It’s overcast but still unusually warm. Two days ago, Toronto hit 33 Celsius and we’re near the end of September. A note on the counter outside the office reads: ‘We are here’ and instructs customers to go down the driveway to the large building at the back. There, Keith is at work in the barn, unloading pots from a trailer. He greets me cheerily with a reference to the only topic of account this year. “We got rain! Look! That’s a puddle! We haven’t seen any rain with puddles all summer!” A small patch of muddy water is framed in a circle of damp gravel.

The trees in the windbreak are already tinged with yellow and red. “I’m surprised at how fast these leaves are changing,” Keith says. “They’re quitting. They’ve had enough. There’s been a noticeable difference in the leaves within 24 hours. I’ve never seen it change that fast.” He shakes his head at what a tough summer it’s been. “It’s been really a knock ‘em down, kicking, screaming, fight with this thing.”

Then, more cheerfully: “I get up this morning, I don’t know what I’m going to do. There’s no watering. I’m lost!”

The pots on the trailer are full of weeds. Take out what you know is a weed and what’s left may well be what it says on the label. Thus, with 20 pots of Echinops sphaerocephalus, the weeds have been dislodged to reveal the fresh green of the young plants,.each with one or two leaves. But Keith is puzzled. The plant appears to be on strike. “Why isn’t it growing?” he asks. “I’m baffled by this thing. It looked like that last month, the month before and the month before that. This is the second plant this year that has done that, it hasn’t improved - I’ve never had this before. Look at it, it’s as healthy as a horse. It isn’t growing, it isn’t dying, it’s just sitting there.”

Sphaerocephalus. I struggle with the spelling, but the name rolls easily off Keith’s tongue. It’s one of the Globe Thistles – ritro is a blue, sphaerocephalus is off-white. “Some people really like it, some people say they would never have a Thistle in their garden.” I’m a Thistle fan – I have E. ritro growing along the front of the house and I love the architectural shape of the foliage, the serried ranks of metallic blue globes that open up in August. The hummingbirds love them too, and make a lovely picture, inches away from the front windows, dipping into each flower-bearing spike. I never cut the dry flowerheads back because as winter arrives, the goldfinches and chickadees perch on them and feast on the seed, until by the end of December, there’s nothing left but bare stems and a few shriveled leaves

It’s the same with Solidago, Keith continues. “People say, oh, Goldenrod, get the weed killer! I have one in the garden centre, it’s very, very refined, very fragile, arching. I have 25 of it, I’ll probably have 25 of it five years from now. People have the mindset that it’s a weed. They cannot imagine having it in their garden. We run into this all the time. People, they have a set opinion of a plant and nothing will shift them.”

“Asclepias. There’s another one. Milkweed! That’s one reason I try to avoid common names. If I wanted to I could grow five different milkweeds but I just grow one all the time. Asclepias tuberosa, the orange one the butterflies love. But people won’t buy it.”  Then he remembers the 125 varieties of Campanula he has for sale. And people come in and ask for a Bellflower. “Which one would you like? Occasionally you run into someone who won’t accept that. There’s only one Bellflower and it’s the one they know and that’s what they want.”

He’s tackling another set of pots. The label reads Red-Orange Poppy Invasive (underground) and underneath is a person’s name. “This is from seed from a customer.” Keith pulls out clumps of green stuff. “The only way to handle these things is to take out what you know is a weed. What’s left should be the plant. We do this a lot because we’re working with things that we have no idea what they look like. Here it is.” It’s a small oval light green leaf, slightly bevelled at the edge. “The label says it’s highly invasive. This isn’t highly invasive otherwise it would have filled out the pot.” Mystery plant.

More pots, also from a customer’s offering. The label says Double Pink Vine Convolvulus-type. Where’s it from, I ask. “I have no idea,” he replies. “They just come in with this stuff and say ‘What is it?’ When somebody comes in with something and they don’t know what it is, I say, ‘That’s interesting.’ And if I’m looking at it and I don’t know what it is, that’s three times more interesting.” Sometimes Keith takes stuff over to his friend Jimmy at the Royal Botanical Gardens and has him have a go at identification.

