Dan in Peterborough’s zucchini is threatened by fungus. Mary in Barrie’s tomatoes need pruning. A creepy vine has slithered into the flower bed of Tom in Lively. Mary in Ottawa’s roses are under siege from Japanese beetles.
Ed Lawrence, Canada’s most beloved gardener, charges to the rescue.
“You have got bindweed, sir, and it can be very invasive,” he tells Tom on Gardening With Ed, the radio segment he has hosted on CBC in Ontario for four decades. “I have told people to move because of that stuff.”
He is 69 and happily shares the knowledge accrued as the chief horticulturist to six governors-general and seven prime ministers. A therapist for growers plagued by rampaging squirrels, rusty hollyhock, sun-starved wisteria, wilted orchids and yellowing parsley, he is so earnest and entertaining that even people who wouldn’t know an aphid from an eggplant tune in to his segment, which airs as part of Ontario Today, on Mondays at 12:30 p.m.
“The people who call in are really special,” Lawrence says. “I can tell if they are a beginner. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who told us there were no dumb questions, and that is something I have always remembered.
“Everybody starts somewhere, so I try to keep it simple. I want to encourage people, not discourage them.”
Long since retired from government, Lawrence lives in Almonte, a small mill town southwest of Ottawa whose most famous resident was James Naismith, the doctor that invented basketball. The enduring work in radio, as an author, and as a former gardening columnist for The Globe and Mail turned Lawrence into a local celebrity.
Sometimes, he is recognized on the street or in the grocery store.
“It happens once in a while,” he says with a chuckle. “People are mostly well-meaning. I find it flattering.”
He continued to make personal appearances until recently but has now stopped.
“COVID-19 helped draw the final line,” Lawrence says.
He spends his days tending a prodigious patch he planted on a parcel of land surrounded by a beech, hemlock and maple forest. Ravines jut up against the back and side of the property. He and his wife, Tove, enjoy a spectacular view from their deck.
“It’s heaven,” he says.
For years, he drove 45 minutes to Ottawa to do his weekly program from a CBC studio. He does it from home now.
There is no lack of diggers and hoers plagued with problems.
Rita Celli, his co-host for nearly 15 years, laughs when she describes how anxious they are to speak with him.
“If they had an arm to push me aside, they would,” she says.
People could go online and find answers, but they prefer talking with Ed.
“Nothing can replace the beauty of having this smart, kind man listen to you and answer you specifically,” Celli says. “They identify with his authenticity. That warmth and sincerity is real.”
Ed Lawrence grew up in Toronto. He had attention deficit disorder as a child and found comfort in a garden when he had difficulty finding it anywhere else.
He was nine years old when his father died. He remembers a neighbour – Mrs. Lewis – that grew bleeding hearts and gave some to his mom on Mother’s Day. She loved them so much that she replanted them and Lawrence includes them in his garden still.
In the summer after his third year in high school, he started his own business, riding a bicycle to small gardening and landscaping jobs. By graduation, he knew it was a calling.
“That is how I went from flower child to horticulturist,” he says.
He entered a program at Humber College and earned two diplomas. Then he moved to Ottawa, where he was hired to work in city parks before becoming a partner in a private landscaping firm. After a couple of years, he applied to oversee 34 hectares of grounds and greenhouses at Rideau Hall, along with the residences of the prime minister and opposition leader.
“I learned a hell of a lot about greenhouses in a hurry,” Lawrence says.
It was a job he held from August, 1977 to January, 2006, working under every governor-general from Jules Léger to Adrienne Clarkson, and prime ministers from Pierre Trudeau to Paul Martin.
As such, there are plenty of stories to tell. He recalls Aline Chrétien, Jean’s wife, as an accomplished floral designer. Pierre Trudeau was thoughtful and kind to those who served him.
“He stopped me one morning as I delivered roses,” Lawrence says. “He told me he just wanted to say thank you to the people that grew the flowers.
“He was very respectful, and that meant a lot to me.”
He remembers tossing a football at 24 Sussex Drive with Justin Trudeau when the prime minister was just a child.
“You tell me where all that time has gone and I will give you a medal,” Mr. Lawrence says.
Ed Lawrence is old school. He has no cell phone, no Facebook page. He rarely replies to e-mails.
He enjoys the solitude of his garden.
“Gardening is basically a solitary activity,” Lawrence says. “Ask for help weeding and see what happens.”
This summer he is growing bush beans and pole beans, butternut squash, cantaloupe and carrots, cucumbers in a separate raised bed, five types of onions, an abundance of garlic and three varieties of red peppers, two types of peas, multiple varieties of tomatoes, yellow zucchini, sunflowers just to make things interesting, and scarlet runners for the hummingbirds.
Among all that, you won’t find a hot pepper.
“I have no use for them!”
Of course, he grows flowers, too: the bleeding hearts, cleomes, cosmos, delphiniums and marigolds.
“I try to spend more time in the garden than I have in the past,” he says. “Some days I could use more, some days I could use less.”
He says this year, there’s been a change to the calls on Mondays.
“I’m getting calls from the children and grandchildren of my early listeners,” he says. “There is a whole generation of boomers and their kids that want to do more gardening. Heaven knows people want a connection with sanity.”
They want to plant something to eat, something that gives them pleasure and something that gives them fun. Something for themselves and for the birds and the bees.
Calls pour in, one after another.
Valerie in Port Credit’s beans and beets are drying out. Ryan in Kingston’s sunflower is bare. Andrea in North York found beetles on her Japanese maple. Veronica in Kanata wants to keep dogs from peeing on her bushes.
The most powerful calls Lawrence gets involve an inherited plant.
Rita Celli remembers one in particular. A young woman was anxious about a ficus that dried up. As she spoke, it became more and more apparent it was nearly dead. Celli interjected and asked why she didn’t purchase another.
After a long silence, the woman’s voice cracked.
“Because my dad bought it for me for my first apartment and he died recently,” she said.
Lawrence jumped in and gave instructions of how to revive it.
“He understood the situation right away,” Celli says. “There are undercurrents to some of the calls. He gets all of that as easy as he breathes.”
She adds: “Plants have stories. They are a contradiction: at times seemingly fragile, at other times capable of being propagated and shared for many years.”