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Chapter 21: Broadcast

It’s Art Drysdale’s radio show on AM 740.

Keith is talking about Shasta daisies. “They should last three to five years and then if you divide them, you get another three to five years.”

Art: “And there’s so many nice ones, you must have what, three or four nice ones?”

Keith: “The one we have this year, really great plants of, is the early one, May
Queen. It blooms at the end of May, well ahead of the others.

Art: “Well, that’s a neat idea.”

Keith: “Yes, and large flowers, it is quite a good variety.”

Art says something about a chap who’d called in because his Shastas hadn’t flowered, and here we are August already. Keith responds that he’d be only too happy to give the gentleman a plant to get him on the right track. Art gives out the directions to the Country Squires Garden.

“How are the scree gardens this year?” Art asks. “Are they dry?” It should be explained that Art, a popular Toronto garden writer and broadcaster, moved out to Vancouver five years ago. But he kept his Ontario radio program and calls here from there. He has the plant side of things down pat thanks to a lifetime of experience in this province, but sometimes he’s a little uncertain about our weather.

“The scree gardens are looking fine except that every time they bloom they get fried,” Keith says cheerfully. “The bloom gets burnt off, it’s unbelievable, but otherwise they’re fine.”

Art sounds a little dubious. “Do you think if you were to put a sprinkler or whatever you would stop that?”

Keith: “Probably, yeah, but the idea of a scree garden of course is that it never, ever gets watered. We have three scree gardens here and a clay garden and a sand garden and none of those gardens are ever, ever watered. It’s not necessary to water a garden.”

Art: “You’ve got other plants besides flowering plants ….Conifers…”

Keith: “They’re just fine. The conifers are enjoying it immensely.”

Art mentions that Keith has a wide variety of shade plants, and breaks for a traffic update.

When they return: “We’re talking with Keith Squires about shade gardens, you have 40 seconds, Keith.”

Keith, speaking fast: “All I can say, Art, a shade garden is the easiest garden in the world to get a wide variety of plants for. People are misled by most garden centres into thinking that they’re very, very limited if they have a shade garden I have at least 2,500 different plants in the shade section.”

He laughs

Art quickly wraps up: “Shall I put your phone number in here if people want more information? 905-875-3199 and you’re open every day until at least 5 o’clock if not later?”

Keith: “If not later. Open every day.”

Stupid traffic report, Keith says when I next see him. He’s annoyed because it cut short his time. “I was prepared. I’d gone around the garden centre noting whatever was in bloom, a normal question for Art to ask. My notes are still sitting there – I never got a chance to do anything

Did he get any business from the spot? “A couple came in from St. Catharines, and the guy who had the problem with the Shasta daisy, I gave him a Shasta daisy, what the heck.”

“They did buy a plant while they were here,” Carolyn interjects.

“It’s exasperating at times when we’re sitting here with 3,000 species sitting there, they’re all well-cared for. One, no one knows we’re here. Two, everyone is buying goldarned stuff that’s dead within a year. We’re facing this culture, the greenhouse culture, we get a lot of people who have been buying these greenhouse plants and are accustomed to losing them. I absolutely guarantee my plants and they’re looking at me one - in disbelief, two - with laughter. No plants live over the winter, that’s today’s joke.”

What about advertising? Keith says he took out some ads in the local paper. $200-$300 a spot for business-card-sized ad. “You’re talking $1,500 to $2,000. You can’t possibly sell enough plants from that ad to pay for that ad. But then people get to know you’re here. You might break even if you’re very lucky. It’s an investment. If you’ve got this person coming in, then it’s up to us to hold on to them as a customer.

“I talk to people. They say, ‘We’ve never heard of you.’ I ask, ‘How do I reach you then? Do you read the paper?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you listen to the radio?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then how do I reach you?’ Then they’re stumped.”

It’s the TV of course. That’s the only medium that reaches most people and only chains can afford tens of thousands of dollars for TV advertising. Cue the demise of the independent anything. Of course, there is the internet. A search will turn up the Country Squires Garden, it’s mentioned on a few gardening websites. Says one: “For the rare, the wonderful, or just plain beautiful every REAL garden lover in a 100-mile-radius knows this place. (Just don't tell anyone else about it!)”

“I could starve to death here because some of my customers will not tell where they get their plants from,” Keith likes to say, telling the story of one Quebec customer. He asked her if she knew another customer of his, also from Quebec. “So THIS is where she gets her plants!” the new customer exclaimed, delighted to have at last penetrated a rival’s secret. “That’s why I'm the poorest man in the business,” Keith chortles.

