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Chapter 4: Life Begins

It’s turning into a ferocious February, with plummeting temperatures and epic snowstorms. Up on the windswept heights of the Niagara Escarpment, Carolyn and Keith have been driven outside to dig out the hoop houses, of which there are 16, all filled with plants. The hoop houses are not greenhouses: they’re not heated, and the plants spend the winter in their pots, frozen to the ground. They are, however, protected from the wind, which is the way a hardy perennial likes to spend the winter. Snow can be dangerous, as is evident from the twisted steel remains of Number 8 house which collapsed last year. It was a disaster – the Squires had to tunnel under the collapsed structure and rescue the plants that then had to be shoe-horned into what vacant space could be found in the other hoop houses – which are all nailed shut for the winter anyhow. 

It’s not the weight of the snow so much as an imbalance that creates the problem. If the height of snow on either side of the hoop is the same, the structure will hold. If the winds shift the weight to one side, the steel hoops will bend. “We put the shovel under the drift and threw the snow against the house behind to balance the other house. It’s a mathematical thing and a geometrical thing,” Carolyn says, “Where we are, the winds come from the east, they seem to blow the snow off the east side of the poly houses onto the west side, it doesn’t have an even weight distribution.” So the Squires dig to equalize the load. “Tuesday I was out shoveling all morning and then again all afternoon,” Carolyn tells me. “It showed us how out of condition we were – it almost killed us. But it’s better than taking the houses apart and bending the hoops.” That’s a summer job.

Now there’s six inches of snow on the ground, a bright sunny day but cold! with a biting wind. Carolyn offers me warm woollen knitted socks to keep my feet warm when I take my boots off because it’s cool inside their home. We sit down in the living room area. A pink succulent Kalanchoe is in wonderful bloom.

“That was my mother’s,” Carolyn says.

“Kalanchoe,” Keith says. He grabs my arm and marches me through to the kitchen.

“Kalanchoe!” he repeats, pointing at the tree with grey velvety leaves that’s reaching up to the ceiling, a prehistoric plant from Madagascar. “Artemisia’s the same. They’re not all silver-foliage desert plants.” His point being that members of the same family can look very different. It drives Keith crazy when a customer tells him, ‘Oh, a Columbine, I already have that.’ “Which one? We have 30 varieties!”

The seed orders for the year have been arriving. Where are they? In the fridge, Carolyn says. I want to see, thinking – I don’t know – that they will be in a large box. She pulls out an envelope. I’m still not used to how little seed it takes to grow a ton of plants.

For now, the customer is front of mind. Carolyn has been composing and lettering on the descriptive cards that hang above each plant in the garden centre. “That’s what I’m doing today,” she says wearily, “and that’s what I did yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.”

The Squires eschew the commercial labels that can be ordered by the thousand, each bearing a nice colour photo of the plant in bloom and a brief description. Often, Keith says, the information on the labels is wrong, or is written for conditions farther south, in the States. Of course, the labels are mass-produced for mass-produced plants. It’s a system that just doesn’t work for an operation that’s premised on variety, not uniformity, producing unusual plants by the dozen, rather than retailing what the market has decided will be popular, by the thousand.

Keith has his own system, wondrous in its simplicity and outlined as plain as day on several large hand-lettered boards hung in various locations around the garden centre. Different coloured labels denote the price, from white, the “basic” price, to lavender, for choice or rare or new. Carolyn prints the labels up on a hand-operated gizmo. They bear the Latin name, a common name and a series of numbers and letters denoting height, colour, situation and bloom time. Example: Physostegia virginiana variegata ‘Obedient Plant’ 2 ½’ P Su/Sh Sep. Decoded: two and a half feet high, Purple, Sun or Shade, blooming in September. It’s simple. Why is it that I never quite get the hang of it when I’m picking plants in the Country Squires Garden centre? Keith shakes his head indulgently at his customers’ inability to figure the system out.

Of course in our visually oriented world, the lack of a picture is a major hindrance. People can’t make sense of a written description, it means nothing to them. In this business, a picture – even the wrong one - is truly worth a thousand words. The Squires have a scrapbook for customers to consult, with photos of the plants they have in the garden centre. It doesn’t work. They have had to come to terms with this and the solution is to hang a photo above the plant with a description, composed by Carolyn, that is based on their actual experience growing the plant rather than what a reference book might say. This is because a plant that’s six inches high with pale blue flowers on a mountain in Tibet might grow a foot taller and a deeper shade of blue in the long days and strong light of an Ontario summer.

This is the year of the big push to get every plant illustrated with a photo. “Now we’ve decided to go one step further,” Keith says. The project started a couple of years earlier when he bought a small laminating machine. A week ago he purchased a copying machine to size the photos the way he wants them. “It’s regular $170, they sold it to me for $70,” he says. “That’s good value, even though I’m only going to use it for one week in the year.”

He only has it three days before returning to the store in a high state of dudgeon.

“I worked with it for a few hours and it ran out of ink! I took it down and showed them and said, ‘Here it is, this is the one that ran out of ink halfway through the job.’ Turned out that was exactly what was supposed to happen. “I needed a replacement ink cartridge for a cost of $33. I did 33 pages exactly, that’s a dollar a page. I expected it to last me a year or two,” he says indignantly. “‘Oh no,’ the salesman told me, ‘you’re lucky to get 33 pages.’ And he’s got a button on his lapel that says, ‘Colour copy 39 cents, special for this week.’ I said ‘This doesn’t make any sense. I just bought a machine off you to save money, I’ve got to cut my costs down. I want to bring the machine back.’ The salesman agreed to take it back. He was quite understanding.” I imagine he might have been, under a barrage of indignation. So Keith returned the machine and got his photos copied at the store for 39 cents each with much better quality results.

