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Chapter 9: Growing to Music

It may seem that Keith has been hogging centre-stage in these pages. Let me introduce you to Carolyn, who is an imposing presence at any time, whether wielding a crowbar in steel-toed workboots and overalls, or dressed up to the nines for a garden show in bright jewel-like colours.

Keith is slight and wiry. Carolyn, six inches taller and 16 years his junior, has glossy brown hair, large hazel eyes with long lashes and a smile that will steal your heart. But you have to earn it. Commit a plant solecism and you’ll get the puzzled look down the long imperious nose. Their partnership is a close one – they do almost everything together, from morning to night, bickering amicably and uniting in condemnation of the world’s follies. She’s the anointed talent when it comes to untangling the delicate roots of seedlings that have to be transplanted. He has a farmer’s ability to build any structure and fix any machine.

And when it comes to making key decisions like when to remove the net from the garden centre or whether to go with a reclassified plant’s new name, Keith is the authority, and she will defer. But she’s not shy about expressing disagreement or pointing out that she had the same idea last week or a better one the week before. Carolyn’s the boss on the home front, champion bargain-hunter and queen of the freezer. It was her ability to stretch a dollar that allowed them to live on $5,000 a year during the worst stretch of their financial crisis.

She has a solid grasp of the theory behind Keith’s approach to gardening, and can explain it in equally vivid terms. “Plants do not grow in pristine wonderful loose composted organic soil,” she says firmly. “People come in and tell us, ‘I dug out that horrible clay and I put in really good stuff.’ We hear that so many times. Like what does your “good stuff” look like? Chocolate cake? That feels nice for you because it’s easy to turn over with a fork. But in nature, plants don’t grow in triple mix.”

Chocolate cake. That’s exactly what we aim for in our ignorance when we add all that peat and compost – something nice and airy that takes no effort for us to cultivate. A nice tilth, gardeners call it. Yes, it works for annuals, which is why we’re told to turn over our vegetable patch, season after season. Although that too is being challenged by the proponents of permaculture, a new-old approach to food production, which warns against disturbing the communities of micro-organisms that each have their place at different levels in the soil and advocates sparing use of compost, which is always to be spread lightly on the surface.

Since frequenting the Country Squires Garden, I have learned to wash the peaty soilless mix out of any perennials I buy from a rival establishment, swishing the roots clean in a bucket of water. Most perennials need a mineral soil that cleaves to the roots and protect them from the cold if they are that to survive our minus 30 winter temperatures. A more open-structured soil will let the cold in. Peat belongs in bogs.

Like Keith, Carolyn has horticultural roots. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were market-gardeners in Etobicoke. Her grandfather had 100 acres south of Bloor Street West, stretching back to the Humber River, where Park Lawn Cemetery is now. The house he built on Prince Edward Drive is still there. Carolyn’s father worked at Avro Aircraft in Malton, starting as a labourer and working his way up to the position of aeronautical engineer. He did the time studies for the CF-100 series of planes and the Avro Arrow, the first Canadian made supersonic jet. “The object was to time them doing a job and see if he could come up with a faster, cheaper way of doing it,” she says. When the program was killed by the Canadian government amid great controversy, he went to work at DeHavilland Aircraft and, after that, to McDonnell Douglas.

Carolyn had been working at Simpsons department store for 18 years and was an assistant manager when she met Keith in 1982, square-dancing at Yorkdale Secondary High School. He was a square-dancing teacher and caller and by then a widower, having been separated from his first wife Cynthia for some years before her death. Cynthia’s father, coincidentally, had immigrated from England to work on the Avro Arrow. Cynthia and Keith married in 1958 and had four children – Cynthia Kay, born in 1959; Charles Douglas (1960); Stanley Bruce (1962) and Stanley Keith (1966). Now, Keith has four grandchildren – Megan (1990), Shannon (1993), Cynthia (1992) and Samuel (2003), and a great-grand-daughter, Rowan (2007).

Keith and Carolyn got married in 1983. The way Carolyn sees it, she was destined to work in scree. “One of my grandfathers was a farmer and another grandfather was a prospector,” she says. “I have the background of both grandfathers right here, gardening in gravel.”

It’s early April and the landscape is the lurking grey that comes when the crispness of winter has passed, just before spring. I pick my way through huge puddles and expanses of soft mud. There’s music in the air. It’s coming from the bedding house. Popular music from before the War. I open the door to find Keith and Carolyn potting companionably side by side, with Josie, Doris and Liness snuggled up against each other on a shelf at eye-level.

