Chapter 1: Seeds, Seeds, Seeds
It's mild, overcast and unusually wet. Bulbs are coming up. People are out doing the yard work that didn't get finished in November, and the weatherman is saying this will be the norm in 2030.
"Pshaw!" says Keith. A died-in-the-wool conservative, he's a denier when it comes to global warming. But as a true conservative, he opposes pollution and waste. "I'll tell you something," he says. "I think it's a good idea to get all excited about it. If they get into a panic about this and stop creating all this stuff they don't need, I'm in favour."
'They,' he explains, are the brainwashed city people who haven't a clue where their food comes from, but are doing "every kind of stupid thing to destroy agriculture." Keith hopes they'll stop if they get scared enough.
Nevertheless, the weather is a worry. "We need a nice foot of snow on the ground," he says.
"The plants need snow to survive," Carolyn says.
"The farm is healthier with snow on the ground, everybody would be healthier if it's cold – you're not going to get the sniffles at minus 10."
"The mice, the chipmunks, the voles, are still out."
"The poor guys, they can't go into dormancy."
"They're having litters, litters that aren't going to survive," she says. "We opened up some of the hoop houses the other day to look at the plants, out of curiosity, everything was fine, but we've got mice because they're not asleep, they're not in hibernation."
Fortunately, the cats are on hand to hunt the mice. They're a recent addition to the scene. Kitty number one arrived unexpectedly, two years ago, probably dropped off from a passing car, by people who no longer wanted a pet.
"Who would throw a little kitten out of a car?" Keith asks angrily. She was a few months old and very wary. She hunted the field and steered clear of people. But Carolyn courted her assiduously and, after three weeks, was finally allowed close enough to scoop the animal up, take her into the house and ply her with delicacies. "Once she was picked up, that was it. She's our cat," Carolyn recalls.
They named her Josie. Next thing you know, the tom from next door has visited and Josie is having a litter of five. Oh, well. They keep two female kittens, Doris and Liness, while the rest are dispatched to the humane society. Then, ohmigod, Josie has another litter. This time, Carolyn is careful not to get attached. "I'm not looking at their eyes," she says firmly. The new kittens go to the humane society and precautions are taken. Four hundred dollars later, three spayed cats return to the Country Squires Garden where they now rule supreme.
Seeds, seeds, seeds.
The Squires are poring through catalogues to make their selections and bringing their wish list down to fit within a budget. Just like any gardener - except that their seeds come from around the world, and the catalogues have no pretty pictures to assist in plant selection. Instead, closely typed lines of print have to be carefully scanned for clues as to what's on offer and whether there's a chance it will flourish in the harsh extremes of an Ontario climate, where – in the gardening belt south of the boreal forest - winter temperatures dip to minus 30 Celsius and summers soar to plus 35.
Keith is ensconced at the kitchen table, going over a seed list from a Czech who travels the world gathering from the wild – Russia, Europe, the Middle East, China are his stomping grounds. The list provides scant details: just the plant's name and origin. Keith has many reference books spread out trying to figure out what's on offer – some 4,000 varieties of seed.
"He sends me stuff that nobody else has and you can't find in any book," Keith says. "It's really interesting. It just has one-line descriptions but an unusual botanical name may get my attention right off the bat. – or it might have a familiar name but a species I've never heard of, like Ajuga lupulina. We've got lots of Ajuga but I've never heard of that one. Or Anchonium elichysifolium. It grows at an elevation of 500 metres in Turkey. In limestone. It has fragrant yellow flowers."
Who's this Czech, I ask, what's his name? Silence. Then, reluctantly, Keith tells me. Carolyn sniffs. "I don't think we want to be telling every one all our sources," she says. I'm sworn to secrecy.
She's already gone through the catalogue and marked it up. Different colours indicate whether they've ordered an item in a previous year and are still waiting for germination (a seed is given three years to perform, then the pot's contents get dumped), whether Keith has already tested it and found that it won't survive, and whether the seed is fresh. The percentage of viable seed in a batch goes down with age, and while annuals can be a good bet for years, perennials are trickier.
It's a matter of survival strategies. The annual depends on the ready germination of its seed because it lives for only one season. A herbaceous perennial lives on, going into dormancy underground for the winter. The following year, the annual's passage – if it has managed to go to seed before being harvested - is signalled by a scattering of new seedlings. But the perennial is still there. Brush off the leaf litter and you'll find the plump little buds pushing out of the ground; that means spring has arrived. A long-lived plant isn't going to want competition from its offspring, so many perennials produce seed sparingly.
