Swallows swirl overhead, chattering. “First thing in the spring you’ll see one or two pairs come in and look and they’re gone,” Keith tells me. “They’re the scouts. They’re not stupid, they’re a smart bird, they send some up ahead to see if it’s time. Ten days later, wooomph! Ten, fifteen pairs arrive.”

Keith considers the barn swallows and their insect-eating activities to be an integral part of his operation. They’re on staff for the summer and he takes a keen interest in their welfare. There was a problem when the cats arrived. The swallows built their nests under the beams where the cats couldn’t get at them, but they spent the night on the beams, where they were vulnerable.

“That’s when the cats nail them. So - I’ve got two things I want badly – one cat and one bird and this cat is going to eat this bird. Tchhh!” Keith shakes his head. “Go eat a mouse!” he tells a notional cat. “So I had to put these things in.” He points out slats of wood nailed to the beams, close to the nests but out of reach of the cats. He’s also hammered in nails here and there to assist the swallows in their construction. “That’s what they build a nest on. They just need something to work with. To my knowledge, I’ve only lost the one bird, the rest have stayed in here out of trouble because the cat can’t get at them on the perch.”

The bird he lost had crashed into the window and the cat pounced while it was still stunned and disoriented. Keith, always the showman, does a good impersonation of a stunned and disoriented baby swallow that’s only just learned to fly. He’s a little like a bird himself - a finch-like profile, a beak of a nose in line with a receding forehead, a fringe of whispy white hair around a sunburned pate. He looks fit, with wide shoulders, and projects the vigour of age. It’s something to do with a lively eye that’s always attentive. You know he’s taking everything in and won’t hesitate to offer his own two cents’ worth.  He doesn’t have all his teeth (but still has enough to serve, he doesn’t wear dentures) and he is a little bent. But he doesn’t look worn, tired, or dispirited.

And don’t cross him. You might have bitten off more than you can chew.
Like the truck driver who was in a hurry when Keith was helping the turtle cross the road.

He tells me all about it when I call. “I know her, she’s here every year, she comes from what we call the lake which is really a huge pond across the road. She wants to get into a sandy spot by the crick where she can dig and lay eggs. And then she goes back. It’s important to know which way she’s headed, because sometimes people stop and put her in the wrong direction.”

Not that Keith would pick her up. “She’s a snapping turtle!” But if he notices what’s happening, he goes out to direct traffic. “She’s not moving fast. I had the traffic stopped in both directions. The people were fine, they could see what I was doing, I was trying to get this turtle across the road.

“Well, the trucker came over the hill, he couldn’t see what the heck was happening, he came piling up beside the cars and I’m standing there. With that truck coming at me and he stopped, I guess he couldn’t have been any more than four, five feet  away from me by the time he stopped and now he’s on the wrong side of the road and he’s cussing and swearing at me…

“I’m saying, ‘We’re trying to get this turtle across the road,’ I don’t think he could have cared less, he would have run her over if he could. So I’m standing in front of this truck and he’s not going anywhere unless he runs over me and I’m not moving and he’s getting madder and madder.

“I said, ‘No, no, you’re staying right there until this thing gets across
the road.’ Of course he was totally in the wrong because he was coming up the hill and he’s got three cars in front of him and he immediately went around them. You cannot see this road over the hill so now he’s on the wrong side of the road and he has no idea why those cars are stopped and he’s edging forward trying to get me out of the way.

“In the meantime this goldarned turtle is ambling along. Of course, you don’t dare pick her up, there’s enough power in that jaw, she’d take a finger off. So he’s yelling and I’m standing there.  Finally I got her into the garden at the end of the lane here. I waved him on and he took off in a hurry.

“I felt sort of sorry for him in a way, he was busy working. But people in the country know they have the authority to stop traffic if there’s some serious problem. If you have a reason to stop traffic, you have the authority of a police officer, the people in the country know that.”

I arrive for a visit a couple of days after the official holiday weekend which is actually the May 17 weekend because this year the Ontario government has decreed it be held a week early – for what reason, the Lord only knows, because the long weekend is chilly, while the true May 24 weekend, still to come, will be glorious, as May two-fours are supposed to be.

No one in sight. I poke my head in the house and call out. No answer. As I pass by the front door, Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ takes me by surprise. She is in splendid bloom in the narrow scree bed under the roof overhang. It’s in a most unpromising situation for a specimen known to be fussy and unpredictable.

But this small shrub – about two feet high – commands attention, no matter the season. If she was elegant before, now she’s a stunner! The clusters of pale pink flowers are set off to perfection by the narrow dark green leaves edged in cream.
I bend to catch the fragrance, and resume my search for people. A pickup appears at the gate, heads down the far driveway and parks round the back of the garden centre. A guy comes in, clipboard in hand. I’m not sure if he’s a Squires family member – he seems to know what he’s doing.

“Do you know where the Squires are?” I ask. He says he doesn’t, and volunteers no further information. I wander back, and find Carolyn outside the bedding house, standing at a wagon laden with plants. She has news. “I meant to call and tell you,” she says, “but we’ve been so busy.” Why would that be? Well, it turns out that the local television station aired an item on them that the preceding Friday. “Keith’s good angel must have been watching over him – it was the Friday before the long weekend. People had three full days to check us out.”
I’m a little miffed. I am after all the official scribe. “Why didn’t you call me?” I ask. “It happened so fast,” she explains.

It all started because Keith was feeling down – about the business, about the future of the industry, about everything. “Keith, you’ve got to think positive,” Carolyn told him. To no avail. Then on the television news, the talking heads were complaining about the cool lead-up to the long weekend and everything in the garden being behind, and how much work it would take when the weather improved.

