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Chapter 20: Life Force

A swaying plant with a branched stem and numerous mauve thistle-like heads is commanding attention in the scree demonstration bed, towering over a rather sickly-looking ‘Mahogany’ Gaillarda.

“It grew in the same spot as the Gaillarda and we didn’t know what it was,” Carolyn says. “It has the distinctive basket-weave head of Centaurea – Keith thinks it’s jacea. We have that in the garden centre but we don’t know how it got here.” Brown Knapweed is its common name. It’s a touch of colour in a garden that has been blasted by sun. The first rain for weeks came yesterday, and today is overcast, a welcome respite.

“The heat didn’t destroy it, like everything else in bloom,” Keith says. He looks down fondly at a small variegated shrub, lighting up a corner with the bright yellow of its leaf. “This little Berberis down here, it’s putting on a good show, it doesn’t need to flower. And the schwellenberg here, it’s the first thing customers see – it’s going into its third month.” Yes, Salvia schwellenberg does a great job of providing a splash of colour in an unpromising dry situation

The Sanguisorba needs cutting back – the top has flowered and dried off but there’s new green growth coming up underneath. The Oriental Poppies look completely dead, but aren’t. Keith is concerned about plants that have been given saucers under their pots to retain water in the recent drought. Now they’re waterlogged. “I should have bought the saucers earlier,” he says. “As soon as I buy them, it rains, now they’re going to get crown rot or some darn thing. It’s cold, it’s not going to evaporate, they all have to be emptied.”

Not all the plants are in saucers – just the ones that were really suffering from the drought. But now, there’s an excess of moisture. Everything really is about water, as Keith and Carolyn explain, describing the rain in exquisite detail. “It rained all afternoon,” Keith says. “I was afraid it would rain like a son of a gun and all run off but no, it was a good steady rain.”

Carolyn: “It would rain a little bit and then stop. Then it would start again. A little bit heavier each time. It was a good rain.”

Keith: “It came in bits and pieces. It was just right.”

Carolyn: “Then in the evening, I said to Keith, ‘Turn the TV off,’ and we listened, and we looked out and it was coming down, straight down, no wind, nothing got knocked over. Just a good rain. And the most amazing thing? Keith’s son Charlie, 20 kilometres to the east at Winston Churchill and the 401, got absolutely no rain at all.”

The swallows are lining up on the hydro line that leads into the house – a dozen or so. “That’s nothing,” Keith says. “There can be 30 or more. The other day, the adults put everyone on the window ledge high up beneath a three-foot overhang. Then the storm hit. They knew what they were doing. It was the safest place for the babies to be. I’d never seen that before.”

Growing in the compacted soil of the garden centre is a handsome plant, around three feet tall. “Himalayan Impatiens,” Keith says in answer to my query. It couldn’t be more unlike the annual Impatiens walleriana, the Buzy Lizzie shade bedding plant much beloved by parks managers. Another member of this family, native to North America, is Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis. It has a pretty orange flower and arrived in my garden two years ago, uninvited but not unwelcome. The Himalayan relative that we’re looking at is Impatiens glandulifera, also known as Himalayan Balsam or Policeman’s Helmet. It’s one of those exotic plants that we all used to welcome for its beauty, but is now flagged as an aggressive invasive that is a threat in natural areas. “It will bloom when it hits the net,” Keith says, pointing to the top of the garden centre, some nine feet tall. “It’s a hardy annual,” by which he means that it seeds itself and comes back.

“Like Larkspur,” I say.
 
“Well,” Keith says, unimpressed by my use of a common name, “what do you call Larkspur?”
 
I m not sure of the Latin but I tell him it’s the annual form of Delphinium.

“This is what happens when people get mixed up with English names,” Keith sniffs. “It’s nothing to do with Delphinium, it’s related distantly.” I stick to my guns and Carolyn goes off to consult a plant dictionary in the office while Keith launches into a diatribe about people who have been reading books by people who don’t know what they’re doing. 

Carolyn returns to confirm my view. “Larkspur or Consolida, closely related to and sometimes included in the genus Delphinium.” Keith looks unconvinced and by way of changing the subject takes a swipe at a fortuitously nearby potted Delphinum spike, clipping the head off with his secateurs. “That’s what you do when they want to go to seed,” he says. “You’ve got to threaten. You know the response, that plant is going to say, ‘You’re trying to stop me from making seed? Well. I’m not going to have that – six shoots will come up in its place.”

Carolyn does the same to a Foxglove. “But it’s a biennial,” I protest. Not at all, she says. “Even purpurea (the most common Digitalis, or Foxglove) is not a biennial.” She takes a cut. “Now it’s good for next year.”

“The plant has in mind to bloom and flower and set seed,” Keith explains. “Now if you prevent it from doing that, the plant has to do it all over again.”

A revelation dawns. “And Hollyhocks?” I ask. “Will that work for them too? “Yes,” Carolyn says. “The second set of shoots are vase-shaped. The best thing is that the plant comes true for next year.” Aha! So that’s what I should have done with my black Hollyhocks?  “Quite right,” Carolyn says. “All plants are made to set seed, that’s basic plant psychology. But the black Hollyhock seed won’t come true.” I know that – I have pink and red and white and bi-colour popping up all over the place – they’re nice, but the black one are nicer.

We work through the garden centre, lifting pots up and emptying the water from the saucers.  Foliage truly is important in August, with the early bloomers spent and the stars of fall not yet in play. I notice Arisaema heterophyllum for its deeply divided leaves. “It’s a very rare and unusual Jack in the Pulpit,” Keith says. “It’s called Dancing Crane in Japan.”

Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumilla’ beckons. This one is a winner. The flower spikes have pretty lavender pink tones of mother-of-pearl.

The lilies are still going strong. Large fragrant flowers – each one so so perfect in shape and colour. From Stargazer with its dark red spots, an edge of white and urgently fragrant, to Casa Blanca - the purest of pure whites, each petal curved to the sweep of a Chinese calligrapher’s brush, centred on white stamens tipped in green. Lilium Black Beauty has reflexed petals that meet behind, like a ballerina en vol, while long stamens stretch out in front. It’s a deep maroon with white edges. Muscadet is an oriental hybrid with large pure white blooms and delicate pink spots.

A quick worshipful pause in front of the miniature trees, and my favourite Ulnus ‘Brocade’, and I leave with some stonecrop and hens and chicks that I’m going to propagate for my own nursery. These are always popular items at the sales I do a few times a year. It’s hard to choose from the bench of low-growing succulents that bask in the glare of the parking lot, outside the protective net of the garden centre. Keith has some exceptionally striking selections. Among my picks, the Sempervivum with the reddest leaf – S. Marmorium rubrifolium ornatum - and the most dramatic Sedum, S. Sieboldii variegata, which is tri-coloured: the leaves are a pale yellow-green, edged with a band of turquoise and, on the very margin, in glorious contrast, a line of purple red.

Chapter 21: Broadcast