It starts off a lovely day. Sun low but strong. A crisping of frost on the grass early in the morning before I leave Elmvale. By the time I get to Campbellville, it’s overcast and a touch chilly. Carolyn waves from the door of the barn at the end of the driveway as I roll in through the open gate. I go through the garden centre on my way to the back of the property, where they’re working. What a difference since I was here last!. The benches are half empty. Summer is over. There are still plans in bloom, though – my eye is caught by long bare stalks of Cimicifuga simplex, each tipped by an elegant sheath of cream blossoms.

I spot Keith at one of the hoop houses, with his tractor and a flatbed. There’s a lovely shade of pink in the foliage that’s waving in the wind from a pot on the flatbed. When I get closer, I see it’s a tree peony.
“The plants are shutting down early,” Keith says. “So I’m starting to take stuff out of the garden centre that’s going into dormancy. They haven’t liked this year at all so that’s their defence, shut the whole plant down. It’s all going into dormancy. People look at a plant, oh it’s dying, I don’t think I should buy that and put it in my garden it’s dead. No, it’s going into dormancy.
“Same with the trees,” he glances at the now-bare windbreak, “hopefully they can winter and come up next year. In dormancy they don’t need one hundredth of the water - but they have to get a fair amount of water now before they freeze up or else they’re in trouble, they’ve got to go into winter with a stable moisture situation. And no matter how much you water, a rain is going to do three times as much for these plants. The rain usually has nitrogen in it, atmospheric nitrogen. The plant knows the difference.”

It’s the end of October and the garden centre’s been officially closed for 10 days. Since April 15, they’ve both been on site ready to serve a customer eight hours a day, seven days a week. But the work isn’t over. The plants must now be moved into their winter quarters. “As far as the calendar goes, I’m early this year,” he says, pulling the pretty pink leaves off the stem of a Paeonia suffruticosa, a tree peony wearing a label written in Chinese ideograms and is priced at $50. He stuffs the leaves into a plastic bag. 

No composting for these? “Disease, disease, disease,” he says grimly. The leaves must be removed from the property. That’s the way it is with peonies. He’ll cut the herbaceous peonies at least a quarter of an inch below ground to make sure no disease is carried over into the next year. But you can’t do that to this tree peony because it’s grafted, you’d be removing the prized portion of the plant and be left with whatever more humble and hardy peony type has been used for the rootstock

In the hoop house, he points to a block of herbaceous peonies that are still green – Paeonia albiflora hybrid ‘Shirley Temple’. He doesn’t want to remove the green leaves which contain nutrients the plants will use to overwinter, so he’ll wait for them to die. “I’ll have to remember to get back to them and get the leaves before winter… I call it albiflora. They changed the name.” ‘They’ being lofty taxonomic authorities who decide whether plants have been incorrectly classified.

Keith grumbles that the changes are expensive, because “as soon as you change the labels, they turn around and change the name back to a variation of the first name. When you’re growing commercially, that’s a real problem. And then you have to be very, very careful when you’re buying plants – check what they are, go and look them up in a book, if they’re in a book, but they may be so new, they’re not in any book. Or they may not be new at all – they may just have a new name. I’ll think, oh yeah, I’ve never heard of that, I’ll check it out and see what’s going on. And then I grow it and I find out I already have it.”

Some of the peonies are in huge pots. There’s one that looks to be 24 inches across. It doesn’t have a label. “I don’t need a label, I know what it is,” he says. What is it? He looks at me with a twinkle in his eye. He can’t remember. He’s unembarrassed. He is after all, 80. “I know it well, I’ve had it 35, 40 years  – it had a couple of bad years – I didn’t get it moved one year, I left it in the garden centre. It didn’t like that.” It was exposed to the wind, and fluctuations in temperature. But it struggled through and survived. In the hoop house, it’s protected.

