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Chapter 5: Winter’s Grip

A bit of drama when I arrive. I drive around the garden centre and park at the back of the house behind Keith’s van when Carolyn comes out of the house, carrying a kettle and looking perturbed. “You drove over the hose,” she says.

Yes. I look at my tracks in the snow and sure enough, I drove over the hose that runs from the house, across the driveway to disappear between two hoop houses.

“You should never drive over a hose. Maybe it will be alright because there’s snow underneath it may have sunk into. But you should never drive over a hose.” I apologize and feel bad.

Carolyn’s kettle of hot water is to unfreeze an ice blockage that must be in the last section of the hose, I realize as I follow the line to the bedding house and see water leaking from the penultimate join.

Inside, Keith, wearing a green CGS baseball cap, is standing over the end of the hose watching it not spouting any water into a large plastic barrel..

“I hope I haven’t done any damage driving over the hose,” I say. “You didn’t drive over the hose?” Keith is shocked. “Never, ever drive over a hose. These are expensive hoses – $200 each. And they’re 20 years old. “

I look at the dirty white hose and worry.

Keith turns to the weather and the inanity of broadcast weather commentary. “It’s absolutely bewildering,” he says. “We listen to their language – snow is awful, rain is terrible. If they had their way it would be 25 degrees Celsius 365 days a year. Why don’t they say: This is great! This is Canada! This is protecting the plants and the trees from the cold! This is killing off the tropical diseases that don’t belong here!”

“They want sun and heat so they can wear open-toed shoes to show off their legs whatever the weather,” Carolyn says, steam rising as she pours. The blockage clears, water streams into the two 40-gallon barrels, cans are filled and we all cheer up – it appears my transgression has had no ill effect. The water turns muddy halfway through filling the second barrel because we’re reaching the bottom of the well and Carolyn rushes away to turn it off.

Keith motions me to check out Liness, who has settled down into a flat lined with jute fabric. Keith made this bed up for her when she followed him here the day before but she’d refused to have anything to do with it. Now she’s nestled in, the picture of feline contentment. “She wouldn’t go near it yesterday,” Keith says, delighted that his own good judgment has prevailed over the contrariness of the animal.

Time to get the cutting flats in. We trudge over to Number 3 house, its entrance just across the drive from the bedding house door. Keith removes the door – a large ground-to-top rectangle of plywood. “It’s lovely and clean in here,” I say, remembering last fall when it was a jumble of overgrown plants and rampant weeds. The pots were lifted and Keith covered the ground with a white plastic sheet that in a previous life had been a summer hoop house cover. Carolyn cleaned the weeds out of each pot and divided the plants that needed it and here they are, in their winter home, labelled and organized.

Everything in the hoop house is well-watered before it’s put away in the fall, Keith tells me. “We try to put them to bed wet.”

Then, for the winter, the hoop house becomes a closed system. Water rises during warm days, condenses on the inside of the white plastic, falls back. Snow piles up outside, it’s about two feet up at the moment and keeps the floor ice-cold so the pots are frozen and stable. “We’re working with the weather, not against it.” Keith says.

To our right are the wooden cutting flats, filled with sand and frozen tight. Carolyn fetches a shovel to lever them up, but it doesn’t work. She gets a crowbar, and after some strategic prying, Mother Earth relinquishes her hold on the first one. Keith bends down and lifts it up, bowlegged, staggering a little, and carries it out, across the driveway and over to the bedding house where he plops it down on the bench.

I grab some work gloves and prepare to help when I notice that Carolyn isn’t making any move to pick up the other flats. She shakes her head. “Too heavy.” She’s stronger than me, so I don’t argue. We let 80-year-old Keith carry the flats out while we stroll down the row to cast an eye over a group of larger pots. This is Burkeya purpurea, a plant with grey prickly leaves radiating in a star in summer “These are being tested,” Carolyn says. The rosette is a shrivelled remnant but Carolyn spots “little eyes,” a tiny soft grey poking up in the middle.

There are just two larger flats left - probably weighing 120 pounds each.

“I can’t pick that one up, I need you,” Keith tells Carolyn. She bends, slips a hand under one side as he does the same at the other end. They tilt the box to get a grip and rise in unison. Keith backs out, Carolyn following, taller and larger in her olive down jacket and orange and black felted hat, both walking with legs slightly bent, ready to react if their rubber boots lose the grip of the icy surface outside. The cutting flats are arranged on the bench, with their desiccated little sticks looking deader than dead.

To our left, there’s a bench covered with black plastic. Keith raises the covering. Underneath, flats filled with potting mix. “This is last year’s seed that didn’t come up,” he explains. Aha! A tiny pale green rosette in one flat is the first indication that whatever it is has decided to perform. He pulls the whole flat out and moves it over to the other side of the bedding house, among the chosen ones that have started to grow – or germinated last year and are not yet showing any sign of life after having gone through a winter. but may yet…

The flats of the seeds that didn’t do anything last year have been bought in from the still-cold hoop houses and are given a “long night.”

It’s the combination of dark and warmth that could force this lot to germinate, Keith says. “Six weeks from now I’ll take it all off and see what happens. I can pick up a book and find out. But you’re looking at half the staff here. I can’t have it three days in the dark, three weeks in the cold. It can’t read anyway, it’s not a machine…. This is why a lot of the growers can’t be bothered with this. This is two years’ work. It might get planted out this year and if so, potted up next year. Three to five years – not three to five weeks. It’s not a certain thing.”

I reach out to touch something that may be a sprout, or perhaps just a piece of something lying there. Keith reproves me. “You have to refrain from touching it. If you upset it at the critical time, you could kill it.”

Here’s the Carduncellus monspeliensis, from northern Spain. Another Carduncellus, C. rhaponticoides, is from the Atlas Mountains. Keith loves the idea that these little gems from remote spots – he prefers remote and inhospitable spots - are flourishing in his nursery.

This is a Saxifraga ‘Primrose Dame,’ red flower buds already visible under needle-like leaves. “This is all my stock,” he says, explaining that he’s going to be propagating it. “How long does it bloom for?” I ask. “Three weeks,” says Carolyn.

“Now you’re talking like a customer,” Keith teases.
“No, no, no,” I’m thinking of customers, I protest, I’m thinking about how the garden centre won’t be open for another two months, so they won’t see it in bloom, so they won’t buy it.

Keith pays no attention, he’s off on a hobby horse. “You don’t want it to bloom all summer, if it blooms all summer, you’ll get tired of it and you won’t see it,” he says. “They say, ‘I want something that blooms all summer,’ and I say, ‘buy plastic flowers’.”

Chapter 6: Million-dollar Nightmare