It’s hot, hot, hot, hitting 30 Celsius in the past few days. The pump has been acting up. “We’ve been having fights with it,” Keith says wearily. “It’s as low as I’ve ever seen it. We’ve been getting junk in the thing, bits and pieces coming down the crick, because the intake area is so shallow, and we’ve been losing pressure.”

The creek comes out of a swamp northwest of here. “It isn’t like we use a lot. One three-quarter-inch line, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. When we do all the houses, I doubt if it’s even 1,000 gallons.

“I don’t know why people get excited about it. All the fellas that use water out of here – except one – they have the greatest respect for the water. But we have one fella up here, he has a dam.” Keith shakes his head. “He’s not growing crops. He put in this dam so he could have a pond to swim in. Then he decided the pond was breeding mosquitoes. He pulled the dam and flooded everything for miles. Totally reckless. What does he care, he’s not growing a crop. It’s just a pond.
“The conservation people came round to investigate. This woman at the back who has nothing to do with anything, they gave her a hard time. They didn’t come here because I would have told them what for in no uncertain terms.

“The rest of us, we all respect the water because we know what trouble we’d be in without it. We feel we have the right to the water ahead of anyone because we’re growing a crop. Ahead of someone who’s swimming in it.”
Keith is moving plants out of the hoop houses and onto his tractor-drawn wagon. He examines a weathered piece of paper on a clipboard and switches on the walkie-talkie

“I’m looking for Paradisea,” he says.

Carolyn’s voice comes crackling back. “I’m not sure we have enough to list,” she says. “Five? I’ll take a guess – five?”

“No, I don’t see it,” Keith replies. He’s weary. In hot dry weather like this, watering is a day-long chore. In the garden centre, there are nine lines, every 10 feet, running the 100-foot-length of the structure. It gets done in stages, 15 minutes a line. As for the hoop houses, there are 12 of them, each one gets switched on in turn and to be done for half an hour – that’s six hours.

“In a heat wave – 30 to 35 Celsius - we have to water once a day. Anything below 28, we’d be two or three days before we need to.”

It did rain the day before. Disappointingly. A short sharp torrent, and it was over. The ground was hardly moistened. “It just ran off. Didn’t make a darn bit of difference.”

He moves over to Number 7 house where the Hostas are. He’s looking for a particular variety but then he can’t remember which one. Back on the walkie-talkie to Carolyn. It’s ‘Whirlwind’. It can’t be found in Number 7. There are a few Hostas in Number 8, and it’s not there either. We walk over to the garden centre to look there. He radios back to Carolyn. “No, it’s not on the bench so you’ve got the entire stock.” That means that Carolyn will be dividing the plants she has up to make more for next year, rather than potting them up as larger specimens for sale now.

Keith shows me a pot of Tugaru Komachi, a small Hosta with a white edge. Next to it, a larger pot of the same variety is losing its white. “This one will drive you nuts.” Keith laughs. “It’s going, going, gone. Hostas are a very unstable bunch, that’s why you have hundreds of varieties. We have to keep selecting and selecting. Bunchyo, here, has a white centre to the leaf.” We examine the pots and there’s one that’s very green, with very little white. “It’s losing it,” Keith says in triumph. He always appreciates contrariness in a plant

‘Revolution’ and ‘Patriot’ are from the same Hosta family. He shows me how they have very strong contrast - but opposite: ‘Revolution’ has white edges, ‘Patriot’ a white centre.  “This is how variable they are. We have to keep an eye on them. ‘Patriot’ has two or three versions, now one is more variegated, one is whiter than the other.”

We look at Mildred Seaver and the other ‘sea’ hostas – ‘Sea Dream, ‘Sea Sunrise,’ ‘Sea Lightning’ – all slight variations on a theme developed by an American breeder. “And then you get these guys that don’t care about anything, they get one that isn’t the same and people are fussy in the States, they can’t sell it, so they rename it. So – is ‘Patriot’ ‘Wolverine’?” He shows me the two and they do look indistinguishable.

He pulls of the bud end off a flower shoot and pops it in his mouth, “I had a couple of ladies in here. I was showing them how to eat Hostas.” He offers me a shoot. It has a pleasant taste. “I’ve got Hosta growers who grow thousands of plants and don’t know that buds and flowers are edible. They’re really good in a salad.”

I wander off to see Carolyn who’s working in the barn at the end of the main driveway. A raccoon has left a paw print in the mud of a puddle from yesterday’s brief storm. The mud is dry and beginning to crack.

She’s finally dealing with the last of the plants that were forced to put on early growth by being thawed out in the bedding house in March. Now they’ve spent too long in hothouse conditions and have extended into the wrong kind of growth – limp and overly tender.

It went from 31 Celsius to 20 in half an hour before yesterday’s rain, she tells me. They went inside for their lemonade while it rained, but then Keith got into his recliner and went to sleep. “We’ve been working to 9 o’clock every night,” she says.

As for the pump, it’s been the main focus of their attention. “A few days ago the water completely stopped and Keith couldn’t figure out why. So he gave up. Left the pump going, and just dropped the end of the hose into a barrel in the barn. Fortunately I was working there. All of a sudden, it started coming. Whatever it was must have been pushed out. But whatever it was is a mystery because it would have had to get past the intake filter which is very fine.”