The weeds are all out of the pot. The double pink vine just isn’t there. “Not yet,” he says. But he gives up on it anyway and throws the pot, its bottom rotted out, so it smashes against the board behind him. Inside, there’s a pile of dirt and old fibre pots that will go through the shredder and the pasteurizer to become potting mix. I notice a swallow’s nest among the debris. A little shocked, I ask whether he’s been taking the nests down to add them to his soil mix. No, he reassures me. Sometimes, they just fall down. We look up at the nail where the nest was. Most of the nests are still in place, awaiting the return of their denizens next spring.  
Under the trees that tower over the barn is the little clearing with half a dozen flats of cuttings. They are such a pretty sight. Jam-packed in rows – variegated, evergreen, red-leafed, tiny leaves or large…Here and there a short gap where something didn’t take. “Some of them are dead,” Keith acknowledges, bending over and pulling out the dead leaves that have fallen from the trees.. “But what I’m interested in is finding plants that are healthy…We’re doing it naturally. Nobody does this any more. But then what does it cost me? I haven’t got a greenhouse above them, I haven’t got a mist system worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, that the young fellas graduating from Guelph are trained to use. If you haven’t got the money, you can just leave them there, really. In spring, bring ‘em in, wake ‘em up – there’s $2,000 to $2,500 worth of plants there.”

I leave him to see how Carolyn’s doing. She’s pottering in the little garden centre office. She looks like she’s lost weight and says she has to make sure her puffer is nearby in case a coughing fit comes on. She’s filling out a gift certificate. “A PEI woman wrote and wants some certificates for her father who loves us,” she says. He lives nearby in Burlington and has been a mainstay in this year of reduced sales.

I check out the Solidago Keith mentioned. Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, it’s called, and sure enough the delicate yellow of the flowers does evoke streaks of exploding fireworks. Next to it is a Solidaster, a densely flowered hybrid of Solidago and Aster. Then, Aster encoides ‘Blue Star’, a pretty blue North American native.
“Our next task will be to put these plants away,” Carolyn says. “But the problem is room, because we propagated but didn’t sell. The houses are full.” So the job has been to clean them out. She confides that she’s a little anxious that Keith is too ready to discard pots without properly checking for hidden treasure under the smothering weeds. There was a dianthus, for instance, that didn’t make it. “That’s it, we don’t have it any more of it. And most dianthus hybrids are not available commercially. We’ll have to buy a $40 permit.”

We walk down to the barn where Keith engages Carolyn in an examination of some pots labelled Vernonia crinita (its common name is Ironweed) to determine whether what they’ve got is what the label says.  They examine the texture of the leaf, the teeth at its edge, the colour of the stalk. “Okay, we’ll take a chance,” Keith says.

Across the other side of the driveway, Josie the cat is intently focused on something behind the pots. Ears pricked, tail stretched out. But the grass is still wet from the rain. “She doesn’t want to get down there and get soaking wet unless she’s sure she’s got the darn thing,” Keith says, watching with interest. Josie tucks her tail in and settles back on her haunches. There may be a mouse but not a sure thing, it seems. There’s another broken down vehicle there, once a bright yellow, now faded and streaked with rust. It’s a Fargo, I’m told. “They don’t make Fargos any more,” Keith says. “I used to use it to deliver Gladiolus.”

“You left the clipboard out!” Carolyn exclaims with annoyance. The clipboard’s on the trailer leaning against some pots, the top pages of her neatly lettered list damp and crinkled. Keith looks sheepish. I crush some lavender leaves between my fingers. Mmmmm, I say. “Is that the white one?” Carolyn asks. “Lavendula spica ‘Rosea’,” I say, reading off the label. “It’s such a pale rosea that I call it white,” she says.

Carolyn is looking for a small bucket. She rummages through the stuff on the counter. “Oooh, a rose for the watering can… Oooh, what’s this, a knife? My old knife!”

She’s potting up a Pulsatilla. “Do I need Turface for this?” she asks Keith. “A handful,” he replies. Turface is a granulated clay used by golf courses because it absorbs water and resists compaction. It’s also put on running tracks. Carolyn uses it in a soil mix to provide added drainage. It’s stored in a bag leaning against the barn wall with a heavy pair of old boots holding the top closed, because the cats might use it for kitty litter. “We have used kitty litter for the same purpose as Turface,” Carolyn says.

Carolyn mixes a handful of Turface with the soil mix and grasps the bareroot Pulsatilla. “For surgery, I go to the operating room,” she says, going over to the counter by the window where a few weeks ago Keith was doing his cuttings. “Keith thinks I’m pretty good at this,” she says, taking an Exacto knife and slicing down the middle. “Earlier this summer Keith bought a plant, I got 15 or 16 out of it.”

Carolyn examines the two Pulsatilla plants.  “One’s got a good tap root, the other’s got fibrous roots,” she says. The original plant came out of a six-inch pot, these two will go back into six-inch pots. “Feed it,” Keith says. They’ll use a 10-52-10 to get it started. I ask, Do you use that every time you divide? “Not necessarily,” Keith says. “But it stops it from going into transplant shock.”

“We decided the other day that it’s still so warm we can do this,” Carlyn says of the potting. When do you stop? “When our fingers start to freeze.”

Chapter 25: Cleanup