The first real snow. A blizzard, in fact. The garden centre is almost empty – just a few flats over in one corner – and the protective net is gone. A flock of juncos scatters as I arrive. The growing year is over. It has felt, as I wandered through the seasons with the Squires, as if it would go on forever, a voyage of discovery into the life of plants, their endless foibles and amazing abilities. Now the plants have gone, retired into their private world. It will be four months before growth will once again mark the stations of our lives – beginning indoors in February with the germination of seedlings responding to the warmth of the bedding house. I walk through the Number 1 house and try to feel closer to February. Everything is very orderly, all the pots lined up neatly, each one clean and weedless. They may look dead, but life holds tight under the surface.
Outside, and down the row of hoop houses, hunched down in my winter coat against the cold. At the last one, I come upon the Squires, working together in the bitter wind and driving sleet, getting the white plastic cover on. Carolyn’s in front, bent over, grabbing a piece of plastic, folding it over, tucking it under, taking a step forward and anchoring it with her rear foot extended. Keith’s behind her, digging up a shovelful of sand and throwing it on the edge to hold it down. Carolyn is freed to take another step, repeat the folding, and Keith throws another heap of sand at her outstretched foot.

“We’ve had a lot of problems,” Carolyn says, her voice muffled from bending over. “We started at 9:30 this morning, it wasn’t snowing then.” Each hoop house is 96 feet long and two of the back row of six are now ‘plasticked.’ In the front row of seven houses, one is plasticked, one is collapsed and empty and five are left to do.

The final shovelful is in place and Carolyn stands up in relief. We walk back to the house through the snow. The ground is still warm, so when the flakes land, they melt. They did Number 8 house the night before, Carolyn tells me as we walk past it. “We hadn’t meant to do it at night, we got started in the afternoon but it got too windy so we took a break. Then the wind died down in the evening so we thought we might as well finish.”
Once inside, exclamations of relief as they peel off damp boots and clothes and revel in the sheltering from the elements. Josie, asleep on Keith’s chair, stretches out, yawning. “Who’s smarter, the cats or us?” he chuckles.
“Aaaaaah.” A long, drawn-out sigh from Carolyn, as pain and cold recede.
“At this rate, it’ll take us 10 days,” Keith says, emerging from his padded jacket cocoon. “Aaaaaah,” he says, appreciating the end to the morning’s hard work. He always looks frail and elderly when he removes his headgear because of the whispy babyish  white hair, the deep grooves in the thin wrinkled neck, but then you notice the strong shoulders, the sturdy gait, the alert poise to the head, the bright inquisitive eye and the years seem to melt away. And despite the adverse conditions, he doesn’t look any the worse for wear. If he’s feeling tired, he’s not admitting to it either, ignoring or not hearing my question.
“The sun’s going to shine next week, “Carolyn says
“Ten more days and these were the easy ones.” he adds.

It’s been tough work for the past five days, getting the polypropylene nets off, getting the plastic on. They like to work when it’s dry – so the nets aren’t wet when they’re folded and put away, but a cold rain started while they were taking down the huge net one on the garden centre. “It’s a heavy brute,” Carolyn says. “Seventy feet by seventy. We were exhausted.” When it wasn’t raining it was windy, and the wind gets under the dense weave and lifts it like it’s a sail, pulling out the grommets which have to be safeguarded so the bindings will work next year.

“You have to put a rope on it to keep it from flapping,” Keith says. “You learn these tricks through the years.”
“We need a lottery-winning ticket to buy some new nets,” she says

The first houses they do are easier, because they’re at the end of the row and the plastic can be stretched out on the ground before it’s lifted onto the structure. The others, just a few feet apart, require awkward manoeuvering in the narrow spaces between.

Such hard physical work. Is Carolyn fully recovered from her bronchitis? “No I still have a cough occasionally,” she says. “And it goes on for several minutes.” 

The cats are waiting impatiently. The rule is they get fed whenever Keith and Carolyn come in. Carolyn tells them they have to wait until our lunch is ready so they won’t bother us while we’re eating.

“I prophesied this,” Keith says, looking out the window as the snow intensifies. He wonders where else it’s snowing. “There can be a big difference, it can be snowing like a son of a gun in Burlington, you come up the hill – nothing. Or it can be snowing here and nothing in Burlington. It’s the lake effect.” Lake Ontario lies 30 kilometres to the south, but her reach easily extends up here on the Niagara Escarpment.

“A week or 10 days of sun, then we’ll be back to this,” Keith adds. “We can do three in a day.” Three houses he means. “We get better at it after the first couple,” Carolyn says. “There are always things we have to remember, like we have to put on the doors.”

She gets some butter out to go with the bread and Habitant pea soup and I tell her about my coup buying butter at $4.08 the day before, instead of the $5.79 I usually pay for Lactancia unsalted. Carolyn is unimpressed. She found butter at $2.88 instead of the $3.50 she usually pays. Don’t trade bargain stories with Carolyn, she’ll trump you every time. “If my grandfather was alive, he’d say it’s back up to the price it was in 1918,” Keith observes. “Four dollars a pound. The war.”

Carolyn is busy getting lunch, Keith is getting crockery and cutlery onto the table. “You’re in a hurry,” she says. “No, I’m not,” he replies, “I’m not in any hurry to go back out there today.”

