After 60 years in the garden centre
business, what is the best blue in herbaceous perennials, Keith Squires?
the past two decades at least, I have been talking to Keith Squires, of The
Country Squires Garden, on a regular basis. We talked and visited about new
plants, advertising his business on radio, new cultivars, the strange
turnings of the industry, new varieties, the development of a Mississauga
public garden, new species, the folly of banning purple loosestrife and
importing beetles to control it, new genera, and particularly about courses
on herbaceous perennials which he ran, and continues to run the most
detailed and in-depth! And did I mention, we most often talked about new
I jest of course, but I am certain Keith Squires can boast of having more
amateur gardeners or professionals who are now considered ‘experts’ in the
culture of herbaceous perennials, become so after taking his multi-week
courses, than any other ‘teacher’!
Though I seem to have known Keith almost forever, it came as a surprise to
me that in 2004 he told me that he was celebrating his 60th year in the
garden centre business.
I already knew that Keith’s ‘roots’ were in my old home area of East York.
His family’s history starts just east of the Don River, where his green
grocer great grandfather, who emigrated from Leeds England (it was the late
19th century when he arrived in Canada), had a farm on what is now Jones
Avenue. That’s only a couple of blocks from where I grew up on Woodycrest
Over the years, the Squires family migrated westward across the greater
Toronto Area, driven by rising land prices. Squires Avenue in East York
marks the spot his grandfather farmed. And for the 14 or more years I
chaired the East York Mayor’s Blooming Contest in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I well
remember judging front gardens on Squires Avenue.
In 1939, the year I was born, Keith’s father moved to Cawthra Road just
north of the QEW in Mississauga. During the ‘30s and ‘40s, cut gladioli were
the family business’ mainstay.
Also throughout the early 40s all the men were at war so Keith had to take
over the home farm. In 1944 as D-Day was unfolding in Europe, Keith Squires
was a wiry 15-year-old. “Either I ran it or everything went down the drain,”
he recalls. “They were gone for years,” he says of his brother who joined
the RCAF and brother-in-law, who served with the 48th Highlanders.
“When they came home, they thought that I was doing fine and they left
That suited Keith, who was able to pursue his single-minded love affair with
plants. In the '50s, Squires branched out into perennial plants for
gardeners. And it ‘grew’ from there! In 1954, Keith Squires bought a farm in
the Churchville area of Brampton (near Steeles and Hwy. 10). By the end of
the summer that year, he had all the gladioli corms planted ready for the
winter. And then it happened, Hurricane Hazel hit the Toronto area with 110
km/hr winds and over 200 mm of rain in a 24 hour period. Damage was
particularly bad in the west end where the Humber River and Etobicoke Creek
claimed many lives. It also claimed all of Keith’s newly planted gladioli. A
good first year in a new location!
In 1990, he purchased the farm at his present location in the Milton area.
But there was much heartache in that move too, as the sale of the Brampton
property became a problem and the establishment of the nursery on the
Niagara Escarpment equally a major concern. Two crises at the same time and
still trying to operate a business. But Keith and his wife Carolyn did it!
They are still there, offering arguably the largest selection of herbaceous
perennial plants of any nursery and certainly of any garden centre on the
continent and likely in the World! There are some 5,000 choices, and more
being added every year.
The Country Squires Garden is not a fancy gimmick-filled garden centre
staffed by enthusiastic but often not-too-knowledgeable teenage employees.
At Keith’s place there are only two employees, Keith and Carolyn. And they
both know the plants--all of them!
I think it was Keith, in the herbaceous perennial business, who pioneered
the information labels, all of which he printed (and prints) right on the
site. No colour pictures, but plenty of information, some in code, some in
words (height, colour of bloom, time of bloom, and sun or shade preference),
about each plant that allows the buyers to grow it well.
Keith and Carolyn do not ship plants--the customers come to them, most often
from great distances. If they tell us they've come “all the way from
Scarborough,” Keith just smiles kindly, and retorts, “That's from just
around the corner.” We have regular customers from all over Ontario as well
as Québec, Manitoba and the US, including New Jersey.
They come because he grows tough perennials, in a clay soil mix with no
winter protection. You see he doesn't believe in greenhouses. “We like to
say that you can't kill our plants because Keith has already tried his
best,” jokes Carolyn, who also has a horticultural heritage; her
grand-father was a market gardener in south Etobicoke.
But the truth is, Keith Squires reckons that coddling a plant in soil-less
mix and heated comfort is no preparation for the rigours of the Canadian
climate. He is not the only one with this philosophy. Landscape architect
and plantsman (an unusual combination!) David Tomlinson (famous for his
English style mixed garden, Merlin’s Hollow, in Aurora, Ontario) agrees that
the lightweight mixes, while perfect for annuals, are not suitable for
I mentioned that Keith was an innovator, and often running ahead of his
time. For those of you who were not around the business in the early ‘60s,
herbaceous perennials had about reached their lowest level of popularity.
Annuals were everything, thanks in part to the effective and heavy publicity
received by the All-America Selections choices annually. And, containerized
perennials were virtually unheard of. At Sheridan’s, for example, our garden
centre employees would go out into the field and dig your requirements from
the rows growing at each location.
Keith had a better idea. He bought a panel truck, painted his name on it,
and went from garden centre to garden centre in southern Ontario with a
range of perennials in flower or about to flower and sold them to eager
garden centre managers.
I remember seeing the abandoned truck at the Brampton location for years; it
has long been out of the picture but they still have it. As I said, now all
his customers (retail and still some wholesale) come to him. The garden
centre is at 2601 Derry Road (almost the west end of the road) just a few
hundred metres west of the Guelph Line (where Mohawk Racetrack is just north
of Highway 401, Keith is a nice ten to 15-minute drive south, down a gently
curving road that is picturesque at all times of year. Since there are only
Keith and Carolyn to help customers, Keith has not only his informative
labels to help, but one major selling aid is his one long bench of a huge
number of perennials that can be expected to grow well in shade. It quickly
dispels the thought held by many new to perennial gardening that they only
grow in the sun.
Now, if you thought The Country Squires Garden is only about herbaceous
perennials, that is not the case. It is true, customers won’t find any large
displays of fertilizers, hard landscaping items, tools or gimmicks, but
Keith does carry a good stock of dwarf and miniature evergreens and shrubs
along with dwarf species roses. If you are fortunate enough that he gives
you a tour he will point out a 40 cm (16-inch) cypress with a name almost as
long as itself—Chamaecyparis lawsoniana minima glauca ; it's around
35 years old.
Important aspects of The Country Squire’s Garden are several Scree gardens,
wherein the soil is removed and replaced with ‘granular A’ gravel, and
nothing else. The plants are put in and no water is added once they start
growing. And even more recently, Keith and Carolyn have added a non-amended
clay garden, and it too receives no water other than rainfall.
Oh yes, if you wondered about the reference to purple loosestrife at the
beginning, and the best blue perennial in the title, well Keith Squires, the
late Fred Dale of the Toronto Star, Tom Thomson at Humber Nurseries and I
were the first people to befriend Lythrum salicaria, the so-called
purple doom--purple loosestrife. Now, we have major, major scientific
support, but when the anti-loosestrife campaign began we were all receiving
‘letter bombs’ from those who don’t like the plant because it limits their
hunting and fishing opportunities.
And, the best blue colour in herbaceous perennials, why Viper’s bugloss (Echium
vulgare) of course. Yes, Keith sells it, grown from seed because it is
difficult to transplant large plants once they have developed their long
taproot. But, you will not find it in many garden centres. Try it in the
centre of a container!