Chapter 2: A Rant on the Greenhouse Men
“Three quarters or more of my plants are not in bloom at the time I’m selling them,” Keith says as he trims back the dead growth from an aster that is just warming up after wintering in a pot frozen to the ground.
”But people aren’t used to going into a garden centre with all that plant material, people won’t buy that plant unless it’s in bloom. So the guy that’s growing it puts it in the greenhouse, gets it in bloom, takes it out and sells it.
“So this plant that isn’t supposed to be in bloom until September, he’s got it in bloom in May. If it’s still in bloom in June, it’s got July, August, September, October - it’s got four months to sit there before it can get winter. It’s got a year that’s four months longer!
“It’s been grown in the greenhouse all its life so it’s not particularly hardy. It’s never seen a winter. And here it is, a big fat cat, going into the winter, overgrown beyond belief. In its first year of life? Can’t take it. It just becomes exhausted and quits. Which makes the greenhouse men very happy because they’ll sell you another one.
“After all, they’ve got this gorgeous plant and these plants quite often are far prettier than the plant I’m selling because they’ve been grown in a greenhouse with all the everything - the controlled temperature, the controlled water, the controlled light, the whole bit - they’re gorgeous plants.
“There’s no plant I know of that grows naturally in soilless mix. Nowhere on the face of this Earth. That’s why they have to feed them to get them to grow because there’s nothing there for the poor plant to eat. And you cannot allow that soilless mix to dry out. If it does, the plant’s dead because the soilless mix will never absorb water again.
“In the scree garden people say, out of this gravel how can they possibly get the nutrition? Well, if you want minerals, how would you go about getting them? That plant hits that stone, wraps around it like that and takes what it wants. Occasionally we dig up a plant they’re hanging on to the stones, we cannot get that root away. It’s what they grow in nature. Loamy soil is great for market gardening, if they’re growing tomatoes and carrots down in Leamington. Unfortunately they’re treating perennials as a greenhouse crop and forcing them as if they were annuals. Annuals, tropicals, perennials – all the same to them. The greenhouse men are absolutely horrified that I’m going to freeze the plants all winter. That’s terrifying! That they’re going to live for 20 years. They’re thinking about themselves, not the customer.
“They say, ‘This will bloom in the first year.’ That is not desirable. You’re looking at the second year or third year and the 25 years after that. The idea that a plant would live 25 years terrifies the greenhouse men. ‘Oh God, no, no, bloom and die, please.’ Perennials, they’ve adopted them because they can grow them at lower temperatures. Annuals, you’ve got to keep the temperature up, that costs money. A perennial is cheaper, minus two Celsius, a perennial will still grow.
“We lose far more plants in Canada in July than we do in January. They get hot and dry and people go on vacation. They’re used to watering the garden, but the hottest two weeks of the year are the weeks they’ve picked for their holidays. That’s why I tell them: Don’t ever water your garden. The plants get used to it, the roots will go down, they’ll find the water. I tell them, if you’re watering every week, you can’t suddenly quit and go under my regime. But next spring – don’t water it. There’s going to be a couple of days when those plants are wilting and that’s okay because when they wilt they’re sending a message down to the roots that it’s hot and dry up here – go deeper. It takes three years – by the time they get to the third year, they winter better, their roots are down in the ground and they don’t need you any more.
“You’ve changed something that’s totally dependent into something that can take care of itself.
“The customers go and buy this absolutely gorgeous plant, put it in the ground, gets into July, they go on holiday, they don’t get it watered, what the heck, it’s in the ground, it’s alright. Well it’s in soilless mix, by the time they get back home it’s dry and it dies. Or if it’s not quite dead, they overwater it, and it dies.
“So what does the person tell themselves? ‘God, that was a beautiful plant when I bought it, I can’t believe I killed it.’ They blame themselves.”
“ ‘Look at it, it’s gorgeous.’ " Keith mimics a delighted customer.
"It should look gorgeous, the way it’s pampered,’” he says in his Keith voice.
“’Wait a minute,’” he mimics the plant. “ ’I’ve never seen this winter you’re talking about and I’m in this soilless mix that has no nutritional value whatsoever.’"
Keith does a little collapse. “And it brings a big smile on their face when you say, ‘Jeez, this thing is going to be dead in a year.’ The greenhouse men, they say: ‘Yeah.' ”
“We’ve met them,” Carolyn says, “It was very disconcerting.”
“This was the actual reaction we got from them,” Keith says. “Yeah!”
Carolyn assumes a manly stance, legs akimbo, hands deep in the pockets of her overalls. “I was almost in tears and this guy’s laughing, jingling the coin in his pockets. He says, ‘Yeah, it’s going to die.’ ”
Keith laughs. Shakes his pockets. There’s no sound. “I’m the poorest paid man in the nursery trade,” he chortles. “But I go to sleep at night.”
Carolyn gives me a ticket to the Royal Botanical Gardens show that’s coming up in mid-April. The Squires are going to have a booth there but, although by that time, Keith has plants in bloom, he won’t be selling any at the show.
“They would have a fit if I bought any plants in – because of my soil. The greenhouse men would get the screaming heebie-geebies to think of my methods. They’re operating in a sterile environment – and if some little bug does get in there, he’s in heaven.
“I don’t kill bugs. I make my own soil mix, pasteurized to kill weed seeds. But I don’t sterilize it, that would kill everything, all the good, all the bad. It’s like pasteurized milk. Take it up to a certain heat, up to 100 Celsius. Sterilizing it – you’re taking it beyond that and you kill everything. I don’t want to kill everything! There’s lots of good things in the soil - 100 Celsius will kill the weed seeds. Most of them. I’m working with nature. Not against it.
“It’s fairly common to have soil that’s got some kind of natural contamination. There’s some counties in New York State we can’t bring plants in from because they’ve got nematodes. And of course you can’t bring anything from Europe. A lot of these problems are related to a milder climate. In our climate – they can’t make it through the winter.
“That’s why my plants are in the hoop house. Unlike the perennials in your garden, which are protected from the cold by a blanket of snow, my plants are out there. The plastic keeps them out of the wind. But if it’s minus 25 outside, it’s minus 25 in the hoop house. That should take care of most bugs.
“Soil is heavy. When a grower switches to container growing he is going to switch to a soilless mix because the weight of real soil. With the quantities that grower is moving, he has to have staff that can carry more than one at a time. If he has it in a two-gallon pot, in an 8-inch pot, they can carry two and three in each hand. It weighs nothing. He as the employer is getting value from his employees because they can carry four and six plants at a time when they’re moving them from one place to another.
“Our mix? Well, three soil, one peat, one perlite - I guess that’s what we do. Roughly. It’s mixed by hand, it’s not precise. The soil is good Niagara Escarpment clay."
The topsoil was removed when the property was graded to make a level space for the hoop houses (also known as poly houses, for their polyethylene covers) and garden centre. The land used to have an escarpment “roll” to it, a series of mounds, with the driveway that runs behind the garden centre marking the high point. So behind the second row of hoop houses there’s a huge pile of soil that got pushed back there in 1989.
“There’s probably 200 years’ worth of topsoil there,” Keith says, displaying the satisfaction of one who has made splendid provision for the future.
Chapter 3: Deep Roots