A lovely summer’s day but I can’t find anyone at the Country Squires Garden. I walk down the driveway. To the right, the hoop houses. To the left, a tangle of bramble and sumac and boston ivy. There’s nothing manicured about this place. I call as I approach the barn. Carolyn’s not at her station. I don’t go in but veer right towards the bedding house. It’s bright inside, from the sun, but quiet. This was a hub of activity in March and April, every inch of bench filled with awakening seedlings and the ground covered with magnificent plants. Now, the bright orange and yellow of a self-seeded clump of Galliarda growing from the sand floor is the sole reminder of the colour and beauty that comes from this place.

Back to the house. I go in, calling. No answer. I wonder if they’ve gone somewhere, if there’s something wrong with the cats. I turn to go leave and find Carolyn emerging from the bedroom, clearly just waking up. I apologize. “Are you alright?” I ask – it’s so unusual for her to be indoors.

She’s not – she’s got bronchitis. It started a few days earlier. “I was feeling fine. And I coughed. And I thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ And it got worse.’ Of course, she didn’t go to the doctor’s for three days and then she found her doctor was away so she went to the walk-in clinic and when they heard she had a chest pain, probably from coughing, they sent her to hospital to have her heart checked and she was there till 11 at night. “But I got a nice dinner with roast beef and peas and mashed potatoes, I was eating better than Keith,” she laughs.

Now, she’s grounded. “He doesn’t want me outside. Too damp. With all the laying around, I’ve become quite wobbly.” She’s not been idle though – there’s a lot to do on the computer, updating her information database, the material she uses for the handwritten cards that are pinned above each plant in the garden centre.

While we’re talking, Keith comes through on the walkie-talkie. Turns out he knows I’m here, he saw me wandering around. I have no idea where he was – apparently in the barn doing cuttings. Why didn’t he answer when I called? He’s deaf in one ear, Carolyn reminds me. I leave her to rest – working on the computer is a rest compared to the demanding physical work that she normally does – and head back to the barn, stopping on the way to look at what’s exciting on the benches. Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’ is still very good, definitely a choice for a shade garden. Japanese anemones are coming into bloom. Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’ has pale petals edged in pink with a darker pink underside and bright yellow stamens. “The hardiest and most vigorous growing of the fall blooming anemones” says Carolyn’s card. That’s the thing about Japanese anemones – vigour: They grew in my grandmother’s garden in Ireland and were working on taking over the world.

The Polygonatum odoratum ‘Silver Wings’ has bluish narrow foliage. It’s a little like Solomon’s Seal, I write in my notebook and then realize that of course, Polygonatum is Solomon’s Seal, and this one has the little purple berries hanging from under the curved stem. Beside it is Polygonatum humile. This “charming dwarf” grows 8 to 12 inches, Carolyn’s card says, and is “a connoisseur’s plant”
There are several in this family of North American natives that are a great choice for a shade garden. Polygonatum odoratum ‘Thunbergii variegatum’ is one of my favourites - the white edge to the leaf works very nicely to provide definition in the shade.

I linger. This is a friendly place, with plants I know, and many more I want to get to know. There are several varieties of Ligularia, large burgundy rounded leaves on gently curving stems and orange daisy-like flowers coming into bloom. Also various Phloxes, including Phlox paniculata ‘Nora Leigh,’ another old friend, with leaves highlighted in cream and soft pink flowers with darker pink centres.
The Inulas have been cut back but secondary stems are flowering and working on catching up to the height of the previous ones.

Keith isn’t in the barn. There’s a flat, three quarters full of cuttings. Each little row or clump of cuttings has its label. Such a magical jumble of plants, all destined to be so different but for now each one a short stem sticking up two inches above soil level – Dianthus ‘Houndspool cheryl,’ Dracocephalum, Salvia nemerosa ‘Sensation Rose,’ Amorpha canescens, Chaenomeles japonica ‘Sargentii,’ Dianthus ‘Scaynes Hill,’ Meehania urticifolia, Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’…

Keith appears, walking down the driveway clutching a potful of cuttings, picturesque in a floppy canvas hat, overalls and a plaid shirt. “This is the time of year I look around and see if I can see something that I’ve missed. I try to keep track of them but once in a while we lose something.” he says. “So I’ve got to get them before it’s too late. This is the only one I’ve got of this,” he brandishes a whispy looking stalk. “Phlox subulata ‘Nettleton Variegation’.”

The swallows swoop in and out the large open door as he bustles up to the bench in front of the only window in the barn. I wonder, is there still a nest? It’s so late in the season. Yes, there is. “I thought they (the nestlings) were in deep trouble because I couldn’t find any of them (the flock) the other day,” he says, sorting his cuttings and placing them in little piles. “The mother was sitting on the beam by the nest and it looked as if the rest of the flock had left. I thought, they’re doomed. Because if just the mother and the four are left, they won’t survive flying south. They need to go with the flock.”

I look up at four bright-eyed babies. One looks as if he’s about to launch himself this very minute. Another is hunkered right down and seems to have sworn never to leave.

“They’re in trouble if they don’t get going soon,” Keith intones. ”The flock came back, about 12 or 14 of them, about half of what was here in midsummer. So the babies are getting fed and with luck they’ll be taught to fly in time for the big hike south.”