He scrabbles between the pots to retrieve some fallen leaves. “Peonies are always in this house so I like to keep it clean. That tree peony” - he points to the Zhu Sha Lei - “it’s new to me, it can be divided even though it’s a tree peony because it’s on its own root. With division you can have three next year. So that’s why I’m interested though I haven’t seen it bloom. Probably next year.” Did he sell any?  “I don’t think so – I had five and there’s four there, I think I lost one.”

Carolyn joins us in the peony house. “Is that Burgundy?” she asks, pointing to a Gaillarda in bloom – a magnificent deep red with sun-tipped petals. “It’s not supposed to have any yellow in it at all,” she says sternly. Next to it, a good-looking Rudbeckia with a large flower, deep red edging to orange. Keith and Carolyn discuss saving the seed. “Have you got an envelope?” she says. “No, have you?” he replies. Then they lose interest. Carolyn starts coughing, painfully and leans into Keith. He looks at me over her shoulder. “She’s not the only one, there’s hundreds of them out there,” he says, many people who have been floored by the mysterious ailment that manifests itself as a racking cough. “I’m not alone,” she says cheerfully. “I was talking to a fellow who had it last year, it lasted four months, he said.” Yikes.

The flatbed is cleared of its peony load and Keith parks the tractor, handing Carolyn the bag of leaves. “The wind might blow it off the flatbed and I’d be picking up peony leaves all over the place,” he says. “I’d like to see that,” I say, jokingly. They look at me censoriously. The notion of stray peony leaves is no joking matter. “Peonies can cause botrytis,” Carolyn says. ‘It’s a very serious disease and they’re expensive plants.”

We walk back to the garden centre and Carolyn laughs about a call she got that morning, “I had a fellow call and wanted to talk to someone in the purchasing department. I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘Oh, are you in the purchasing department?’ I said, ‘I guess I am as I help pay for the purchases.’ He wanted to know, ‘Do you use stakes? I said, ‘What kind of stakes?' He said. ‘Soft wood.’”

“Oh, that’s no good,” Keith says. Softwood stakes are for trees – if you’re planting trees it’s a given in the landscaping industry that they are to be staked. But the Country Squires Garden, specializing as it does in perennials, uses only short stakes of bamboo or other such hard material that will last for years.

We pause to commiserate with the Cimicifuga simplex, or autumn snakeroot. The drought made it shed its leaves. “Dry, dry, dry,” Keith mutters. The mantra for this year.

He collects an envelope and heads for the scree garden in front of the house . There’s a clump of cheerful yellow flowers by the window. “Look at it,” he says proudly, shaking the seed out of some spent heads. ”It’s still in bloom.” Chrysopsis villosa, or False Golden Aster, a winning North American native.

Also still in bloom, Rosa “Peachy Keen.” “It really is outrageous how much roses are enjoying this cooler weather,” I say, thinking of my roses that are now putting on a splendid show, after sulking all through the hot summer when I wanted them to impress visitors.

I mention that I had frost in the morning. Keith said he’s drained his water system and he’s prepared for minus 5 any day. He’s predicting snow by mid-November – so there’s some urgency to getting the plants out of the garden centre, urgency to getting the net off the garden centre, and off the hoop houses where it will be replaced with plastic. The nets aren’t strong enough to hold up to a heavy snow and would get ripped.

“I got 12 wagonloads out of the garden centre yesterday,” he says. “I’ve been taking everything out that’s easy.”

What’s not easy, Carolyn explains, are the plants destined for hoop houses where there’s not enough room because they’re full of weedy flats and pots that haven’t been culled, cleaned and consolidated.  “We’ve got two nets off now,” she says, “which reminds me, I have to order some more plastic, we don’t have enough for all the houses.”

The plastic is supposed to last a year, they try to get two years out of it. It costs $150 a sheet.

Lunch is a hearty soup from my vegetable garden and a hearty wholewheat loaf with pumpkin, sunflower and flax seeds from Carolyn’s kitchen where the lack of the usual appliances – this is after all supposed to be an office – never seems to prevent her from dishing up delicious food made from scratch.

