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Chapter 23: Hard Slog

I’m on the phone to Keith. “Carolyn just got back from seeing the doctor,” Keith says. “They’re saying another week or two before she feels better. She’s still weak. She asked what could she take to get her energy back and they said nothing. They gave her a heavy duty pill that puts her to sleep because all she’s doing is coughing, coughing, coughing. She’s not getting any sleep and neither am I.

“She’s doing a little bit of work - an hour or so out with plants. We did get a rain
and it was a good rain. Now we’re right back into it - they’re prophesying what, 33 Celsius? Aaaah - I don’t know, these TV people, they seem to think that’s a good thing. If you look at how desperate we are for rain, you wonder what do these people do, do they never work outside? All they do outside is get a deckchair and sit in the shade.”

A couple of days later, I get Carolyn on the phone. She’s no better. “It’s very frightening,” she says. “I’ve never been through this before. I cough and cough and then I can’t inhale, nothing comes in, it’s a total panic. The doctor gave me a puffer. So then I’m coughing in the middle of the night and Keith says, ‘Where’s your pipe?’ Well, I couldn’t find it in the dark… If it’s not one thing it’s another.”
She’s concerned because she’s missing out on food bargains. That freezer has to be stocked for the winter. “Up until now, I haven’t had the strength to walk too far – I’ll go into town today and get some of the specials I saw in the paper.”

I finally get there, a couple of days after Labour Day. No one’s in evidence when I arrive at the garden centre. The Gypsophila paniculata ‘Pink Fairy’ catches my eye – it’s a long-flowering perennial, an elegant cloud of the palest pink. I walk towards the back, peeking at all the desirable plants in bloom and then I realize I’m being watched. Keith is standing arms akimbo in the middle of the garden centre, a twinkle in his eye.

“What do you think of the Delphiniums?” He points to a display – on special, which is unusual, three for $22 – all showing fresh green growth. These were the ones that he was telling me must be cut back last month. They’re cut off below the soil, he says, something I hadn’t grasped. “An eighth of an inch, maximum quarter of an inch below soil level,” he says. “So no part of them is above ground. If any is left, it picks up mildew or rot or anything else you don’t want it to carry into another season.”

We contemplate the vigorous growth on the Delphiniums. “If they were in the garden they would bloom again by the end of September,” he says. “In a pot, it’s iffy.”

Hollyhocks won’t get wheat rust – a common disease - if they’re cut back, he adds. “A bit sticking up will carry whatever you don’t want, and when a new shoot comes up, it transfers over, you’ve got that disease for the next season.”

The weekend has been lovely, the TV weather people tell us: sunny and no rain. But in the garden centre it’s been a tough, dry slog. “Here I am back again, we took all the saucers off last month, now I’m back putting them under the pots, filling them “

We had rain where I live, 150 kilometres to the north, near Georgian Bay. Here, on the Niagara Escarpment, no. But he reckons there must have been rain somewhere because there’s been no coverage of the drought on the news. “How would it be to go down to Channel 9 and say. ‘Okay, guys, we’re going to reduce your pay by 30 per cent because it hasn’t rained, what would that do to your attitude towards rain?’”

It’s been a terrible year in Niagara. “Some of the corn, it’s just up to your knees. A few thousand farmers are feeding a few million people, but the Channel 9 people have no idea. That’s why the sons and daughters of these farmers are out of there. What are they going to do without them?”

My eye is caught by a bench that’s curved under the weight of the pots and looks close to breaking point. “Six-inch pots,” he says. “They’re heavy.  I’ve been looking at it for quite some time, thinking I’ve got to get something under there. Ah, it’ll hold a while longer.”
 
How’s business? “Surprisingly I actually sold a couple of plants on the Labour Day weekend, usually it is a dead loss. Next weekend is the good one. Because Mother has actually got the kids back to school and can take some time for herself.”

Carolyn arrives from the house. “We did have a couple of people in yesterday. We had one dear couple, a young couple, they come in every year. They live in Hamilton, they don’t have a car, they have to borrow a car. Last year she was pregnant, this year she had a bouncing little boy.”
    She’s going next door to visit the neighbour. We watch her walk away. You can see she’s just not herself – there’s no spring to her step. “It’s going to take the full month,” Keith says. “That’s what it takes with bronchitis. They didn’t even give her anything for it, they got interested in her chest pain, in something other than what she’s got and I had to phone the pharmacist and say, ‘What have you got for bronchitis? because you’re it.’”

