There’s a loud banging from the garden centre and, in the other direction, I can hear Carolyn speaking, so I gravitate to the pull of the human voice. She’s at the door of the house, addressing a woefully thin cat at her feet. It’s Doris, who took ill a couple of weeks ago. Doris walks past her into the house on long stick-like legs.

“She was far worse than this.” Carolyn goes through to the kitchen and brings out a dish of evaporated milk, corn syrup and cod liver oil. What could be yummier? She kneels to entice Doris into eating it. Doris takes a few sips and then stalks away, indifferent.

The kitchen is bright with sunlight. I look up to see Keith in the penumbra of the dining area watching the cat. He thinks he might have let her get a bone from the lamb they were eating, a few days earlier. She’d jumped up on a chair while they were eating their evening meal and he swiped her off – it was an instinctive thing – but instead of landing catlike on her feet, Doris fell, hitting herself against the chair. Did that cause the injury? Or did she swallow the bone? “We just don’t know,” Carolyn says.

They’d called the vet, for whom they’d had a soft spot up to now because he actually makes house calls. This time, he had bad news for them. “We had two choices,” Carolyn says. “Surgery with no guarantee of success, costing $1,500, and euthanasia and cremation, $275. There were no alternatives.”

The Squires decided they’d try to nurse Doris through her travails. She’s lying flat out on her side, and you can see a sort of lump. Keith leans down and strokes the lump with firm, capable hands. “Keith, I don’t think that’s helping,” Carolyn warns. “I’m trying to push the lump along and out.” he explains. “I wish I could put a syringe in there and suction out whatever’s inside.” But of course they have no idea what the lump is – a bone? an infection? Doris doesn’t react in pain when the lump is touched.

“I can understand what a doctor goes through,” Keith says. “It’s the frustration of seeing a patient slip away and not being able to stop it.” He shakes his head. “To be transformed immediately from a disgustingly healthy rambunctious kitty to this, in a day – it’s unbelievable.”

“Doris is keeping her paws clean now, that’s a sign of improvement,” Carolyn says hopefully. “Josie, the mother, had been cleaning them for her. The other two cats know she’s sick, they bring her little offerings, a mouse, a chipmunk - yesterday she ate a chipmunk with relish.”

So all has been a little fraught at the farm. There’s Doris, there are the plants and getting them to wake up. And Friday one of the benches in the garden centre collapsed with a load of plants on it, which for the most part landed right side up. It’s a bench they had in Brampton and re-erected here, so it’s 20- to 30-year-old wood and has done pretty well, really. “But why now?” Carolyn directs the query heavenwards. “We have so much to do!”
    Bruce, Keith’s son who is in landscaping, got a load of wood from a customer last year when he took a fence out – the boards are 1 by 6s and five feet long, which fits the structure Keith built for the garden centre where the benches are supported by 4 by 4 posts, ten feet apart. It’s perfect, no measuring or cutting needed, but the long, vicious nails that held the fence together are poking out of the boards. Carolyn’s job is to pry the fence sections apart with a crowbar, while Keith takes out the rotten 4 by 4s from the bench and replaces them.

“We knew they were rotting,” Carolyn says. “We just thought we could get one more year out of them”

Rain or shine, all of the Country Squires Garden business takes place in the open. The plants come out of the hoop house and may go through the bedding house to be forced or cleaned up – and then it’s into the garden centre, only some netting to shelter them from the elements. This year, spring is just plain late and the plants are lagging behind too. Customers, though, are programmed by advertising and media which take no account of climate glitches. That early demand is driven by a weariness of winter and the stimulus of novelty and most garden centres are ready with their greenhouse stock. But here, what’s under the net must of necessity be in step with the season.

“We’ve had people come in expecting to find a full garden centre,” Carolyn says. “We say, ‘Is it up in your garden?’ Well, it’s not up here. We show them a garden outside, and say it’s not out yet, the plants aren’t budding. Don’t expect it to look like the other garden centres.

“We had two women come in looking for a shrub or tree of some kind to put in a bed on the north-west facing side of their house, no higher than two feet. And then they said it’s near where the heat exchanger is, it’s just constantly getting a drip of water.

“I said that would be good for some things, I’ll show you the Arctic tree willow, it would be perfect for that spot because it likes constant moisture and grows about three feet. They’re not leafed out so we don’t have them in the garden centre. Keith went over to the hoop house and looked at them, he could see the buds but they’re not leafed out.

“They didn’t buy. Oh, it’s a hard sell. They want the impossible and they want it at this time of year.”

Keith takes a break from building to talk plants as I examine the pots that are out on the bench - more than 400 varieties. Isatis glauca is in bud, tall spikes just about to release their colour. “I don’t know it,” Keith says. “When you have something that’s not in ordinary commerce, it often turns out to be thing special,” he adds. “But every once in a while it’s spectacular and I think, ‘Why isn’t everyone else growing this?’ I grow hundreds and hundreds of things that no one else grows, some of them are not that great, but they all have their particular use. Verbascums – it cannot get too hot and dry for a Verbascum. If I get a customer comes in and says I have a desert, no matter how much I water, everything dies, I might have three to six plants that will enjoy the almost desert condition of it being hot and dry and please don’t water me.”

And also make it through the winter, I point out. He nods. “There isn’t any condition from blow-sand to a swamp that hasn’t got a plant that will grow there.”