He’s taking Onosma nana from four-and-a-half-inch pots and putting them in six-inch pots, cutting away old leaves and dead material, while she’s taking apart four-inch pots of a hardy perennial geranium (not to be confused with the frost-tender pelargoniums that are also called “geraniums”), pulling the long root strands apart and potting into six-inch pots, three crowns in each. They have a bucket of dry soil mix between them that they scoop out with a little 2-inch plastic pot. They’re listening to CFZM 740-AM, a program of vintage favourites.

“Finally, they’re playing the music that put them there in the first place,” Keith says of the radio station. I suggest not many remember those days. “No, that’s not true,” Keith says, glaring at me. I notice he’s wearing granny glasses, I haven’t seen him wear those before.

I admit to not knowing Onosma. “No?” Carolyn raises an eyebrow. “We’ve been growing Onosma stellatum for years.” “I don’t think you can find Onosma anywhere else in the province,” Keith says. Later, I look it up; it’s a pretty rock garden plant, a Central Asian member of the Boraginaceae family, with velvety foliage.

There has been much growth in here since I last visited. Keith explains that he miscalculated on the amount of stock that would fill the bedding house and didn’t take enough out of the hoop houses. That’s why there’s a group of flats and pots at our feet, somewhat bedraggled, beginning to thaw but not growing yet.

“We can’t touch these,” Keith says. “They were taken out three or four days ago. It takes a week to three weeks to wake up. We can’t do anything with them yet.” In addition, he’s missing a shipment from Holland, a refrigerated container full of plants. “It’s stuck in customs.” Will it be alright? “We won’t know until we see it. It will have been on the road for a month or more, and it’s a week late now. Every shipment is timed to fit precisely into a time slot. So that’s thrown us right off.”

I look down the bedding house. The Gold Heart Dicentra are now amazing, in full bloom under the bench, the strong pink and white of the flower heads hanging from arched stalks dramatically set off by the brilliant foliage.

“There’s nothing unusual about the flower,” Keith says. “It’s the leaf.”

“It’s a gorgeous contrast,” says Carolyn. “And it keeps its colour.”

The tree peonies are a foot tall and looking very good. As we pass, Carolyn mentions to Keith that only two of the Helenium ‘Double Trouble’ – purchased stock – are sending out growth. “Give it time,” Keith says, “it’s a fall-blooming plant, so what’s the hurry?”

“Those Liatris are up,” says Carolyn, and so they are, Liatris spicata ‘Blazing Star’, one of our prettiest natives, its straight green spikes pointing skywards.

In another pot, smaller spikes of Anthericum liliago are coming up among the mosses. And a dozen Paeonia mollis (species peony) are up a couple of inches in a single square pot. The leaves are three cornered and a very attractive dusty pink, as Carolyn said they would be. “They have a violet magenta bloom and they’re less than knee-high,” she says.

Carolyn points at a pot and says significantly to Keith: “Not Becky.”

It’s one of a dozen ‘Becky’ Phloxes they purchased that are supposed to have a variegated leaf but only 11 do and this one is unrepentantly monochromatic. They sold you a dud? “It happens,” Keith says. “All variegated plants are like that, not stable. It’s quite possible to get a single-colour cutting from a variegated plant, while the other cuttings are true to the parent.”

Keith pinches the buds off some Virginia bluebells. It’s a battle to restrain the enthusiasm of these early-blooming woodland natives that don’t go on sale for another two weeks. “That’s a nice Astilbe,” he says, pointing to a small pot. Astilbe crispa ‘Lilliput.’ It will have the feathery pink blooms of an Astilbe, but what makes it special is its small size and a dark bronze-green leaf. Keith is keen on dwarf versions of perennial favourites, a predilection that’s in tune with the needs of space-challenged urban gardeners.

“We had a garden centre operator in here, he’s had it up to here with all the greenhouse stuff,” Keith tells me. “It dies and then his customers are unhappy.” So the guy is going to buy some stock from Keith. A small amount, to see how it goes. I wonder if it will work – you have to be Keith to sell Keith’ plants at Keith’s prices, you have to have Keith’s knowledge and enthusiasm and love for each and every one. Otherwise the customer has no idea the plants are any different to what can be found in other nurseries. So why pay more?