“You don’t need to worry about the peat, it’s good and wet,” he says. We passed the peat soaking in a bucket of water on the way into the house

Carolyn wants to tell me about it. “It was quite interesting, Kate, I put two thirds of a bucket of peat and I added hot water, not cold. I was stirring it and stirring it and it took about 10 minutes to absorb.”

“Otherwise it would have taken three days,” Keith says.

“Then I added cold,” Carolyn says. “I had a customer tell me that it absorbs hot water much quicker. It was very interesting that it worked. Not that I don’t accept what a customer tells me.”

The wet peat is going to be spread in the portion of the scree bed that’s under the overhang of the roof. Keith’s peat trick: if it’s wet and buried three feet down, it will stay wet. “It’s blistering hot under there and there are some plants that are doing very well. But others aren’t. I’ve picked out some plants to put in – Artemesia abrotanum should look nice against the dark green building, it’s got silvery foliage. Some Verbascums, Aquilegia, Platycodum, Carduncellus - they should do alright there.”

We go and sit in the living room. The living room area.

Carolyn starts figuring out the cost of the new plastic for the hoop houses. “Seven rolls of opaque plastic and one clear - a six-mil 20-footer. Just under $1,000. That makes it expensive. But six-mil will last. I’m thinking if we’ve got lathe we could screw it in.”

“Not a good idea,” Keith says.

“I want an easier way of taking the plastic on and off,” she tells him. “You’re only going to be around for another 20 years. I’ve got another 30 or 40 to go.”

He grins at her.

“Big nurseries would discard the plastic each year,” she says. “We need to win the lottery.”

I raise the issue of the website I want to design for them and try and describe how it would work.

As usual, the response is unenthusiastic.

“I’ve never seen a website in my life,” Carolyn says. “How would I?”

I draw a little map of how it might look. The clickable words could be alpines, dwarf species, native plants, perennials, and clicking would pull up a list of plants in each category.

“You have a list on a disk?” I ask Carolyn. “Yes,” she says. “And, yes, it could be copied.”

She hands over a catalogue they published in 2000. “I have had two or three requests that are just sitting there on the desk unanswered because I didn’t know if it was going to be updated. Now these people might think we’re out of business.”

“I was going to print another copy.” Keith says, “but we had a slow year.”

Carolyn explains that there are no prices in the catalogue because that would date it.

So, I say, the first page on the website would emphasize the key points: winter-hardy, drought-tolerant, grown in soil, wide range of plants

“I grow a wider range of winter-hardy perennials than anyone else in the world,” Keith proclaims in his proclaiming voice which emphasizes ‘winter-hardy’ and ‘world.'

“Probably 98 per cent of all the plants in our garden centre have gone through at least one winter sitting on the ground frozen solid,” Carolyn says.

“Probably 75 per cent have gone through at least two or three,” Keith says. “I test the plants. No one else does. They just look in a book. The people who write the labels look in the book. But I work with these plants. I know them. Which is one good reason I don’t put it on a computer – all the 60 years work that I’ve done and somebody could take it in 5 minutes and not give me a cent and not give me any credit.”

Yes, but the catalogue – that, I suggest., does allow somebody to figure out what’s been tested.

“They’d have to do work,” he says, “they’d have to come here, they’d have to use their brains and figure out that if it’s in my list, it’s hardy.”

Carolyn is almost seeing it my way. “I don’t think any one could be in competition with us.”” she says. “We’re years ahead.” She holds up the 2000 list. “And we have 250 more to add since then. And you still have to eat and live.” She looks at Keith.


I realize the website’s not going to happen.

The phone goes. Carolyn gives the caller short shrift. “Someone calling us about our credit situation,” she says, seated back at the table. “I said, ‘We don’t owe anything any more, we don’t have any credit cards. Take us off your list.’” She turned to Keith. “Would you like a butter tart?”

“You talked me into it,” he says. “Twist my arm” – he holds his arm out across the table. “But you’re probably going to get the full attention of Mother.” He glances down at the cat. “You have been warned. Josie is very fond of butter tarts,” he explains to me.

We discuss Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s failure to understand that Canadian retailers can’t just drop their prices because the dollar’s strong, if they purchased their stock a year ago with 80-cent dollars. But Keith and Carolyn are keeping a keen eye on exchange rates. The Euro is still strong against the Canadian dollar, he tells me, but pound sterling has really tumbled – it’s below $2. “That’s why I’m telling her, go and buy pound sterling, go and buy US dollars, because we’re going to be spending it.” Yes, seed and plant ordering season is upon us, and the catalogues are piling up by Keith’s chair in the living room.

It has been determined that they’ll take the rest of the day off. I’m a little disappointed as I’d hope to see them in action for a full hoop house covering instead of just that last 10 minutes. Also, I had offered to help. Keith admits to having got out a third shovel so I could join in. Whether I would have been any help is questionable – Keith and Carolyn work together like a well-oiled machine.
But now the pile of catalogues and the rocking chair are taking on a magnetic attraction.

He looks out the window. The snow is beginning to settle on the plants. “It’s on the foliage now,” he says. But on the benches in the garden centre, it’s still melting. The benches are warmer. “They’re loving this,” he says, looking at the plants turning white. “Those plants sitting out there right now are enjoying themselves immensely.”

Chapter 27: Never in Captivity