Swallows hang together. The flock takes collective responsibility for feeding and raising the young. They’re summer’s daily companions and Keith and Carolyn track the vicissitudes of their family life with keen interest. Keith tells me how the babies fly to the hoop house across the driveway for their first flight and cling onto the net for dear life, which the older ones swirl around encouraging them to take off.

“Where’s Nettleton?” he asks as he strips the leaves off leaving the cutting stems bare – just a few leaves at the top remaining. I don’t know. England, somewhere. He explains he lost the rest of the ‘Nettletons’ when Number 2 house fell in four or five years ago, crushed by a huge weight of snow. All the plants got redistributed. “They were scattered from hell to Athabasca and everywhere in between.”

Number 2 house is up and running again but now Number 3 house is a sprawling tangle of steel hoops, twisted by the weight of last winter’s snow.

He’s using two types of hormone rooting powder. The pink is the one he uses the most, for soft herbaceous cuttings. A cream-coloured blend is for stems that might be a little woody this late in the season. There’s a grey formula for hardwood but Keith, being a perennial specialist, has no need for that one. Keith dips the cuttings so they come out coated at least an inch deep in plentiful amounts of powder and lines them up on a piece of newspaper.

I comment on the depth of the wooden flat - almost five inches. “That’s almost the perfect depth as far as I’m concerned,” he says. It’s made of solid planks of wood, about 32 by 23 inches. I peek underneath because I want some the same. The planks are almost butting, I note. That’s a mistake, he says. “I would space the boards so they had drainage, an eighth of an inch so as to let the water through.” He had a handyman put them together and when the guy realized he hadn’t left space for drainage, he wanted to take them apart again. “I told him no,” Keith says, “I drilled nine holes in the bottom.”

There’s a line drawn in the sand showing where the next row is to go. But when it comes time to insert the stems, he uses a dibber to make a deep hole and the cutting gets pushed all the way down, just an inch or two poking up. The Chocolate Eupatoriums are about three inches above. Why are they so long? Well, there’s another four inches below. Why didn’t he cut it shorter? That’s how long it was from the node, he says. “You have to cut it at the node, that’s where the roots grow from.”

He writes out the label for Antennaria canadensis. “If I remember correctly it should be white,” he says. The flat is full. He spritzes it thoroughly from a water sprayer, then pours more water onto the sand, flooding around the roots. We watch the water soak down, eliminating air pockets, making sure that the sand is tight to the stems

 “Greenhouse men get the shudders when they see how I work,” he says. “I’m using sand, see. They wouldn’t teach them what I do at Guelph. They’re using perlite or some silly thing – it’s got to be lightweight.” He gestures for me to pick up the flat. It’s full of sand and water and I can’t lift it. “This is going out, it’s not staying in,” he says, hoisting the flat off the table. It weighs fifty to eighty pounds, he says. To the side of the barn, under some tall maples, there’s a shaded spot surrounded by brambles.

The new flat joins three others on the flattened grass, each one stuffed with little cuttings. There are a few gaps where cuttings have died out, shrunken blackened sticks, but for the most part everything has taken and is growing gangbusters – large variegated leaves cheek-by-jowl with spindly little conifer types. No automatic watering here. Keith dips a watering can into a rain barrel and drenches everything in sight. In a couple of months, the flats will be moved into one of the hoop houses for the winter where they will freeze. “I put them there so I can get them in early in the spring – otherwise I’d leave them here,” Keith says, looking around the little clearing. The trees are so tall that there’s plenty of light. But at the same time, no direct sun gets through. “You get sun on a leaf, woomph it’s gone. You need stable temperature, stable light and what does it cost me? It costs me nothing to take it out and to put it in nature under the tree.”
We look up. The light is soft, filtered by the maples’ leaves. The air is soft too, moderated by the trees’ benign influence.

“All those natural things they don’t want that anymore. They want it controlled. I don’t know what that leads to. Ninety per cent of all perennial plants, tough-as-nails plants, being grown in a greenhouse in soilless mix, now you get a race of plants that’s no longer hardy,” he says. He believes that the pampering of perennials is leading to weakened stock. “They’ll adapt – plants do that, they’re doing it with global warming – to exaggerate things, they’re going to become tropical. I don’t know, is that not important?”

The walkie talkie sounds and Carolyn’s voice comes over. “I’ve got lunch almost ready, are you guys coming?” “We’ll be there, on the double,” Keith replies.

As we walk up the driveway, a crow lands some fifty feet ahead. Keith’s eyes light up. “We’ve got the best crows in the world here,” he says affectionately. “They’re always on the ground, they’re going through everywhere looking for bugs.” The crow moves ahead of us, keeping her distance. Keith reckons she lets us get closer than most crows would. “There’s the male,” he says, as a second bird lands. “I don’t bother them, they’ve got used to the fact that I never make any moves towards them. Because I’m delighted that they’re here.”

As we get up to the house, a broad smile spreads over his face. I look for what he’s seen and spot a steady procession of bees flying in and out of a hole by the door to the basement. Keith seems even more delighted with the bees than he is with the crows. “They work all day long,” he says. “None of this would happen without them – they’re the pollinators.” God’s little miracle workers.

Chapter 23: Hard Slog