There’s a patch of gravel in heaven, and Keith Squires has arrived to make it bloom. The owner of the Country Squires Garden in Campbellville, a fourth-generation nurseryman who was in the business for 74 years, passed away on Thursday. He was 94.
I have such vivid memories of Keith Squires – his delight in the minute speck of green that signalled succcessful germination, his indignation when I had the temerity to drive over his watering hose, the ‘jingling’ of his empty pockets as he joked about the wealthy ‘greenhouse men,’ the hearty welcome for the swallows that returned to his barn to nest every year, his pleasure in a bunch of cuttings collected on a warm end-of-summer day….
Plants seemed to come to life in conversation with him. They have personality, preferences and aversions. We need to pay attention, they need to be understood. He loved them all. He was as excited about the Tree Peonies he’d just had shipped from Holland – developed, he reckoned, by some highly skilled plant specialist in China - as he was about the Viper’s Bugloss he’d grown from seed collected from a common European weed that's found along roadsides here, with a lovely blue flower, a “true blue,” he called it.
He was a pioneer in his focus on perennials, switching in the mid-‘60s from the Gladiolus that had been the mainstay of the family business. Eventually, his collection of hardy perennials– up to 6,000 different species and varieties – became global in scope, the seed coming to him from all over the world.
He preferred to grow in gravel, insisting that 95 per cent of plants will do just fine in such a medium – requiring neither weeding, watering nor fertilizing. His propagation methods were old-fashioned and pre-industrial. They included not sterilizing his potting soil, because it contained organisms he wanted to be alive – and as we learn more about the important work carried out below our feet, how right he was.
The native perennials that increasingly became a focus for me were only part of his collection, just one aspect of his never-ending quest for beauty in nature. But one of my treasured plants came as a gift from him, an American Elm, one of a few he had obtained from the Guelph Arboretum that may have resistance to Dutch Elm Disease. I’d have to wait 20 years to find out, he told me in 2007. A few more years still to go. Another favourite that was Keith’s gift for my husband is the Virginia Rose that spreads at one end of our pond, and is abuzz with pollinators every summer. “These are God’s roses,” he said. “Not man-made.”
Keith’s family will spread his ashes by the banks of the Credit River, at the site of the Brampton farm he purchased in 1954, and lost when financial disaster hit in the 1990s recession. A couple of years ago, he told his wife Carolyn he wanted to go home – that was where home was for him.
I got to know the Squires, first as a gardening writer for the Toronto Star, and then when I decided to work on a book about him in 2009 – spending a day every month with the couple to track their progress through the seasons. The book, Hardy Perennial,
is posted on this website. Writing it was an inspiring and enriching experience. Keith Squires is an important figure in Canadian horticulture – skilled and immensely knowledgeable, and also quirky and fun. I take great pleasure in remembering him.Obituary