The Himalayan Impatiens is in flower and it is tall and impressive, lovely mauve flowers dangling on a spur, at eye height. I have to bend down to examine Serratula coronata ‘Nana,’ in flower with soft purple spheres on short stalks. “This is a worthwhile plant,” Keith says explaining that it’s unusual for a low-grower to be in bloom at this time of year. “September is up here” – he holds his hand at waist level – “so to have a plant in September that’s a few inches high and flowering is something you can work with.”

The Salvia lyrata ‘Purple Knockout’ is still going strong. “One of the best foliage plants I’ve see in 10 years,” he says. “Sometimes you get a plant that’s colourful but not deep because it’s green on the underside. This one is red on the underside.”

He switches the water lines again.

“I thought I was finished with this nonsense,” he says wearily. “This is the worst year ever. I had dry years in Brampton but I’m starting to think it was never this dry - we’ve gone through June, July, August with no rain to speak off.

“It rained at 20 to 12 today. It put at least 14 drops on the tractor seat.” We look at the seat’s dry shiny plastic surface. “And then it was gone.”

As we walk out the back, I notice water collected in the creases of a tarp that’s lying on the ground

“They say dump the water because of the mosquitoes,” Keith says, “but these poor wasps, they come for this water.” He looks down at them. “They’re floating on the water,” he points out, “I never noticed that they do that. I noticed that they’re there all the time so I thought I’d leave it there.” The wasps probably take care of any mosquito larvae anyway.

“The swallows are gone,” he says. “Even the little guys. Can you imagine that - they’re out of the nest a week and they’re on their way to Venezuela? They left one or two pairs of adults here – the rest were gone. There were about 15 or 20 of them and then they joined up, I imagine, with a bunch from the barn over there – there were 40 of them on the wire. You can tell young ones, they’re round and stubby and they’re flapping their wings like this to be fed” - he does a passable imitation of a baby swallow - “and I’m thinking, ‘They’re taking this lot to South America?’”

We’re down by the back barn because I’m going to buy some pots off Keith – he has huge piles of plastic pots he’s accumulated just because he’ll take them from customers who’ve purchased plants and feel bad about taking them to the dump. “Look at them! I never buy any of them. Guys are bringing them to me by the hundreds, they say ‘I took it back to where I bought it and they won’t take it back. They last for several years, they should reuse them. But no, they won’t.’ I say, ‘Okay, I will try to reuse it.’”

I suggest the nurseries refuse to take the pots back for phytosanitary reasons – the pots could carry disease. No, he says, they have steam systems to sterilize soil, they could easily sterilize their pots.

“I’m still waiting for someone like Greenpeace to come along and tell this so-called green industry – the nursery business – you’ve got to stop producing these plastic pots. Why are they producing and buying plastic and why isn’t somebody taking them to task for it? Every bit of plastic is going to end in the landfill. It won’t rot, especially if they bury it, which they’re doing. I suppose it will be a wondrous adventure, a thousand years from now, to dig into these dumps. ‘Look at all these stupid people, they grew plants in plastic.’ Perhaps they’ll recycle it then.”

Keith uses fibre pots. “I buy these from Kord, just down the street.” For environmental reasons? He nods. “It’s better for all the reasons. Winters better. Oh yes, by a country mile. This is fibre insulation. Frost is slow going in but when it’s frozen if the temperature changes, it’s not going to unfreeze. Plastic? Woomph!” He mimics the frost invading the undefended plant.

Now Keith’s old-fashioned which is what I like about his methods. He works with the ecology of his operation in mind, from the organisms in the soil to the birds in the air. But his political instincts are those of an old-time conservative Ontario farmer.

“I never thought of you as an environmentalist,” I observe.

“I never thought of myself that way either and I still don’t,” he replies. “Some of it’s a bit ridiculous. Now there’s a big foofara, the government regulates emissions and smokestacks, which is good. But this is going to change whether you like it or not it’s got nothing to do with pollution.”

He’s talking about global warming, shaping up for an argument as this is something about which we disagree. I suggest the evidence is in and remind him of the unusual things he’s been noticing. “That’s only one year,” he retorts. “I’m dealing with weather all the time. Is nobody eighty years old anymore? It freezes in September. But it hasn’t this year. My records tell you that in 1953 it didn’t freeze.”

The bright colour on the Japanese maples that are turning from green to red. They have the delicately etched leaves of Acer palmatum, but it’s more usual to see the dark red leaf, that by this time of year begins to look a little tired. Keith prefers the green ones. “They change in the fall,” he says. “And they stay a nice size.” 

Chapter 24: Weeds