Ask no questions. All’s well that ends well.

This is the time of year when there comes a recognition that some of the pots aren’t what they’re supposed to be and aren’t anything else of value either. Carolyn cleared out 35 flats from the bedding house and found useful plants in six. “I‘ve been watering weeds! Two of the flats were supposed to be hosta. Out of that I found just two tiny plants.”
She takes a Coreopsis ‘Tequila Sunrise’ out of its pot to dig a dandelion root out. Both are sizeable plants, the coreopsis leaves edged with white. “I don’t know if he wants me to divide it,” she ponders. She has five plants, three of which are divisible. But if she divides them they’d be too small to sell this year and it might be cheaper to go out and buy them for next year. “I’ll make a corporate decision, I won’t divide them,” she decides.

Keith arrives with a wagonload of pots and upends them by the big pile of topsoil that will at some stage be fed into the pasteurizer. They look like a series of child’s sandcastles, with damp dark soil instead of sand. What was in there? “Thymus,” he says “They died, I have no idea why unless they dried out.”

Carolyn sighs. “Thymus fragrantissuma. My gorgeous little plants – and you killed them.” She tells me how she nurtured them, how when they grew three leave she took the top one out. “You know what I’m like with Thymus. The ones from this spring, you have to see. They’re the biggest ones on the bench – I thought, gee, I should have divided them again.”

“Oh, no, you couldn’t divide them again,” I say, thinking of how often they’ve already been split this year. “Watch me!” says Carolyn, the division queen.

Turning to Keith, she tells him of her corporate decision on the Coreopsis.
He’s dubious. “I’m not concerned about it as sales,” he tells her, “I’m concerned about hardiness. There’s a line of Echinaceas on the market, about 20 of them in new colours like yellow and tangerine. The ones I tested last year, they’re all dead. What’s going on? What are they crossing it with? Some Echinaceas are from the southern U.S.  I hadn’t planned to test them because they are known to be hardy. But now that I’m looking at this stuff that’s dead, I’ve got a wakeup call.”
I ask Keith whether the variegated leaf is an indication that the Coreopsis might not be hardy. “No, he says, “that’s somebody’s superstition.”

Some pots of Helenium have three labels in each pot, bearing different names. “We’re not sure which variety it is,” Keith explains. “They’re disgustingly healthy so I think they’re Copper Classic, which was developed here 20 years ago. Double Trouble is a new one, it’s unlikely it would be that disgustingly healthy.”

Carolyn calls for advice. “Keith, if I drop the Stachys on the ground will the root ball still hold?” She has a Stachys out of its pot with a vetch so closely intertwined they can’t be separated. The root ball is a solid dry grey clump of clay. Keith takes the plant and drops it from shoulder height onto the barn’s concrete floor. Nothing budges. He slams it against the floor a couple of times. “It’s coming.” One more time. The roots loosen and he hands the plant back to Carolyn for careful disentanglement.

Swallows swoop in and out around us. “Look up,” Carolyn says. There are babies in the adobe nest above. Five pairs of beady eyes peer at me over the rim. There are more nests, several with nestling, at the intersections of each roof beam, six feet up.

“They eat the bugs,” Carolyn says. “I really notice it in August when they go back to Nicaragua.” I take a picture. My camera isn’t good enough to zoom in for a close-up so Carolyn fetches me a ladder and I get in close – perfect. Although the parents are quite agitated. Later, when Liness appears, they dive-bomb her and Carolyn has to rescue her and carry her to the garden centre. I’m a little heartsick because a barn near my home was demolished the day before and I saw swallows swirling around – bereft parents, I was sure, with babies crushed in the wreckage. Farmers all over Ontario are demolishing old barns, leading to a major decrease in nesting sites for a species already under pressure through the decline in insect populations.

I check out the species Gladiolus imbricata - a gorgeous rich royal purple, a delicate frond so unlike the florist’s Gladiolus. Exquisite. But I can’t think where I would plant it in my tangled wilderness of a garden, so I resist. Another Gladiolus next to it, not yet in flower, will be pink, its card says.

Something new: the Chaerophyllum hirsutum is in flower, delicate white clusters held high – “shoulder-high” Keith thinks, once it’s out of a pot and in the ground. “It’s new to me,” he adds. “A more refined Queen Anne’s Lace,” I suggest. “No,” he says, the flower clusters are more graceful, more rounded, not flat umbels like Queen Anne’s Lace.

Almost every line of plant on the bench has a card above it. “She’s been doing those for days almost exclusively,” Keith says, “trying to get a card up on all of them. She gets the information from books and from me - after a few years working on a plant we might have more information on it than the author of the book.”

He takes me over to the Carduncellus monspeliensium, which is an interesting star-shaped plant that bears its stemless flowers close to the ground. “This is three years now, we haven’t seen it flower,” Keith says. “We’re expecting grayish lavender solitary flowers but another book says blue.”
Will it flower this year? “I hope so,” he says.

Chapter 17: Tough Love