"A perennial will live in your garden for an absolute minimum of three years," Keith says. "Minimum. A peony will be 100, 200, 300 years. Will go on indefinitely. Will certainly outlive the person who planted it."
"And the house it's planted by," Carolyn chimes in.
"Yes, it'll outlive the house it's planted by, and the church. If two of its seeds come up, it's doubled its population."
Some perennials are accommodating: Hollyhocks, Black-eyed Susans and Coneflower are among them. They're also the ones that don't last. "Easy is short-lived," Carolyn explains.
"If it's going to come up easy, it's going to die easy," Keith elaborates. "If you sow 60 seeds and you get 40 plants it's not going to be long-lived."
I think of the Gas Plant (Dictaminus) I've been trying to germinate for a couple of years. Dictamnus is a star of the herbaceous border; growing into a lovely vase shape that in May and June bears spikes of five-petalled pink or white flowers with long stamens. It gets its common name from the fact that if you hold a lighted match above the flower, volatile oils will ignite. Or so they say. The three-cornered pods that mature in July burst open at a touch when dry, shooting lustrous black seeds off in all directions. It's slow-growing and resents disturbance, so I've been afraid to make divisions, and root cuttings have not been successful.
"The plant's not stupid," Keith says when I tell him of my futile efforts. "It doesn't want too many seedlings around it because the parent plant is going to live for 100 years or more. If it came up easily from seed, the whole world would be covered at least. That's why you don't see it for sale very often."
It can take a variety of conditions to trigger germination in a perennial seed: one or more winters, for instance, or the acids of a bird's digestive system. To break dormancy, the standard approach is to simulate these conditions through stratification (chilling the seed) or scarification (weakening the tough outer coat by nicking it or soaking it in sulphuric acid or boiling water). To produce tricky perennials in the quantities required for the retail market, commercial growers find tissue culture more reliable. It's an industrial process, spitting out thousands of plants that are genetically identical in sterile laboratory conditions that guard against alien pests and diseases.
However hard we try to control nature, she often finds a way of circumventing our best-laid plans. The tissue-culture clones are "theoretically genetically identical," Keith says. "But a very minute percentage of them are different in some way. It is not a perfect science."
Keith enjoys such departures from the norm. He's a craftsman. He works with seed to find something new. He also works by division (splitting a plant at the root into several pieces), which produces a limited number of new plants for each existing one. Division allows him to be pretty sure the desirable traits of the mother plant will be preserved. Seed, in contrast, is less reliable. It carries the promise of the unknown. Collected in an exotic location, it could turn out to be an unexpected success here in Ontario. Or, saved from Keith's own blooms here in Campbellville, it could bear the rebellious gene that makes a new and better cultivar.
More likely, though, it will revert back to some distant unglamorous parent and make a weed - undistinguished and unwanted. Keith reckons he does about 10 per cent of his propagation from seed. The rest is from division and cuttings.
It's a treasure hunt that Keith is on, during these winter months. The Czech guy's catalogue, a German commercial supplier, and others - one from the Alpine Garden Society in the United Kingdom, and another from the Scottish Rock Garden Club - all have been cross-referenced against the wish list he builds up over the year.
We go into Keith's office so Carolyn can show me how the seed selections are made. The garden societies' rules are weird and wonderful. You have to be a member, and there are limits to how many seed packets each member can receive. Members who send seed in can receive more.
"Here's the Alpine Garden Society which offers us 5,500 varieties of seeds," she says, unfolding the poster-size chart across Keith's desk.
"Which aren't all winter-hardy, which aren't all perennials, some of them are trees, some are annuals," Keith says. "But most of them are perennials. That catalogue is coming out of Europe, but that seed can come from the Himalayas or China. There are members from Australia..."
"...or people who have travelled to Patagonia."
Keith gets to order 23, Carolyn 23, and they each make another 46 second choices, in case their first-choice selections are in short supply and no longer available.. The chart has many seed choices scratched off, some of which have been ordered from another supplier, others that just didn't make the cut.
"Out of 5,500, you narrow it down to 20," Keith says regretfully.
Through the year, as he sees mention of a plant in a journal or catalogue, he scrawls his selections on little pieces of paper that get handed to Carolyn, who maintains a list on her computer, which she can then search to find out where he found the reference to the plant. Her job as the keeper of the lists was much lightened in 2005 when the Alpine Garden Society produced a small volume with an index to all the journals it had published in 73 years.