 “That got him going.  So he called them up. He said, ‘I can show you a garden that never needs watering, never needs weeding, never needs fertilizing.” And that caught the attention of whoever he talked to and the next thing was a call from Tom Hayes who said, ‘We’ll be down today.’

Tom Hayes is a local CTV newsman and television personality.

“We were having lunch,” Carolyn says. “They were here within 20 minutes. I looked up and said out loud to Keith, ‘Oh, there’s Tom Hayes and there’s Carole Charles.’ They stayed for over an hour and it played on Friday night.”
Later, I watch the item – a succinct and jovial three minutes, starring Keith. Carolyn does not make an appearance. Keith is dressed for effect, in a bright yellow Country Squires Garden baseball cap with the words ‘Perennial Specialists’ below the name, and a navy Roots vest with the familiar beaver logo above the word Canada.

Tom sets Keith up as someone who swims against the tide. “He’s been called numerous names such as ‘different’ and ‘unorthodox’ and no doubt he’s a bit of a character.” He turns to Keith. “Do they really talk to you like that?” “Yes,” Keith chortles.

Tom wastes no time in getting behind Keith’s “no watering, no fertilizing, no weeding” mantra, with a shot of a plant from some other garden centre that’s been pulled out of its pot to show the soilless mix – peat, vermiculite and what-have-you being vigorously shaken off its roots. “That’s very light,” Tom says. “That’s what you’re buying them in these days,” Keith replies.
Cut to the scree garden which is ablaze with tulips, irises and large colourful cushions of creeping phlox and ground-hugging veronicas. 

“It’s a little difficult to get your head around this concept – no triple mix, no topsoil,” Tom tells the viewers. “So what’s the secret?” He takes a small trowel and digs into the bed. “It’s this: granular A gravel. You know this because it’s everywhere. This is the stuff they make parking lots” – the camera pans to Keith’s weedy parking lot – “and roadways out of.”

“You drive on it to get here,” Keith says, and they both laugh. Back to the benighted plant in soilless mix. “This is the problem with store-bought plants,” Tom explains. “They’re packed in peat. And he says that’s why they’re half dead when you come home from holiday.” Here we have a shot of serried ranks of potted petunias from some other garden centre. 

“When peat dries out,” Keith tells him, “it dries out all around the plant, the poor plant dies and then the man sells you another one.” That’s not what happens at the Country Squires’. “Everything here is absolutely guaranteed for a whole year – no ifs, ands, buts. There’s no way we tolerate losing a plant.”

From there we segue to another of Keith’s favourite themes: the looming water crisis. “You will not be allowed to water a garden you will not be allowed to water a lawn you will not be allowed to pull your car into a driveway and wash it,” he intones.

“We’ll be living in an age of water conservation,” Tom concludes. The final word goes to Keith, as he’s chatting to Tom behind the bench of succulents that is outside the shaded garden centre where the plants can get full sun along with any added heat that might be baking up from the parking lot. Keith tells Tom that making gardening a pleasure, not a chore, improves the quality of life immensely.

“Look at me, Tom,” he says, spreading his arms. “I’m eighty.” The two turn laughing to the camera.

The spot must have aired on a number of CTV affiliates, because the Squires field phone inquiries from across the country. “The first phone call came from Saskatchewan,” Carolyn says. “She was on the phone for about 20 minutes asking about the scree garden. The next one was B.C.”

We notice there are six people in the garden centre and Keith has his hands full. Carolyn goes forward to help him and I poke around happily. I notice several old friends that I’ve purchased here and have spread around my garden. Geranium cinerea ‘Ballerina’, a small hardy geranium with dark purple veins on its white petals – very sweet. Veronica spicata ‘Incana’, the familiar blue spikes but with grey leathery leaves that are decorative even when the plant is not in flower. And Knautia macedonica, a bachelor’s button-type flower floats on long stalks above the foliage, adding an airy quality to any bed. It comes in pink and red, and I’ve worked hard to eliminate the pink from my garden because I much prefer the deep red. But the Squires tell me that pink is the favourite colour in Canada, so I must be out of sync.

There are others in bloom to tempt me. Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain,’ with thick purple flower spikes. Aubretia kotschyi, a mat of delicate mauve flowers…

The press of customers eases (the guy with a clipboard turns out to be a landscaper from Stratford) and Keith joins me. “We’ve had fun with the water,” he says. The water pressure plummeted three days ago and Keith had to go down and reposition the pump’s foot valve.

“We’d put the sucker in a pot and dug it down so it was in this much of water,” he indicates about a foot. “When the trouble started, I’m almost afraid to go down to see what the problem is. Well, we went down, dug the hole deeper, cleaned up all our screens and there we go, we’ve got our water pressure back. I was thinking of all kinds of things that would be very expensive and a big fight – a broken line, for instance – “

“- instead it was inexpensive and not a big fight,” says Carolyn. It’s nice when adversity cuts you some slack.

“You’ve pretty much missed the tree peonies,” Keith says regretfully. He caresses one that’s still in bloom, a layering of shades of pink that gives the colour richness and depth. “You don’t get that colour in a herbaceous peony,” he says. He fishes in a pot for a remnant petal of one of them and holds it out to be admired – a deep, deep purple. “Yellow, purple, black and shades of pink that you’d never find in the herbaceous peony.”

I’m thankful to see the bench of Incarvillea delavayi much depleted, just a few plants left bearing some tattered pink petals. “I forced them for Mother’s Day,” Keith says. “It paid off.”

Chapter 15: A Simple Rose