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Chapter 7: Wake Up

The snow lies thick on the ground but the sun is bright. It’s cold but the air is still, no breath of a wind. From the trees at the western boundary of Keith’s property, an insistent three-note bird call sounds, familiar, but I can’t place it.

The Squires buildings are low to the ground as you come up the hill and it’s easy to sail past and miss the driveway. To the left of the entrance, a large wooden sign painted yellow with ‘The Country Squires Garden’ lettered in red. To the right, the main building. The garden centre’s ahead, the hoop houses are to the back, with wooden doors closed tight, and at the end of the driveway, the barn - a simple lean-to structure.

I follow the cat trails on the driveway. Church bells are sounding. Into the bedding house and it’s like stepping into a different world. The place is transformed. Last month, it was empty, cold and rank. Now, it’s warm from the strengthening March sunlight and Carolyn and Keith are busy dividing plants and potting up. The dead weeds under the benches have been pulled up and all 100 feet of the east bench is filled with flats.

Keith is packing lily bulbs into pots, using a smaller plastic pot to scoop the soil mix out of a large tray. “This is the best pink lily I ever saw,” he says. “It came in last year mixed with another variety. We figured out that the name of the pink one we like was probably ‘Le Reve’. It’s the colour, the shape of the bloom that makes it special.

“It’s a solid little-girl pink,” Carolyn enthuses.

What’s new? “Well, we lost our heat on the coldest night. It was a filter problem. The temperature dipped to minus 10,” Keith says. The thawing plants were set back, but it didn’t kill them. After all, they’ve been in the cold all winter in the unheated hoop house. Perennials in a conventional greenhouse might have perished because they’ve not been conditioned to the cold. And a houseful of annuals would have been wiped out.

“This is the difference between us and the greenhouse men,” Keith says. “The reality of perennials escapes the greenhouse men entirely. They’re terrified of letting them freeze because they’ve got this ingrained fear they’ll lose everything.”

I wander down the bench. It’s exciting to see what’s up and what’s not. Over the past couple of weeks these flats of seed and cuttings have been taken out of the unheated hoop houses, loaded onto the flatbed and pulled by tractor over to the bedding house. Now some have started to respond to the warmth. The heat of the sun, when it’s out, comes through the clear plastic and is enough to bring the temperature up as high as 30 degrees Celsius. But when a cloud passes, it feels cold immediately - as it does after 5 p.m. when the sun starts to sink below the treeline. That’s when the oil-fired furnace has to kick in.

These flats aren’t from this year’s seeding. The flats Keith did last month are still outside in the snow bank. These were seeded last year, the year before, or even three years ago. Cuttings either make it over the winter, or they don’t; but seeds of new varieties are allowed three winters before Keith gives up on them and decides they’re not going to germinate. Some germinated last spring and grew through the summer, dying down in the fall. Now the question is whether they have survived a second winter.

Keith and Carolyn accompany me, seizing on the opportunity for an enjoyable inspection of each flat.

“Hello, are you waking up?” Carolyn asks some pots of Lychnis and Anaphalis.

In just three of thirty pots of Astilbe, a tiny leaf can be seen. “That wasn’t here yesterday,” Keith says.

“As soon as it wakes up, it lifts up,” Keith levitates with his hands. “It’s come up in the air. Look at these Primulas, they arrived crammed 50 to a flat, they were potted out in four-and-a-half-inch pots - the day before yesterday. Now they’re settling in and sitting up, preparing to take over their pots."

And sure enough, the plants seem to be holding themselves proudly above the soil surface. It’s exhilarating.

There are 22 small pots labelled Petalostemon purpureum. This is a sculpturally elegant clover from the wide open spaces of the Prairies. I can’t see a thing. “ “It’s got lots of time to come up,” Keith says reassuringly. “It’s not supposed to be hardy here,” he adds.

Next stop Iliamna remota, a perennial hollyhock that’s native to Illinois and one of the rarest of native American plants. “It may bloom this year,” says Keith, “if not we’ll get it next year.” That’s the thing. You may get your rare plant to germinate, you may find it survives a winter, or two, or three. But will it bloom? Another question entirely, particularly when dealing with varieties that are used to different day lengths or longer summers.

Here we have a few Saxifraga exarata moschata displaying the tiniest of yellow leaf points. Six out of 42 have come up. “If there’s just one alive, that’s enough,” Keith says. “That means a hundred can be alive.”

“They were tiny, tiny little things when I planted them late last summer, so small,” says Carolyn. “It’ll be a mat, maybe this much across,” Keith says, spreading his hands.

Trollius patulus, Rudbeckia hybrid ‘Mahogany’, Campanula makaschvilii… A bud of red here, a spike of green there, so small you can easily miss the minute sign of life, but big enough to lay claim to a Latin name and tough enough to have wintered in Campbellville.

A pale green leaf is supposed to be Mazus reptans, a slow-growing ground-cover that has soft blue tubular flowers. There are other, different leaves in the same pot. Could they also be Mazus reptans? No, I say, stating the obvious, or so I think. Yes, say Keith and Carolyn, because one type of leaf is the cotyledon, the first leaf from a seed, but the others could the true leaf that comes after the cotyledon.

I step back, slightly dislodging a pot on the ground behind me. “That’s dead,” Keith pronounces. The clearly flourishing plant is doomed by my carelessness, he means. “There’s air underneath, the pot is slanted, it’ll dry it out.” He carefully moves the pot so it’s standing level on the ground. It may survive after all.