On the west bench, rows of flats are covered with black plastic. This is where the previous year’s seed was on my last visit but now that’s been moved on and is sitting in the light on the east side, germinating, or waiting to germinate. These flats are this year’s seed, the ones that have just spent six weeks in a snow bank. I lift an edge of plastic to take a peek. Oops. “You’ve let the light in now,” Keith says. These are seeds that are still undergoing dark treatment. “That’s a no-no.” I feel terrible.

Just up the bench Carolyn shows us her Dianthus ‘Nyewood’s Cream’. “She’s been patting herself on the back all week for those,” Keith says. “It’s rare, rare, rare because it’s cream, a fragrant cream Dianthus.” But still a step short of the elusive yellow fragrant dianthus that breeders are hoping for.

Carolyn explains how she took 15 plants and split them into 40. “They all took, I can’t believe they all took.” The small plants – this is a ground-hugging Dianthus – look very settled, young shoots clearly primed for serious growth, even though she divided them less than a week ago.

Carolyn’s also courting compliments for her Thymus montanus albus. “I had two 5-inch pots and each was half full of a thymus. I took one pot at a time and divided it strand by strand. I got 36 pots. For three days I’ve been misting them. Now they can dry out because they’ve all taken, see, the new growth is standing up.” And indeed it is, the tiny shoots taking on that lively upward curve. “When it gets another quarter of an inch, I’ll take my shears and snip it back because they’ll branch out,” Carolyn says. She contemplates them proudly for a few minutes. “I didn’t think they’d all take.”

Keith points to the small pots of Geranium psilostemon, each one up an inch or so. “It’s a three-feet-tall geranium with deeply divided leaves, magenta with a black eye,” he says. “The leaves turn red in fall. We’ve never grown it from seed before. It should come true, it’s a species.” He has five pots. Later, he’ll do divisions. It’s four o’clock and Keith decides it’s time to take his daily look at the flats under black plastic. I refrain from pointing out that I’d just been reproved for peeking at them, while now it appears it’s just fine for Keith to peel the plastic back. There’s evidence some animal has been rooting around. “The buggers,” he says, smoothing the soil over the areas where it’s been dug up. A mouse? “It could be a wasp,” he says.

He examines every pot very carefully. The signs of life are so minute some of the seedlings finer than a hair, the little green leaf half the size of a pinhead. “You see these glasses, a customer left these glasses, I phoned to tell her, she said she’d come and pick them up,” He laughs. “If she does I’m not going to be able to see.” His rule is not to remove the pot from under plastic until there’s more than one seedling – because one could be a weed. Not much has come up. “I don’t expect very many, it’s not hot,” he says, covering everything up again. “Not very much seed will come up in daylight,” he adds.

Rules are made to be broken. Even though just one Dracocephalum ruyschianum has germinated, he pulls the pot out from under the plastic. The plump little shoot is clearly not a weed. Siberian Dragon’s Head is its common name, a low-growing plant with a wonderful hooded blue flower. This one I decide I really have to have. I may have to wait a while, though, if Keith’s only got one to germinate.

A 3-0-1 pot of hostas is pulled out, each plant a tiny eighth of an inch cone poking above the soil. (Pot sizes range from 3-0-1, meaning that three fit in a flat to 12-0-1, 12 fit in a flat.) The seed is from Summer Breeze. First stop for this and all newly emerged seedlings is in a spot on the bench shaded from the sun – not that there is any today – by a bed sheet.

I consider how wet the soil looks and how many of the little seedling look as if they might keel over. What about damping off? (that’s when the seedlings are attacked at soil level by a fungus that cuts through the stem and kills them.) “Turn around,” says Keith. “What do you feel?” I turn and a breeze strikes my face “Air,” I say, looking up at the large plastic tube running along the centre of the bedding house, shooting air out through holes cut in the side. “You don’t get damping off if you have air circulation,” Keith explains.

Revelation! Returning home that day, I buy a small fan and get the air moving around the seedlings I’ve got coming up under light in the bathroom. It puts an end to damping-off at Casa Harries.

Keith gets back to his Onosma nana. It’s at least three years since he started them and he’s hoping to get seed this year. So he won’t sell them this year? “I wouldn’t sell that,” he says, shocked. “Where would I get more?”

“We haven’t seen it flower yet,” Carolyn says. “We probably got it from one of the societies we belong to.”

I leave them potting contentedly to the tunes of the thirties, their cats nestled on the shelf above them.

Chapter 10: Show Time