I drop by unexpectedly in early June. It’s late in the day, the gate is chained closed. I park outside and unhitch, and wander through the dripping garden centre. The rain has stopped, the sky is clearing and there’s a fresh clean smell to the spring evening. One rusting old van is parked in the front, the other blocks the passage between the house and the garden centre.

I edge around, thinking that as they can’t get the zoning to have a residence here, they probably keep a low profile outside business hours.

I bang on the door and call out so they know it’s me. Keith opens and Carolyn puts a kettle on for tea. “I got my neck all buggered up,” Keith says, sitting himself down a little gingerly at the dining room table. “It’s been like this for a couple of months but it’s worse today. We’ve been working hard for a week, getting the hostas out.”

“People have been coming in asking us for the hostas,” Carolyn says. “There was one gentlemen, I told him we’d start getting them out the Wednesday after Mother’s Day. He was here on the Wednesday. ‘The lady said they’d be out.’” She laughs. “’The lady’ (meaning herself) said we’d start working on getting them out.”

“Normally it takes us a week to set the hostas down,” Keith says. “This year, it’s taking longer.” He winces as he lifts the teacup to his lips.

“We quit at six tonight because it was raining,” Carolyn adds. “This morning it didn’t stop us, it felt wonderful. We got the razor knives and took the plastic off Number 8 house. But the rain in the evening was a bit heavy.”
Josie jumps up on the window sill outside, signalling that she wants to come in. “Have you been here since Doris died?” Carolyn asks as she makes the tea. I have. It’s been three weeks and Doris is still sorely missed.  “Mum is still looking for her, she’s still bringing in chipmunks and mice. I decided to say ‘You eat it,’ in a bright, cheerful voice, instead of saying. ‘Oh, Josie, yes, I know,’ in a low sad voice.”

To change the subject, she tells me about the rain. Don’t get Carolyn started on weather, she can elaborate on every nuance. “It’s been a strange rain this year.Yesterday, we had fine rain for 15 minutes, then no rain for half an hour, then another rain for 15 minutes, then it stops, then another cloud comes along - but last night it really rained. Three o’clock in the morning, you could hear it pounding down onto everything, oh yes, everything got really soaked.” She smiles in appreciation. “I haven’t watered anything in two weeks.”

After tea, we pop out for a tour. The garden centre is pervaded by the scent of the dwarf lilac – Syringa meyeri – all bloom and no leaf on a sculpturally shaped shrub from the Far East. It’s in its twentieth year, Keith says. We look at the label – it says 1995. “It’s 32!” he exclaims in delighted surprise.

Keith’s bench of dwarf evergreens are almost mesmerizing: intricate foliage, elegant shapes, exotic colours. The Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’ has a lovely soft blue hue to its spikes. It’s less than a foot high. The label says it can grow three inches in 10 years.

Another bench has a collection of miniature deciduous trees. One has assumed the sparse lines of a bonsai. It’s an elm. ”She’s probably 10, 15 years old,” Carolyn says. “How are you Jackie?” Ulmus elegantissimus ‘Jacqueline Hillier’ is her name, from the Hillier Arboretum in England,
“It’s an out-and-out miniature,” says Keith, who then points out another beauty, also from Hillier’s – Ulmus ‘Brocade’ is its name. Not Americana, he says in response to my question. “I don’t know, I can’t find out anything about it.” The leaves are half the size of a fingernail, with white serrated edges. What’s the word, I ask. It’s not variegated, is it? Picotee, says Keith. The effect is wonderfully delicate.

They have the same tree planted outside in the large scree garden by the house. “It’s struggling in the scree,” Keith says. “It may be slow putting down roots to go far enough.”

The label in the pot has a big number on it. $120. One of these days, I shall treat myself, I think  But I can’t quite imagine having a garden that’s elegant enough for this aristocrat. A year later, I see another Ulnus ‘Brocade’, looking very at home in a beautiful Japanese pot, in the window of the studio of one of Toronto’s top art restorers. I didn’t think to ask him where he got it, which of course was Keith’s first question when I told him about it.

The rose bench looks pretty wonderful. Rosa chinensis ‘Minima’ is in bloom, shades of pink and red and white. All Keith’s roses are species roses, with single blooms. He eschews the hybrids. “I don’t grow other roses, I leave that to other garden centres. I don’t grow the gorgeous roses that are big and die within a couple of years. There is absolutely nothing on face of this Earth that is tougher than a rose. Roses are everywhere, all over the world. They are as tough as you can get. But they’ve bred that out of them.”