There’s a group of large tree peony pots. ‘Zhu Sha Lei’, they’re labelled. The plants are just beginning to throw up some leaf. “These are some of the best tree peonies that I’ve seen in my whole life,” Keith enthuses. “They are head and shoulders above anything I’ve seen in the last 50 years by the looks of them, grown in a different way and I don’t know how they did it.”

What is unusual is that they’re grown from division, not grafted like almost every other tree peony. Graft a plant onto hardier herbaceous roots, and you can churn tree peonies out by the hundreds. But take that one peony and divide it – it will take five years for the slow-growing divisions to be large enough to interest a customer. Keith ordered these plants from Holland, but he reckons the painstaking work was done in Japan or China. “Some fellow who would be an expert here is earning $25 a week over there.”

Here’s something in bloom: a lovely pale yellow mist of flowers floating above a mat of foliage. It’s the Saxifraga ‘Primrose Dame,’ a magical sight, a month ahead of the April 15 opening. “This will go on sale next year,” Carolyn says. “Our stock got run down - we brought it in from the hoop house and divided it. Five plants have been turned into 12. Next year, we won’t bring it in, we’ll leave it frozen. That will ensure that the plants don’t flower until April, when the customers arrive.”

“It’s another thing we do,” Keith says. “We carry stock. We get down to 25, we stop selling.”

“Not with hosta,” Carolyn says. “We let those get down to 10. With 800 varieties to chose from, we can afford it.” Here’s a Stokesia ‘Purple Parasols’. Stokesia is a North American plant that no longer exists in its wild state, Keith tells me. What survives is hybridized. This is a new form that’s taller and a deeper purple.

And this is something he’s excited about: Hippocrepis comosa. “You don’t want it, it’s a weed,” Keith mimics a customer. It’s Horseshoe Vetch, one of those cheerful grows-everywhere weeds in England. “I’ve been trying to grow it for years,” says Keith who is not a snob about any plant. If he likes the look of it, he’ll grow it and puts it on the bench.

More excitement: Athyrium iseanum pictum, Japanese painted fern. “They’re busting up” Keith says proudly, looking at a group of pots where nothing is showing except, oh yes, it looks as if something might be about to emerge – a slight bulge below the soil. “And that’s overnight,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful fern there is. You should see it as a 20-year-old plant. First one I ever saw was like that, it was in Kingston, an old friend of mine” he searches for the name – “Willy” – he searches for the last name and can’t retrieve it. “He was like me, he’d sow all sorts of stuff…. Dead now.”

Carolyn raises a label in triumph. Anthericum liliago has germinated! I can hardly see the little green points among a thick mat of mosses that have grown from the peat in the soil mix. St. Bernard’s Lily, she says. “We still have some but it takes three years minimum to get it saleable.”

There’s a tiny glimpse of life in a pot of Paeonia mollis, a species peony. It’s low-growing and early flowering, and the leaves will be a dusty pink. It comes true from seed because it’s a species plant and not a hybrid, Carolyn tells me. Although there is of course always the possibility that, unknown to the Squires, it’s been hybridized by a passing bee, mixing in the pollen of another type of peony. “And then, who knows, we might have a new variety.”

This month, the air in the bedding house seems charged with energy. And indeed, there’s real power to what’s happening around us. “A seed germinating can create a pressure that’s 275 pounds to the square inch,” Keith says. “There’s no way tarmac can hold it, 24 hours a day pressure – to a plant, it’s a life-anddeath situation – if it can’t bust through, it’s dead.”

He tells me a story about a house in Weston, part of a row that was converted into stores, so all the backyards were bulldozed and they tarmacked the whole thing. They had a Campsis Radicans (trumpet vine) growing up one wall, it was 25 to 30 feet tall. “These guys took it off with a saw, pulled it off the house. The next year, it came up through the tarmac. They did the same thing, cut it back, and back it came. This went on for three or four years. “Finally they gave up. They were beat. It won. Goodness knows how much root it had under there to support it.”

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ has just been split. It’s Bleeding Heart, a pretty North American native, but this one is special for its golden leaf. “We bought the roots three, four years ago,” Keith says. “We could only get three plants, we liked it, we thought we could get more the next year – but nobody lists it.”

“It shows up in shade,” Carolyn says, “it’s phenomenal.”

Keith takes a pot and holds it under the bench so I can see how the light seems to be captured in the leaves, radiating from the gloom like a beacon. They have 11 plants, of 15 when they divided the stock this time last year. “We put four on the bench, sold three.” Now they have 20, each one on sale for $25.

There are hostas under the bench too, many patterned in white, others a pale gold or soft greenish-blue. Keith has had hostas for 60 years and every year introduces 25 new varieties, so he has 900 varieties of hosta right now.

“We have two houses full of hostas. It’s a first-class foliage plant in shade. Shade is easy,” he tells me, and insists: “People are told that shade is ‘difficult.’ This is not true, it’s common misleading garden information handed out in garden centres. A shade garden is the easiest garden in the whole world to grow plants in. Why? Because it’s so stable – stable light, stable temperature, stable moisture… What’s that annual?” he asks, his memory failing him.

Impatiens?

“Yes,” he mimics the greenhouse men “’I’ve got a million impatiens to sell you, I’m not going to sell you anything else.’” “We’ve got at least 2,000 different species of plants in the shade section.”

Chapter 8: Uncomfortable Truths