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Chapter 18: Customers

Another blistering hot day. Thirty two degrees Celsius, forty with the humidex. I arrive around noon. Vehicles in the lot! Two of them! One has the name of a landscaping firm on the side. Bohemian Landscaping. I wonder whether this is a social visit by a couple of Keith’s pals. But when I go into the garden centre, business is clearly being done. Carolyn and Keith are attending to a guy wearing a brimmed hat and a t-shirt with the firm’s name and phone number. Another guy is wearing the same shirt.

On the central table, where the Squires organize a customer’s order, a couple of plastic containers are full of pots – Japanese Painted Fern, Gypsophila paniculata ‘Bristol Fairy’ (a lovely double perennial Baby’s Breath), Lupins, several Lilium La Reve, smelling wonderful, Lambs Ears, Russian Sage, Oriental Poppies, two Virginia Creepers, three Delphiniums, Siberian Iris ‘Dear Delight,’ and Aquilegia Yabeana, which is a deep blue columbine.

The customer is working from a list. Astilbe, he says, following Keith to the Astilbe bench. “The one you had before?” asks Carolyn. “You don’t want something different? Why have the same when there are so many different ones?” She suggests ‘Heart and Soul’, or ‘Bridal Veil’ but no, he wants ‘Vision in Pink’, more of the one he’s already picked.

“There’s a pink Veronicastrum,” Keith says, continuing a debate that started before I got there. “He wanted blue,” Carolyn corrects him. “He wanted a blue spike. A Salvia is what he wants. Do you have Veronica on your list?” she asks the guy.
 
“No,” the guy says, “he substituted Salvia because it’s not blooming at this time.” The he, I figure out later, is the absent designer, whose vision is being translated into plants by the guy who will be doing the work.

“Five Osmunda cinnamonea.”

The Cinnamon Ferns are moved to the centre table.

“Do you have Coreopsis?”

“What kind?” Carolyn asks.

“Moonbeam,” the guy replies.

“Good,” says Carolyn. “We just bought that in.” Five ‘Moonbeam’ Coreopsis are picked out.

The landscaper surveys the Geraniums billowing out from under the benches where seed dropped from the potted plants last year. “You have plants growing like weeds,” he jokes. “Why are we buying? We could bring a shovel.” He changes his mind about the Coreopsis – they’re too small right now although they will grow - but landscapers must provide instant gardens. “Sorry, we have to go with something bigger. If it was for my house I would take it.”

He’s got his list done. He ponders the prices. “What’s the cost for the poppies?” he asks.

“Twenty dollars less 20 per cent, that’s $16,” Keith says.

Carolyn counts the plants so she can do the invoice. Keith helps her. “Three orange eights, two red sixes, three orange sixes.” Unlike the landscapers, I know what that means. The label colour denotes price, the number is the pot’s size, in inches.  An orange eight costs more than a red six which costs more than an orange six.

While Carolyn’s working on the invoice, I see that Salvia lyrata ‘Purple Knockout’ is still looking good. If the designer had been here instead of sending the landscaper with a list, I’m sure he would have taken a few of these. The foliage is a stunning deep, but not dark, red.

Here’s another good colour: Weigela C.S. ‘Yellow Fire’ C.S. stands for Country Squires – there are several plants developed here that bear the Squires name.
The handwritten label, pegged to a wire that runs above the back of the bench, notes that this is a variant of Weigela florida variegata ‘Nana’, which has red buds and then pink funnel shaped blooms in June. This one also has yellow-edged leaves.

I go out to watch the landscaper stack his plants on his truck. It’s already half full of shrubs. “Is this the first time you’ve been here?” I ask. “Yes,” he says, explaining that the shrub guy down the road recommended the Squires for perennials.  What does he think of the place? ”It’s very quiet, but there’s a good selection,” he says. “The plants look good.”

Back to the little office at the entrance to the garden centre. Wasps are sailing in and out of the small space; they have nests all over the inside ceiling. The landscaper looks up at them quizzically.  “We don’t have any bugs here,” Carolyn tells him. “The wasps keep the bugs down.” He asks whether the ones from one nest attack their neighbours from another one. They don’t, she says. He spots a different type of nest. “That’s a mud wasp,” Carolyn tells him.

