Chief gardener tends plants, people

Tell me, please, what is Lieutenant Columbo of the Los Angeles Police Department doing in the greenhouses of our Adrienne Clarkson at Rideau Hall?

I come across him at the Governor General’s Ottawa residence wearing the same quizzical expression, the sweet air of absent-mindedness, the rumpled good looks of the TV detective we love so well – minus only the squint.

But instead of investigating the mysterious matter of a body in the palm house, as Columbo (played by Peter Falk) might be doing, our look-alike is trying to get to the bottom of a puzzling case of stem rot afflicting some pots of pink star-like bouvardia plants.

Ed Lawrence, the chief of greenhouse operations at Ottawa’s official residences (including the Sussex Drive home of the prime minister), not only resembles Columbo, he has the fictional detective’s sunny disposition. He’s one heck of a nice guy – as thousands of listeners to his Ontario Today gardening phone-in show on CBC Radio well know. And my bet is he’s destined to be Canada’s next celebrity gardener.

“I don’t know how he has the patience,” says the show’s host, Dave Stephens, admiringly. “All those people who call in after Cistmas asking what they can do with their poinsettias!”

Lawrence is really a softie, and if Stephens didn’t act the tough cop now and then, stepping in to cut them off, some listeners would be happy to throw questions all day. And Lawrence, just as surely, would be content to keep answering in that rural burr of his, just as if he was leaning on a spade in his own back yard talking to a neighbour.

Growing up years
The laugh is that Lawrence’s origins are anything but rural. He grew up in a row house on Shaftesbury Avenue, in central Toronto, the eighth in a family of nine children. His father, a milkman and one-time Barnardo boy sent out from England to work on a farm, grew a few flowers on their small plot, but that was about as much exposure as Lawrence had to the wonderful world of horticulture.

As a teenager, Lawrence was interested in the environment, good at the natural sciences, and thought of becoming a landscape architect. However, in his third year of horticulture at Toronto’s Humber College he was offered a job working on the grounds at Rideau Hall and never went back to the design side of the business.

Even then, there must have been something special about Lawrence’s knack, not only with plants, but also with people. After a short stint in the private sector, he was offered the prestige-laden job he holds today. He was only 26 and in charge of people decades older than himself.

Flower ambassadors
In their own way, Lawrence and his staff are our flower ambassadors. Their plants and blossoms form the backdrop for many significant events in the capital, and Lawrence cherishes the memory of Pierre Trudeau, on a day after a first minister’s meeting at Sussex Drive, approaching him as he arranged a vase of roses.

“You know,” said Trudeau, taking a rose for his buttonhole, as he always did, “the flowers last night made all the difference.”

If you have ever been lucky enough to dine at Rideau Hall, you may have experienced the delight of an after-dinner stroll through the adjoining greenhouses, which date back to 1865. If you haven’t, you owe yourself a trip to one of the open houses held at Rideau Hall in spring and fall.

Lawrence was comfortable in this very private, hidden away world when, 18 years ago, a young CBC producer, Anne Penman, asked him to do a phone-in gardening show on the local Radio Noon program. He was nervous, and took a lot of persuading.

“I still get butterflies,” he admits as we sit in the quiet of the palm house. When the show went province-wide, says Dave Stephens, someone at CBC asked why it was necessary to have a garden show in winter.

“I said, ‘Would you like to be the one to tell the listeners Ed won’t be on every Monday?'” His audience is intensely loyal and listeners frequently ask when Lawrence is going to write a gardening book (he’s thinking about it).

Secrets of success
His secret is that he talks to each caller one-on-one, as if this was the only person in the room and we, the audience, are just lucky enough to be eavesdropping. And his Columbo-like humility comes through. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question (and it doesn’t often happen), he admits it, and promises to find out. (“How the heck can one person know everything?” he says.)

Best of all, Lawrence – unlike some of the so-called gardening experts on radio and TV who are really fronting for garden centres – always tries to come up with environmentally-friendly solutions that avoid the use of chemicals.

That likeable, low-key quality, in my view, puts him in the same class as David Tarrant, the dean of Canadian TV gardeners (and who has featured Lawrence on his Canadian Gardener show), as well as the late Geoff Hamilton, a British broadcaster who enjoyed a huge following prior to his death a couple of years ago.

Gardening advice
I couldn’t, of course, come away without asking for a few words of gardening wisdom.

· Those post-Christmas poinsettias?
“Grow them on, but, starting in October, expose them to 10 hours of bright light and 14 hours of darkness, plus normal feeding and water, until they set flowers.”

· His advice for timid beginners?
“Just do it! Select something simple — a tree seedling, a few annuals — and then keep going.”

· The main principle of gardening?
“The essence is control. You need to be selective, even in a so-called wild garden,” he says, and know where to locate plants and when and how to prune or cull them.

· And his boss, Madame Clarkson?
“She and her husband are avid gardeners and quite knowledgeable,” he says. “So I’m dealing in plant names in English, French and Latin.”
Knowing Lawrence, it won’t phase him. He always knows the answer. Well, almost always.