Keith has a system down pat – he lays out two photos per photocopied page, laminates the whole sheet and cuts it in half. “We can hang it out in the garden centre with the plants in all kinds of weather.”

It’s time to seed. I follow Keith out a la Good King Wenceslas, carefully placing my feet in his footsteps so the snow doesn’t slip in over the top of my ankle boots. Carolyn’s following. He struggles with the door of a hoop house – they’re closed with a brace across the door that he manages to lift off. Inside, the flats are spread out on the sand floors (frozen as solid as concrete), still dormant but on the verge of awakening. It’s exhilarating, in February, to sense the pulse of life.

Today, as it’s quite bitter outside, I’m pleased when we head into the bedding house, also known as the Cornell house, so named because the design is from Cornell University. Carolyn shows me a large cardboard box about one and a half by three feet, filled with an assortment of envelopes and paper bags. “That’s pure seed. There’s only 100, 150 species there.”

Keith gets out a 12-flat, a plastic flat containing 12 rectangular fibre pots. An 8-flat has eight square pots, larger and deeper, while a 3-0-1 is filled by three large rectangular pots. He makes up a seeding medium out of pro-mix (a commercial mixture of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite and other stuff) and sand that he’s just pried out of the frozen pile at the back of the property with a pick-axe.

Eriophyllum caespitosum is first. Keith shakes it out of an envelope marked with his own hand. The seed spreads thick on the surface, the tiny spheres all over each other. Why not spread them out? ”You’re thinking seeds are going to come up.” Keith says. “They’re not all going to germinate. Look at that stuff” – he points to the bench. “One year, two years, some are going into their third year. In the Canadian Arctic there’s seed there that’s been there for three million years that’s still good and will still come up. You know what they found out? Those seeds are disease-resistant. Healthy as a horse! Far healthier than what’s growing today, now they’re using those seeds to hybridize with more modern varieties. To try and get that disease resistance back.”

He tamps the seed down with a wooden wedge, made out of a chunk of old hockey stick.

The label, already written out in grease pencil, gets tucked down the side of the pot, not showing. Only when the seed germinates, this year, next year, or the year after, will the label be raised to stand proudly like a flag, a proclamation of triumph over the forces of dormancy.

Next is Scabiosa caucasica Alba. “We discovered it last summer in our parking lot,” Carolyn says. “We know it’s Scabiosa caucasica, but the ones we grow are blue. This is white.” There’s no guarantee the seed saved from the white sport will produce white flowers – but it’s worth a try.

Then Chaerophyllum hirsutum, followed by Anthemis montana. I notice something else: Not only does Keith sprinkle the seed thickly, he also fails to cover it. What happened to the kind of prescriptions found on seed packages - one mm here, 5 mm there, surface of the soil there?

Keith shakes his head indulgently. “Never, ever bury the seed,” he instructs. “God never buries it. Mother Nature doesn’t dig a little hole and scrape the earth back over like a cat.” Some seed needs dark, he explains. But that doesn’t have to be provided by covering it with soil. What Keith does is bury the flat in snow for six weeks. Then he brings it in and covers it in thick black plastic, checking every day to see if anything has germinated.

But the light of day is part of nature’s cycle, so the seed should have both, I suggest. Not so, Keith says, the light of day is the worst thing that can happen when coaxing a recalcitrant seed to life. “They come up at night. When you come out in the morning you look around the garden to see what’s come up. Boom boom boom. Then you wait till the next morning. They don’t come up in the sun.”

Every seed is different. One spreads like a fine rust bloom over the surface. Another tumbles and bounces. Different shapes, different sizes, different colours. There’s a fair bit of chaff and dried leaf mixed in with some of the seeds. That’s because it’s Keith’s seed for himself – he didn’t need to clean it to perfection. Had it been going elsewhere, it would have to be meticulously cleaned, to be sure of not spreading disease.

The Squires don’t bother with the complicated instructions that often accompany the more difficult perennial seed. Cover with boiling water, refrigerate for 60 days, keep warm for a few more weeks, plunge into darkness, keep under lights, spritz daily… “We do not have time to play games,” Keith explains. So all the seed gets the same treatment, in a sequence that goes through most options. If there’s no germination after three years, they’re thrown out.

No need for simulated winter for today’s seeding. Outside, nature is more than willing to supply the real thing. At day’s end, as the winter light drains from a washed-out sky, Keith grabs a shovel and clears a depression in a snowbank west of the bedding house. The freshly seeded flats are carried out and laid to rest, the snow shovelled back on top of them. Six weeks of snow. TLC through spring, summer and fall. Next winter frozen to the ground in a hoop house. Repeat.

“I expect the seed to come up under these conditions,” Keith says, contemplating the pile of snow. “It’s not often that we get seed from a seed company that doesn’t come up.” The seed from the Alpine clubs may be chancier. But that’s the fun of it. “I sort of feel sorry for someone who’s growing the same thing all the time.”  

Chapter 5: Winter's Grip