It’s the calm before the storm. A busload of gardeners from a nearby horticultural society is due at 11. Carolyn shows me her hands, stained from weeding. All the volunteer perennials that self-seeded under the benches and encroached into the aisles have been beaten back, making all the paths through the garden centre wide enough for two-way foot traffic. All the pots are clean, picked through and ready for inspection. The five demonstration gardens have been thoroughly weeded. Everything is shipshape.

Three customers, a couple and a man, are working their way up and down the aisles. They’re regulars. Keith and Carolyn leave them alone, knowing they want to browse and will call out if they have any questions.

Many of the volunteers that have survived the weeding surge are tied up – like the Inula magnifica that’s coming into flower – a quite magnificent star-like daisy with long narrow yellow petals, reaching eight feet up to the top of the garden centre, with great three-foot-long leaves at the base.

Keith notices something unusual about it. “It’s like Liatris, it’s blooming from the top down. It’s one of the few that does that.”

“That makes it an interesting cut flower,” Carolyn says.

“It indicates that it’s a prairie flower,” Keith adds, by which he doesn’t mean that it’s from the North American Praries - this plant is from the eastern Himalayas.

“I didn’t say it blooms from the top down on the card,” Carolyn says, “because nobody anywhere says it does that.”

“That really puts it in a most unusual category,” Keith says.

As we talk, I see the coach pull in and a horde of people pours out. Keith steps forward to greet them. First stop, the small scree garden in front of the garden centre, Keith explains the basic principles of growing in gravel and is in full flight within minutes – when he’s interrupted by the leader of the group. “We haven’t got much time,” she says.

“Oh,” Keith says, surprised, but turning on a dime. “This scree is from 1992,” he tells the crowd that’s middle-aged to old, and mainly female. “And this,” with his arm extended, he marches eastward, pulling the crowd behind him, “this scree is only five years old.”

“Oh, wow,” they say obediently, as he climbs the steps on the far side of the scree in front of the main building and surveys them. “This garden is never, ever, ever weeded. It doesn’t need it. It doesn’t need it and it doesn’t need you. It’s what you don’t see in this garden that is so important.” His voice gets emphatic. “We do not see any weeds.”

A grey-haired woman scrabbles around and finds one – a couple of leaves on a rootlet. She holds the tiny exhibit up high. Everyone laughs. “Yes, she found one,” Keith proclaims, adjusting the script. “Never watered, never fertilized, hardly ever weeded.”

This scree bed is three feet deep by the house, sloping down to 18 inches at the front, covering a total area of 900 square feet. Some Thymes and creeping Phloxes have seeded out of the main area into the gravel parking lot. Here as in the garden centre, Keith likes to leave volunteers to work their magic, blurring the line between Nature and Commerce. But the horticultural society members take no heed of the flowering clumps underfoot and trample all over them.

Keith tells them how the scree garden changes all the time. “There’s always a new point of interest, something new that has come out in flower to surprise you. The best advice I can give you is be here – once a month – and see it change. It looks like this now, it didn’t look like this two weeks ago and it won’t look like this two weeks from now.”

But he’s lost them.

“Thank you,” some one says. Suddenly the entire crowd is streaming towards the garden centre. It’s quite curious. The whole scree thing usually elicits questions. People don’t believe everything is growing in gravel. They crawl around to look at the names on the plant labels. There’s a tree there, all of 10 inches high, that’s about 10 years old. It’s a low-growing cypress - Microbiota decussata - with pleasingly arched branches, fresh and green.despite the heat. There are three other quite gorgeous little cypresses, about 5 feet tall, that were moved here from the Brampton farm years ago.

And the straight lines of the scree bed, edged by concrete blocks, each one planted with some low-growing treasure that’s picturesquely spilling out of its container, allow for the display of a large variety of plants. Beginning gardeners learn after a few years that one of each of whatever catches their fancy usually adds up to a jumble. Drifts, we’re told, is how nature works. Restrict the plant palette and use more plants in fewer species. Keith’s scree gardens provide a disciplined frame so the inveterate collector can let loose and still have a garden that’s pleasing to the eye.

But no one seems to notice. Someone does pause by the Salvia ‘Schwellenberg’, putting on its usual display of dramatic purple. But then they’re off. Not even Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ attracts a glance.

“I’ll turn you loose,” Keith calls out, hanging onto a semblance of control. He hustles after their retreating backs to explain the layout. The shade plants are on this side, the sun-lovers are over there. There’s a table for new introductions, another for natives, there’s a dramatic display of Hostas, and the Daylilies are in bloom. “There’s more than 2,000 species in here right now. Any plants you want, just leave them in the black boxes in the middle.”