Of course, the Squires should have a website. I have broached the topic several times. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: “That’s how people will find you.”

Keith: “I’m very suspicious.”

Carolyn: “He thinks someone will steal his information.”

I’m a little taken aback by this. How can he have a website with no information?

Keith: “That’s 50 years of work! If it’s on my list, that means I’ve tested it, that means it’s winter-hardy. That’s useful information for a garden centre to have.”

But, I say, just because it’s on Keith’s list doesn’t mean a competitor would know what to do with the plant. Doesn’t mean the competitor could grow it as healthy or hardy as Keith’s. Or even find it.

“Yes,” says Carolyn, “I don’t know where they’d get Centaurea odyssei”.

“They’d take the easy stuff off it,” Keith says.

“Let them,” says Carolyn. “Let them take Campanula carpatica ‘Blue Clips,’ the Alyssum montanum, the Aurinia saxatilis,” and she reels off a list of easy-to-grow-from-seed plants that the competition is welcome to. Keith shakes his head.

“Having been taken advantage of by this one and that one – when she wrote a book and made a fortune of it, when she took 40 years of experience for her own benefit…”

Who? I ask.

He ignores me.

“They come here and take pictures of plants in our garden centre,” Carolyn says.

“I would say no but Keith says, ‘Sure, go ahead’.”

“You get burned,” Keith says. He tells me about the time Halton Region wanted to put a scree garden on one of its properties. “I did all the work, gave them all the information, I put a bid in, someone else bid lower and got the job.”

“The sheet I gave them listing all the plants, they put it on a website!” Carolyn says angrily. “My list!”

They’re both getting upset. Carolyn recalls the finished job. Whoever did it used three-quarter-inch gravel, not the granular A that’s required. “The plants were still in the soilless mix they were born in, when it was watered the gravel settled, leaving the little dead plants poking above the level in dried-out soilless mix.”

“So now you have the whole world thinking that a scree garden is a ridiculous idea,” Keith says. It seems to be the aspect of the affair that offends him the most.

“The same thing happened in Ottawa,” he adds. “This was a job for the National Capital Commission. They wanted to recreate the garden Mackenzie King had in the 1930s. There was a list of the plants he had, I had 80 per cent of the plants, everyone else had one per cent, so finally on the fourth or fifth round, I don’t know how I got a copy of the thing, I wrote back so I said we’ve got at least 80 per cent of the plants. What it would cost to sell them the plants? I sent them a cost. They wanted to know why the prices were so low. They phoned me from Ottawa to ask why the prices were so low. I said this is a major order as far as I’m concerned, these are the best prices we can give you.

“Oh, they said, ‘We want them all, but we have to put it out for tender.’ Someone in Ottawa went way below my price. But he didn’t have the plants. They told him Keith Squires has the plants. He came down in a tiny car. He bought flats and flats of plants. had them all piled up. I assume what he did was buy the plants and charge two or three times the rate for putting them in.”

So, Keith says, “That’s why I don’t want to put my list out there. That’s 50 years of work! The only way anyone can get the list is deliberately write me or come and get it.”

The list is a little booklet with a yellow cover and red lettering (the colour scheme Keith believes is the most effective for advertising). The Country Squires Garden ‘comprehensive plant list’ was published in 2000. It has a locator map on the back and on the inside back cover, a list of the series of nine talks Keith can give to groups featuring “lively and informed comment.” The topics range from alpines to shade plants to the scree garden. Also an ad for his nine-week course - “recommended and enjoyed by everyone from landscape architects to ‘ordinary’ home gardeners.”.

The meat of the catalogue is 30-odd closely typed pages listing over 4,000 varieties, Forty different Thymuses, 108 Primula, Lilium galore, and pages of Hostas. No colour photographs. Definitely not for the amateur, I’m tempted to say. But that’s wrong. Amateurs are passionate seekers. The catalogue is of no use to the exterior decorator – the one who gardens for show. An amateur would figure it out.

“Plagiarism is endemic in the business,” Keith says. “Remember the labels I made out wrongly? Boltonia ‘Snowbank’.”

“He invented the name,” Carolyn explains.

I’m puzzled.

He explains. “I was young. I could see everyone was doing it – giving a plant a common name so it would sell. Now, I wouldn’t do that... It took three years, the name Snowbank was everywhere.”

The website discussion lapses.

As for Art Drysdale, he disappeared from the airwaves a year later – “unceremoniously released by new management” according to his Wikipedia entry. He was an unlikely broadcaster – the worst radio voice I have ever heard – but a committed horticulturalist, and a good friend to Keith Squires.

Chapter 22: Cuttings