"Oh, I was ecstatic – because I used to have to go to Volume 4 for each year, it was the fourth volume each year that had an index for the whole year."
Other references are consulted. But of all the volumes on the shelf in Keith's office, only a handful are considered sufficiently trustworthy to be called on regularly. You can tell which ones they are because they're falling apart. None of them have pictures but they do have precise descriptions of the plants, particularly where each one comes from and in what conditions it grows. For a serious plantsperson, there is no more essential information than where the plant originates.
This is the roll-call of expert horticulturalists whose works have stood the test of time.
Hiller's Manual of Trees and Shrubs has descriptions of over 9,000 plants by Harold Hillier. His was the third generation of his family to head Hillier Nurseries, started in 1864 and now a chain of garden centres and Britain's leading wholesale tree nursery. He also founded Hillier Gardens, which comprises one of the world's largest arboretums.
"Don't breathe on that," Keith warns as I pick up his Hillier's, a pathetic pile of pages with the cover long gone. Published in 1971, it's held together with duct tape and pages from the front and the back are missing, having been worn by long hours of diligent research. "That's his catalogue. You can't find a better reference book than that anywhere in the world – and it's simply his catalogue. He grew them. It represents a lifetime of work, it is a tremendous source of knowledge."
Also falling apart and liberally taped is another classic, Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening – "a first class reference book," Keith says. Edited by American botanist Norman Taylor and first published in 1935, this is the fourth and final edition, from 1961.
Carolyn shows me a book she got Keith for Christmas – the recently published Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. She thought it would supplement the series of Taylor's Guides that Keith owns, 20 volumes dating back to 1936. The modern version is large, full-colour and crammed with pictures – but it has less information.
"They're running on his name," Keith says regretfully. Taylor died in 1967 but his brand lives on through the Taylor's Guides, and now this new encyclopedia. The 1961 Taylor's remains one of the select number of books at Keith's side at all times when he's deciding what to order.
Another is British nurseryman Will Ingwersen's Manual of Alpine Plants, a 1978 edition signed by the author.
"He's a grower," Keith says with a nod of approval. Keith has little time for the works of people who aren't intimately involved in the business of plants. In the mid-eighties, the Squires visited Birch Farm Nursery in East Grinstead, founded by Ingwersen's father, and met Will Ingwersen. "He was 91, and still working," Carolyn says. He died in the early nineties. His brother Paul tried to keep the nursery going but gave up at the age of 77.
Ingwersen's Manual deals with plants that are less than a foot tall. Perennial Plants or the Modern Florilegium, by English horticulturalist Graham Stewart Thomas, a 1976 edition, covers plants that are taller than one foot.
"So the two books complement each other," Keith says.
The Modern Florilegium's opening lines are an indication of why Thomas is loved by people who love plants: "Of the plants mentioned in this book I have grown some nine-tenths, either handled personally in my own garden, in the University Botanic Garden, Cambridge, gardens of the National Trust, or in nurseries, or only by proxy in such places or in the National Trust, and have been closely observing plants since school days." Again, no photos, but some nice drawings.
Hortus Third: A Concise History of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada is another treasured volume. Published in 1976, three inches thick, with almost 24,000 entries, it's the work of the staff of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University. Keith notes that it's based on information sent from growers across the continent.
"When I get my new list printed, I'll send them a copy." Keith was given his Hortus by a client. "She got it practically for free as a book club member," he recalls. "Do you want this book, it has no pictures?" she asked him. "I've wanted it for years," he told her.
As for a lavishly illustrated encyclopedia of Canadian perennials that I gave Keith a year ago: it provided entertainment, of the wrong sort. The two of them had all sorts of fun picking it to pieces.
"This one isn't worth the powder to blow it to hell," Keith snorts in disgust. "They haven't got the actual experience of having killed the darn thing or lived with it for 10 years."
"The only thing Canadian about it is the title."
"It was written by English writers for English gardeners." Keith is unmollified by an introduction written by a Canadian horticulturalist.
"It's got some pretty pictures," Carolyn says consolingly.
I inquire, given the utter worthlessness of the volume, why Keith even has it open on his desk. "I'm going through this book to see what I don't have," he explains.
"You expect to have everything in this book?" I ask, surprised.
"Oh yes, absolutely," he says. "Everything that's a perennial and hardy in Ontario."
"It's what we do," Carolyn says.
Chapter 2: A Rant on the Greenhouse Men