“Is this Tuesday?” Keith asks. “We lose track of days because we work every day of the week. We don’t get paid Friday, whooping it up Friday night and off all weekend and going to work reluctantly Monday morning.

“I never go to work reluctantly. That’s because I never know what I’m going to find on any given day. We’ve got all this stuff coming in and a lot of it we know, but there are 200 or 300 in seed or plants that we know nothing about at all. It could be a world-beater, it could be dead in a month, we don’t know yet. It’s a never-ending fascinating process because there are tens of thousands of plants out there, thousands and thousands that no one has tested to see if they are hardy in this winter.

“We specialize in winter-hardy perennial plants. I grow a wider range of winter-hardy perennials than any other nursery in the world. We have roughly 5,000 species. There nowhere else on this Earth that has as many. Last year we had 400 species on test, this year 300. I never introduce less than 50 or more than 150 in the garden centre every year.

“I used to supply every garden centre from London to Kingston to Peterborough to Orillia. This was in the ‘50s. They sold annuals. They knew little or nothing about perennials. A perennial should live a minimum of three to five years, so the grower would be making one tenth the money. It didn’t make sense to them. 

“My father started us in the perennial business. He may have had maybe 35 different types of plant. Not even that. It was Gladiolus for years, but then in the thirties he started to grow perennials more seriously because it meant we were getting money in the spring. Growing Gladiolus, you didn’t get any money at all in spring, you didn’t get paid until August. If you’re lucky, July.

“Slowly I got to the point where we were increasing our perennial sales and decreasing the Gladiolus sales. Then I switched over to perennials completely – probably in the sixties. Perennials were a tiny proportion of a nursery’s business in those days. They didn’t make sense compared to annuals.

“All the greenhouse men are in the perennial business now. But I’m the only one left who grows perennials the way they need to grow. Look at this flat of Digitalis. This is going into its third year. After three years, I’m about to plant it out and sell it. But they haven’t got the patience to do what I do, what I’ve been doing for 65 years.

“Look at this tray of cuttings. An ordinary person would think they’re all dead. They’re in sand, not perlite. That wouldn’t work for the greenhouse men, they want them rooted in six weeks. I did them last August and they spent the next few months under a tree. Then I put them into a hoop house for the winter. I bought them into the warmth of the bedding house in February, they might be ready to pot up by the last week in March. They won’t be put out for sale until next year.

“We have a system that’s designed for plants that are as tough as nails. We grow a range of plants that would be suitable for anything from full sand to a foot of water but people want to put unsuitable plants in the wrong spot.

“People do not like to hear the truth. And when they ask me something they get the truth. And sometimes they go out of here quite upset. When I tell them – the truth. Occasionally, not very often, occasionally I lose a customer by telling them the truth.”

What truth?

“That the plant is not going to bloom all summer. That it doesn’t bloom from April to September. That’s what they’re telling them in the greenhouse. Does it bloom all year? ‘Sure it does, lady.’ I want it to be two feet high. ‘Yes, yes, it’s two feet high, lady.’ I want it to be a rosy red not a scarlet red. ‘Oh, here’s a rosy red.’ Well, nothing blooms all summer, nothing on the face of this Earth.”

Well, an annual does.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s not in bloom in April. It’s not in bloom in May. It’s starting in June. It looks great by July. If you treat it right, it’s still in bloom in August it’s likely to get frozen in September. Blooming season, April May June July August September October November and into December – that's the blooming season here with perennials.”

But not the same plant.

“Anything on the face of this Earth that is going to bloom from beginning to end it’s a fabrication.”

Chapter 9: Growing to Music