The bill comes to almost $600. It’s cash or cheque here, and he produces six shiny new $100 dollar bills. “They’re good plants,” Keith tells him. “If they don’t perform, we want to know about it. We don’t own a greenhouse. They spend all winter frozen solid right here.”

The guy leaves, somewhat bemused, I think. No greenhouse; wasps nesting unmolested in the office; and a writer hanging on every word. It must have seemed a little unusual.

Carolyn is busy finishing her notes – she’d taken down the guy’s licence plate number, a precaution because she thought he was going to pay by cheque.

“Landscapers are notorious for not paying,” Keith says. He won’t take landscaping jobs himself any more. Customers just refuse to pay because they can’t conceive how much work and effort go into growing and planting. “They’ll make the down-payment that will cover some of the plants but then when the work’s done they insist that it’s too much. I’ve been stiffed significant amounts of money.”

“You’re talking $10,000 to $15,000 on three or four jobs” Carolyn elaborates.

“There’s one thing that you do not do in this business is you do not give a landscaper credit,” Keith stresses. “It’s not his fault, it’s his customer. They have a terrible reputation of not paying.”

“You can’t spend all your time in small claims court,” Carolyn says, forestalling my next question.

Keith’s pondering the list he just filled for the morning’s important customer: “Whoever the designer was, that guy’s a two-bit amateur,” he sniffs. Why? “He used common names, not the Latin. How’s the landscaper going to fill the list? It said salvia. We have 52 salvias here.”

To lunch. Inside the house, it’s dark and cool. “How do you like God’s air-conditioning?” Keith asks. “It’s because of this basement, which against everyone was put in the way I wanted it – it’s not three feet underground, it’s six feet.  We’ve got lots of cool air.”

The story of the basement is that there’s a house down there. It was designed for Keith in the early 1960s by Tom Brown, who laboured for him in the Gladiolus fields as a teenager before going on to a career as an architect.

“I said, ‘I want you to design a house that I can build. I know how to use a saw and a hammer,’” Keith recalls. “He was going to university at the time, he couldn’t put a stamp on the plans as an architect. He was the designer, not the architect.”
We get much-needed cold drinks and a sandwich for lunch. As usual, water is on Keith’s mind. Not the shortage of it; for once, the crick is producing - but the potted plants’ desperate need during this heat wave. “This is a daily goldarned fight. We water every day now.” Normally, he’ll water every other day, or even every third day. But a hot drying wind is circulating around the plants, sucking the moisture out of them.

When lunch is over, I express a desire to see the fabled house in the basement. The trap door is just behind the table we’ve been sitting at. Keith lifts it up and the three of us troop down some wooden steps into the cool dark of the basement. It’s filled from one end to the other with neatly stacked lumber and shelves of mahogany panelling, tongue and groove cedar and panes of glass – all lettered and numbered according to plan.

“All the proper plumbing is down here,” says Carolyn as we peer around. “I just hope that when we’re able to rebuild the house, that we remember where all the parts and pieces are and how they go back together.”

“We’re the only people who could put it back together again,” Keith says
Tom is now retired and a valued customer, buying many of Keith’s plants for SpindleTree, his wonderful garden north of Napanee that’s open to the public every summer. The house he designed half a century ago had a flat roof and floor-to-ceiling glass on a southwest exposure. It had a post-and-beam structure, which means simply that the house is made of beams resting on posts.

“There’s no bearing walls in this building - this building is bearing on the posts,” Keith says. “The walls can go anywhere, the walls are tied, the tie keeps the walls from falling out - so you could have a little tiny nursery if you wanted, and then the next year you could move the wall over so the child as it grew got a bigger room.”

Keith built the house on his Brampton farm in the early sixties, to replace the building we’re now in, which had functioned as a bulb storage facility, with living quarters in the front for him and his first wife Cynthia and their children. Almost 40 years later, in 2001, in the wake of financial disaster, Keith dismantled his good old house and moved it to the basement of the Campbellville structure.