Rosa yakusimana ‘Baru’ is from Japan. “It’s an out-and-out rose – it’ll cut you to pieces,” Keith tell me proudly. Attitude, I have learned, is something to be appreciated in a plant. And hardiness is an essential attribute, as he illustrates with an anecdote about his cousin in Singapore who imported roses and grew them in great profusion. “They bloomed and bloomed and then they quit. He can’t figure that out. But he thinks about it and he digs them all up, puts them in the refrigerator and leaves them there for six to eight weeks. Eight weeks later he pulls them out and replants them, whoomph, they’re off. Now he’s learned how to garden with English roses in Singapore. They want a rest, please, they want a winter.” 

A couple of years ago, after I’d known Keith for a while,  my husband came across a passage in the book Amaryllis at the Fair by Richard Jefferies, offering affectionate praise for the simple English musk rose. I mentioned this to Keith and he gave me a Rosa virginiana for my husband. “An Eastern North American rose,” he said. “These are God’s roses. Not man-made.”

Now, he tells me about some fellow who came to the garden centre a few years back and became transfixed by a rose. “A native rose,” Keith says, reaching for a name that won’t come. “What’s a native rose?” “Virginiana?” I suggest, naming the only one I know.

“Rosa virginiana,” he agrees. “This guy, he came in and looked at it and looked at it for quite some time. Finally he said, ‘What is this plant?’ I said to him, ‘It’s Rosa Virginizna, isn’t it nice?’ He said to me, ‘It’s a rose?’ He was horrified! He said ‘That’s awful!’ As soon as he found out it was a rose, and it didn’t fit what he thought a rose should be, he didn’t like it. Three minutes before that, ‘What is this wonderful plant?’ I said to him, ‘You’ve just been admiring it. It hasn’t changed since I told you its name.’ If I had invented a name for it he would have taken it and planted it in his garden as happy as can be!”

I have come across Rosa V. while canoeing a northern lake, peeping out from a tangle of grasses against a backdrop of hemlock. She’s a rambler, the flower a pale pink with a white centre surrounding golden stamens, fragrant of course, and the hips a pleasing orange addition to the winter scene. We planted her by our pond. From time to time she sends out an underground shoot and a sister plant pops up nearby, often to be moved to another location. “Best to cut it so it will branch.” Keith advises

There’s a stunning mass of mature hostas, some of them decades old, along the northeastern wall of the garden centre. “It’s safe to say,” Keith says modestly, “that nowhere are you going to see a display like this.”

The Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ has been in the same pot for at least 40 years, he says. It’s three feet wide and three feet tall with large heart-shaped grey-blue leaves (that’s in a pot; it would grow larger in the ground). None of the pots in the display are for sale; they’re there to show customers what the mature plant looks like. Keith points to a small pot of ‘Riptide’. “A gorgeous specimen with a reddish speckled stem. I tell them, look over there that’s what it’s going to look like in three or four years.” The large ‘Riptide’ is indeed an imposing presence.
“We’ve finally got people who realize what they’re looking at,” he laughs.

“’Where’s your display? We’ve come in to see the display.’” The Wednesday gent had come in because he’d remembered Keith had a particularly effective combination the year before and he wanted to study it before planting.
We pause by the Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’. They’re good-looking maple trees on standards, about six, seven feet tall, purchased from Holland. “I wanted to try them because of the leaf, it has this shrimp pink colour in spring and changes to yellow-green and then green in the summer.” Another advantage: the tree stays small with an eventual height of 6 metres. . It has been around for a long time – Keith tells me it received an award of merit in 1925.

Brilliantissimum is a grafted tree. An architect friend asked Keith for a ‘Brilliantissimum’ maple tree that’s not a standard. A standard is a tree grafted onto rootstock, usually because the rootstock is hardier. So “I phoned Holland. I can’t believe this but there are no trees. Every last single one of them was a standard.”

Keith says he and the Dutch supplier marveled together at the fact that only grafts were available, and no real trees, on their own roots. “He found it hard to believe – I find it hard to believe - we were sort of breathless on the phone that he couldn’t find a tree.”

Our final stop is by Euonomus Rokujo. It’s six years old and a few inches tall. A perfect little shrub. “A lady that discovered us a few weeks ago, she needed plants for troughs,” Carolyn says. “She was really excited to see all the miniatures. She was a master gardener.” She only had $25 in cash on her but she broke out the cheque book and spent $150. “She went a little nutty,” Keith says.

Chapter 16 The Contrariness of Plants