After 60 years in the garden centre business, what is the best blue in herbaceous perennials, Keith Squires?

Over 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 herbaceous perennials?

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 Avenue.

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 again.”

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 perennials.

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!