Outside, Carolyn and Keith have burned off the dry grass in the parking lot for fear that someone might ignite it near a car by dropping a cigarette. Lots of buckets of water and hoses at the ready for the operation, Carolyn tells me. Keith points out a white spruce, its upper branches brown, not because they’re dead, but because they’re covered in cones. “Look at it,” he says admiringly. “I couldn’t estimate how many seed are in that tree.”

Back to work. It’s 33 Celsius as we walk through the garden centre, Carolyn shows me the Thymus montana ‘Albus’. It’s one of the ones from the spring, back then a little strand, now a sizeable plant in a four and a half inch pot. Just one left. She tells me about some Saxifrages she grew from seed – 48 of them. “Little green dots, the seedlings were. They had to be carefully separated – sometimes three of the dozen seeded in a pot all cluster in one corner. They have to be separated or they’ll kill each other. Nine survived and a couple flowered – in their first year. Now I can grow them from division. As Keith says, give him a package of seed or a plant, he’ll take the plant.”

Carolyn heads off to the potting barn while Keith bustles around getting ready to water. He slips saucers under some particularly parched specimens. “I have to get more saucers, they’re drying out too fast,” he says.

A yellow butterfly flutters along the edge, close to the netting, looking for a way out. “Sometimes we have to go and get them, show them the door. Sometimes, birds get trapped. The robins are the worst. They just can’t figure it out.” Hummingbirds on the other hand are smart – they zoom in, visit their preferred blooms, perch on a wire to delight the eye for a fleeting moment and zoom out.

A car pulls in. Customers! Keith goes over to greet a middle-aged couple of Chinese heritage. The woman carefully extracts two folded, yellowing pieces of newsprint from an envelope. The picture of a huge blue balloon flower looks familiar. I realize these are clippings from the Toronto Star, the two stories I wrote about Keith, in 1999 when I first came here, and in 2004 when he was marking 60 years as a nurseryman. 

“Long time in business,” she says. 

“I’m 80 now,” he tells her.

“I can’t believe you 80 now!” she teases him, flirtatious. “You so healthy! No wrinkles!”

Keith, unembarrassed, grins back at her. He’s wearing a red baseball cap, a lightweight cotton shirt in a woven check of various shades of faded red, with khaki shorts and heavy workboots. His shoulders are broad for a slightly built man and his face, arms and legs well-tanned. He looks, to use an expression he applies to a particularly well-favoured plant, disgustingly healthy.

He introduces me. “This is the lady who wrote those articles.” We are all astonished and delighted by the coincidence. “Not all newspapers are in the garbage the next day,” he says pointedly in my direction.

She’s drawn to the peonies. “I don’t have this leaf,” she says. “How much is it?”

“Forty-eight dollars,” he replies.

She looks shocked.

But the price is far from out of line for Paeonia tenuifolia, the lovely fernleaf peony.

“Look at the label,” Keith says, and explains the system, pointing to the large signs.

She ignores him. “Multiply fast or slow?”

“All peonies are slow,” Keith tells her. “They last 200 or 300 years. It’s absolutely guaranteed. We’ve already wintered it for three years. It will be in your garden long after you’re dead.”

He walks her along the bench, explaining how the tree peonies are all grafted, except for the Zhu Sha Lei which are his exciting discovery this year because they’re on their own root and will have taken so much longer to propagate.

She doesn’t bite. She leaves with one of the lower-priced peonies.
Keith’s tut-tutting at the sight of the lilies, which are in magnificent bloom, but with the previous day’s flower hanging shriveled on the stalk. “I didn’t clip them this morning.” Particularly fine are Stargazer, a deep red, flecked, with a white edge, and Muscadet, just a pure, stunning white.

The Oriental poppies have gone into dormancy. “It’s one of the very few plants that I am going to tell anybody to feed,” he says. “In the scree, they’ve got enough nutrients stored for next year, they will come up again. They’ve produced 30 blooms minimum and they look all brown – but they’re not dead! Here the roots are too small. Usually I take them out of the garden centre because people don’t understand them. They think they’re all dead. No, they’ve gone to sleep.”

Carolyn emerges from the back and we tell her about the Chinese couple and their newspaper clipping. “Did she come for Echium?” Carolyn asks, amused.

Chapter 19: Day Trippers