TV and radio have been full of references to Hurricane Hazel (this is an anniversary year), and in response to some questioning, Keith pulls out an ancient ledger, started by his father but mostly filled out in his own spidery handwriting. October 1954 starts inauspiciously. “Frozen out October 7,” I read…. “Disastrous hurricane struck October 15.”
“It was the first year we were there in Brampton,” Keith recalls. He was still living on Cawthra Road with his father and mother, and had just moved his operation  from Cooksville to Brampton. “So that was” – he reaches for the word – “appalling. Yeah. It’s already raining for two weeks so it was already soaking wet, the ground couldn’t hold any more water and then they got 9 inches of rain in 24 hours.”

Late that night Keith was making his way home along Lakeshore Drive and he came across a strange scene at the bridge over the Etocibicoke Creek. “The firemen were there - I can still see this as plain as day – isn’t that  remarkable, the impression that you get that stays with you all these years… The firemen were there and this one, he was standing there with a rope all coiled up around him and the rope was going down like this into the water and he’d be feeding it out. Every once in a while he’d get it firm, and then he’d feed it out a little bit more.”
“’What you got there, what’s on the end of that rope?’
“’My buddy’s out there in a boat, trying to find people in the houses. Hopefully they’re on the roof and the roof isn’t gone under yet.”
Keith shakes his head. “You’re talking about midnight, one o clock in the morning, and he’s got his buddy on a rope in a boat. It’s pitch black. You could just see the rope going down like that into the water and his buddy was out there in a boat trying to rescue people.
“If they got them in the boat, I can’t imagine any way that they’d get them back – like he’s holding on all by himself feeding the rope out … Just the two of them.
“I can’t imagine him ever getting the boat back. So the only thing that I could think of was that if he actually got somebody in the boat, they could finally just cut the rope and drift out into Lake Ontario and be rescued in the morning. But that’s only my imagination. I have no idea what happened to that fellow –nwhether he drowned or whether he rescued anybody, I have no idea. I stayed there for a while and I said tohim, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ and he said, ‘I don’t think so, there’s nothing you can do.’  And I said, ‘I’m going home then, I guess, I hate to leave ya.’”
I turn back to the ledger and read the entries for the remainder of the month. “Working conditions almost impossible.. Good crew overcame almost every handicap…”
“They came to work shortly after the hurricane and stayed until December 15,” Keith says, pointing at the ledger entries. “They finished digging the first week of December.” That was unusual, eh? He nods, fixing me with a beady eye. “So here you are, all this gorgeous weather in December, there’s nothing new about it.”
I decline to engage.

“Chrysanthemums,” Keith says, going off on his own tangent. “I wonder what they pay those Mexicans down in California that they can put the plants on a truck, drive them 3,000 kilometres and selling them at a profit for $10? Plants like this” – he makes a circle in front of himself with his arms – “from California, beautiful plants in pots this size.  No buildings, no heat, just the water system sitting out in a field with all those Mexicans looking after them at what? 75 cents an hour or whatever they want to pay them?

“Then they spray them with B9 (a growth retardant) to stop them from growing. Put them on a $350,000 truck and drive them to here. They’re all in the same pot, they’re all the same height, get them all in bloom at the same time, you can do that because they’ve been sprayed. You’ve got UNIFORMITY which is what they want.

“If it’s hardy – there’s about one in a thousand that will actually survive - you put it in your garden and if it does survive the winter, next year it’ll be two and a half, three feet high, straggly, nothing like the shape of the plant you purchased at a price that we couldn’t possibly compete with.

“What are we doing here?” Keith asks suddenly, looking at his watch

“Would you like some cake?” Carolyn asks.

“Cake!” he exclaims, delighted and temporarily diverted as she slices chocolate cake onto three plates and adds a dollop of ice cream. But then he returns to his point: “It’s ten to one.” Time’s awasting, in other words. “I’m going to pick up the shrubby clematis,” he says, plotting the afternoon’s manoeuvres.

Chapter 26: Cold Outside