The pricing system has to be explained many times over. A woman has picked up a six-inch pot with an orange plastic label bearing the plant’s name. Keith points her to one of the large signs. “So?” he prompts. “So,” she frowns in concentration. “So it’s eleven dollars!” she says triumphantly. Keith nods kindly. She doesn’t buy. A woman squeals with delight. “You have some Knautia macedonica in the ground – do you have some in a pot?” she calls out to him. Keith directs her to the sun-lovers but she’s stymied. Thirty people are milling around the garden centre with just Carolyn and Keith to take care of them, so I help the customer find her Knautia.

“Sixteen dollars,” says one woman, figuring out the label system. “Twenty-five dollars,” says another, putting a large pot of Cimicifuga racemosa back on the bench. Black Cohosh or Snakeroot are its common name – it’s one of our most lovely native plants with its elegant black stems and tall white spires that flower in September, just when new blooms are especially welcome. No sale.

This is not a crowd that has come to spend serious money. The black boxes aren’t filling up. 

“What makes that side sun and this side shade?” one smart fellow asks. It’s a good question, I think – the light level seems much the same on either side of the garden centre. Not so, it turns out. “That’s an 80 per cent net, this is a 60 per cent net,” Keith replies, pointing upward. “This is an 80 per cent wall.” He indicates the net along the western side of the garden centre. “It blocks the wind entirely, that wind cannot get through an 80 per cent net.”

Another guy wants to cut a deal on plant prices. “Would you give us a discount?” he asks Keith. “No, I can’t possibly do that, everything is priced so low,” Keith says. “But I do give the horticultural society 20 per cent of whatever you spend.”
The guy’s confused. “Oh, I have to talk to the horticultural society to get it back from them?”

“No, they keep that money,” Keith says. “It pays for their activities, like this bus tour. It’s one of the ways they raise money.”

The guy looks dissatisfied. People are already returning to the bus that’s been
idling all the while in the parking lot. They’ve been here maybe 20 minutes. A few pay for their plants and Keith carries them out. The coach’s cargo space is already packed – this is the group’s third stop this morning, and there’s another garden centre to visit before they have lunch. They’re probably hungry.

The group leader is the last to leave. She’s also the one to have bought the most plants. It was her idea to book a visit, after hearing Keith speak at the Royal Botanical Garden show. “I could have stayed a lot longer,” she says regretfully. “I don’t know why they didn’t buy. I think they expect a different type of garden centre, they’re used to everything in straight rows - not that your rows aren’t nice and straight,” she adds hastily. I help her take her plants out to the bus.

A different type of garden centre. One with a more reassuring corporate feel? And less choice, perhaps?.Here, there are over 2,000 out on the bench, and more out back in the hoop houses. In contrast, around 300 varieties of plants – including trees and shrubs – make up 80 per cent of total sales in the nursery industry. But the prices were no doubt too steep for many of these elderly gardeners, on fixed incomes, with four garden centres to visit.

In the small office Carolyn and Keith take stock. I look for the wasps’ nests. They’re gone. “The coons knocked them all down,” Carolyn says. “Keith came in one morning and it was all over the floor – quite a mess. They were after the eggs, I guess.”

Just as well perhaps. The horticultural society folks didn’t strike me as wasps’ nest kind of people.

“I had a feeling this would happen,” Carolyn says as she tallies a meagre total. “We worked for a week to get ready for that crowd, and they hardly looked at anything.”

“Those people weren’t gardeners,” Keith says. “Seniors. On a day out. On the bus.” “I’ll have to make sure I get the cheque for $30 in the mail to the horticultural society,” Carolyn says with sarcastic emphasis. “That’s their twenty per cent. Hardly covers the gas fumes.”

I ask about whether they ever compromise on prices? No, Keith says. “We never have a sale. Never, ever.” “We never even consider anyone else as competition,” Carolyn says. “And even when they grow what we grow, it’s a bunch of junk,” Keith adds.

I check out their fern section before I leave. This is a new interest for me. I need to dress the shaded margins of my evergreen windbreak.. Keith doesn’t have a very large fern selection, but he has enough to be interesting. One group of pots looms head and shoulders above the others – the aptly named Osmunda Regalis, the Royal Fern, which has beautiful long fronds with well-defined leaflets and will apparently grow to over four feet. I take one for $25. I select an Onoclea sensibilis (Sensitive Fern), a Dryopteris intermedia (Evergreen Wood Fern) as well as six pots Keith has uncharacteristically labeled ‘native species’ with no Latin names at all. He lets me have them cheap with no comment made. See, you can find bargains at Squires, if you search and manage to find something not fully pedigreed that he’s quite happy to see out the door.

Chapter 20: Life Force