It was early in December on a wind-chilling Saturday afternoon when I dropped in on 77-year-old owner-operator Theresa Tate and her three daughters at East End Garden Centre.
The 1395 Queen St. E. landmark’s walls were decked with seasonal greenery, festive urns, and untold metres of red ribbon, a display worthy of a well-known northern elf’s nod of approval.
While there were no elves of any description in attendance, there were plenty of customers being served by staff members who seemed eager to answer, direct and advise.
But no sign of Mrs. Tate. Not yet.
Inside at the checkout counter two of Mrs. Tate’s daughters, Judy and Nancy, worked the cash as Patches and Mickey—two large, pleasant, spoiled-by-life store cats—casually idled close by.
Over the radio Nat King Cole sang about Jack Frost and chestnuts roasting.
Judy was wearing a multi-coloured snowboard hat (a gift from a customer) and wielded a silver hammer (engaged in no particular activity) as she addressed customers with brusque, but clever repartee.
We were able to converse in fleeting, half-minute intervals between customers.
“Judy’s the creative, but hopelessly disorganized one,” said Nancy, doing a bad job of suppressing a smile. “Wouldn’t you say so Judy?”
“That’s me, I’m all over the place, everywhere at once,” said Judy.
Disorganized perhaps, Judy wields the vast knowledge of a master horticulturalist capable of hammering out any gardening dilemma. And if she’s not able to fix your problem right away, she’ll find out and get back to you.
Nancy is the organizing force, the yin to Judy’s yang. You get a sense that they’re bonded by more than just family ties.
And then there’s Kathy, described by the other two—again with a smirk—as “intense and displaying point-blank honesty.” After an on-the-fly introduction I followed Kathy back through the store, outside, into a vast area of Christmas trees and commotion. There were plenty of customers with plenty of questions.
Point blank? Yes. But Kathy has a smile that could chase away winter. Not that she’d want to, mind you, because Christmas falls just behind the May 24 annuals planting rush as their busiest season.
Whatever the season, these sisters pride themselves in offering a wide selection of climate-appropriate, predominantly area-produced products and unparalleled, knowledgeable customer service.
Everything started back in 1981 when Mrs. Tate and her husband Norman (Tom) cobbled together a collection of disparate trucking, hardware, antique sales, and landscaping interests into a family project that eventually blossomed into East End Garden Centre.
The business outgrew its original digs, the current structure constructed and finished in May 1992 on the same site, sadly only weeks before Norman succumbed to stomach cancer. Pictures still hang inside the store of a proud man standing alongside his family, a dream realized.
Today, three generations are involved in the business which employs upwards of 20 staff during peak seasons.
Back inside, and as if on cue, Mrs. Tate entered the store from the front door with a great deal of clatter – customer in tow – possessing a glance that seemed capable of quickly separating fools from sages.
The matriarch of the clan is a diminutive, beguilingly self-taught entrepreneur who has grown and adapted with a neighbourhood she has resided in for generations. She’s still on the premises every day, doing light jobs, talking with customers, and mingling with her three daughters.
“We learn as we go: growing, adding, and understanding the needs of the area,” she said, modestly. “We’re lucky that our customers know that we care. Each year we run into something new, then go out and learn how to do it.”
“We take pride in giving great service and proper advice and counselling,” she said. “And we’re open all year, not like some of our competition.”
East End Garden Centre is a full-service operation that offers an extensive selection of seasonally-tailored gardening products, plants, trees, tools, soils, fertilizers, and individually designed landscaping and maintenance packages.
But their biggest asset is Mrs. Tate and her daughters.
Get thee to that nursery.