.

Carolyn is looking at a line of Thalictrum (Meadow Rue). “These plants have all collapsed but the ones in the house are okay,” she says. The house being the hoop house. Keith looks. No immediate explanation comes to mind.

“Because we do what we do, this is one of the problems we run into,” he says. “Others are not experimental, they’re not looking for something that’s unusual or different. That’s way at the bottom of their list.”

Keith goes to check the scree bed in front of the house for cutting material. We pass Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, looking splendid as usual. Keith has already taken cuttings from her. “I’m looking for an Onosma,” he says.

“Stellulata,” Carolyn completes his thought. Onosma stellulata is a low growing mat. Two weeks ago it was covered with tubular yellow flowers but now the blooms are spent. Not so the Rosa Peachy Keen “Grrrr,” Keith exclaims impatiently. “It’s got buds on it again I can’t get cuttings. Everyone wants it but I can’t get cuttings. Everyone wants it because the darn thing won’t stop blooming.”

Here’s a plant I purchased a few years ago – but it’s doing so much better here in baking hot gravel than in the humusy soil of the raised bed in front of my house. For Keith, Salvia ‘Schwellenburg’s pretty purple spikes blaze all summer and into fall. In my garden, the bloom doesn’t last as long but it’s still a welcome note of colour when it comes.

Over to the clay garden in front of the gate. It’s dry and the plants are suffering.

“They need a rain, that’s for sure,” Carolyn says.

“You’re looking at the future,” Keith says as we pick our way through the drooping foliage. “You will not be able to water a garden, you will not be able to water a lawn, you will not be able to wash a car on your driveway – it will be illegal. None of these gardens are watered, not the sand, not the scree, not the clay.”

It’s tough love, of the kind I practice on my lawn. While I can watch the grass go dormant in the heat of summer with insouciance, it takes a little more fortitude to withhold a bucketful of water from a thirsty perennial. But like the lawn, they will rebound as soon as there’s some respite. They’re just conserving energy.

And some are positively flourishing. “Look at the Baptisia, it’s blooming like mad,” Carolyn says. The Clematis heracleifolia davidiana is sprawling along the edge of the driveway, covered in pale waxy blue flowers with recurved petals. It’s not the kind of clematis that climbs; it has to be supported or used as ground cover. It looks a little like one of my favourite clematises, one that had scrambled decoratively over the edge of a low wall in my garden and was easily propagated through cuttings, only to have it die on me one summer, long after all the cuttings had been sold or given away.

“Mrs. Robert Brydon,” Carolyn pronounces when I describe it to her. It’s like Davidiana but with rather more prominent pale yellow stamens and the blue flowers are more bell-shaped.  “Do we have Mrs Robert Brydon?” she asks Keith.
They do. And I depart, clutching a substantial two-gallon pot, happy to be reunited with an old friend.

Chapter 18 Customers