Of course that’s not what people want. “They want the ideal plant under ideal conditions, they want to feed it, water it, fertilize it, spend a whole lot of money to get a garden that’s just like everybody else’s. It’s either got to be so spectacular, or they say, ‘Well, if no one else is growing it, I don’t think I will’.”

I think of my learning curve as a gardener. When I started I wanted to replicate the English garden with plants I remembered from my grandmothers’ gardens – or plants described in English books. It took me a few years to figure out that those plants wouldn’t grow as I wanted just because I’d decided I wanted them, and a few years more to discover a North American aesthetic. Now, 30 years on, the plants are just one element. I want birds and butterflies and other creatures - the grass snake cautiously sipping from the pond, the yellow warbler busily cleaning caterpillars off the roses, the stunningly coloured caterpillar of the cecropia moth (Ontario’s largest) gracing a highbush cranberry… Magical. There’s been such a sad story in the newspaper about plastic grass and plants being the latest thing so gardeners never have to mow the lawns or water their trees. Where will the snakes and birds and moths live when everything that isn’t paved is plastic?

Keith says he understands people who like to grow what they know, recreate the landscapes of their childhood. Not than he can always help them. “I get an Italian person, they want carnations, apparently that’s a big deal in Italy.” Well, Keith has two or three carnations, but they’re perennials with small flowers, not nearly as big and showy as the annual. Just not what the customer was looking for.
In the bedding house, the gold-leafed Bleeding Hearts are still under the bench, still in flower, they look so magnificent I’m surprised they’re not out for sale.

“Because they’ve been forced,” Carolyn says, “it’s a little bit too early. We’ve still got time for a cold snap and frost. “

Another striking shade plant under the bedding house bench is in full flower – a native North American, Anemone caroliniana. Lovely tall stalks of creamy anemones. This won’t be going on sale, Carolyn says, “I only have five plants. It’s grown from seed, we have some bees in here, so hopefully we’ll have some viable seed.”

Keith points to a compact little plant with a very green leaf. Dracocephalum bullatum. “There’s one of the things I say out of the blue, why haven’t people been growing this thing?” He takes me outside to the scree bed along the side of the house, the one edged by concrete blocks filled with gravel, a plant in each one. One of them is a dracocephalum, in bud. The flowers will be a deep violet blue, Keith tells me. “Wow!” he exclaims, enthusiasm building. “Stays in bloom well, nice colour, well-formed shape, can’t hardly say anything against it. Why don’t I see it listed in some book? It’s a real winner!”

We wander round to the front of the office where the scree bed is 18 inches deep in the front, sloping up to three feet against the wall, perfectly positioned for viewing from the road. “That’s the surprise for me in this garden,” Keith says. “The roses. There are five of them in there that I thought would die.” The small species roses are covered with fresh leaf shoots. “They’re not getting anything – not pruned, not fertilized, not sprayed.”

Is there anything that won’t grow in the scree beds? Yes, he says, illustrating his point with his hands held apart. “Ninety-five per cent like it,” and this much, he brings his hands together, don’t. “Fifteen per cent of the 95 per cent thinks it’s just gone to heaven.” He points to the Genista ‘Lemon Spreader.’ “Look at it!” It’s reaching fanlike across the gravel. “Look at the phlox over the wall which is doing exactly what I wanted it to do.” The little creeping phlox is filling up the hole in the cement block and draping over the edge to soften the line along the edge of the bed..

Beside the roses, there’s another miracle – the Arctic willow. Its natural habitat is wet peat. “Here it’s sitting in gravel, no particular moisture, the picture of health…. There’s a whole lot of really interesting wakeup calls on this.” Keith takes me over to the tulips, 25 of them were planted, just three are missing after four years, “In an ordinary garden they’d be gone after two years. “They don’t grow in topsoil, thank you. They grow in a desert. Iran, Iraq, Turkey… places one sees on television where the vegetation looks blasted.”

But, Keith continues, people are told to buy triple mix, fertilize well. “That’s what these guys have to sell. They don’t take any interest in what that plant wants, where it comes from.” He fixes me with his intense stare. “Why is it a bulb? Because it doesn’t rain for months. It’s going to be dead if it doesn’t figure out a way to get through three months without water. “

Carolyn has joined us. “That peony has a bud on it,” she says. “You need to get that geranium away,” Keith says. Carolyn strips away the dead strands of a perennial geranium that have draped over Peony suffruticosa ‘Hanakisoi.’

The “pasque flower” is in bloom, a lovely violet shade. “That’s a particular blue,” Keith notes before heading back to his bench-building. “The colour depends on the situation.” Most plants are still only slowly waking up but some small early bloomers are sending out insistent ‘Look at Me!’ signals. A Douglasia laevigata has bright yellow flowers, an Arabis sundermanii is a soft pink-tinged white. “It’s doesn’t usually bloom this early,” Carolyn says. “But it likes it.” 

She indicates another, Lythrum ‘Candy Floss’, a low-growing loosestrife. “That’s our own hybrid – it’s a very baby pink and it looks frilly.”

We head back down past the house. A Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ is beginning to leaf out. “At last,” Carolyn says. It had been maintaining a resolutely lifeless appearance. “We thought it was gone,” she says, “and all of a sudden, here it is.”

Chapter 13: Under the bench