‘Ottawa’ Ailsa Francis: Beautiful Trees are a Family Business at South Ottawa Nursery
Kennedy Johnston had no intention of joining the family business.
But after years of enduring shoptalk around the dinner table, the stage was inevitably set. In 2001, at the age of 24, Johnston (one of two sons to Joan Johnston and stepfather, Peter Knippel) joined the team at Peter Knippel’s Garden Centre as its general manager and has supplemented his Bachelor of Commerce degree with certification as a horticultural technician. He’s been a fixture at the nursery ever since.
I met with him on a chilly late April day and we talked deciduous trees. A large delivery had just come in and youthful staffers had been unloading, inspecting and sorting them. They were mainly spring-flowering trees (serviceberry, some beautifully shaped Pagoda dogwood and crabapples, in particular the lovely weeping pink-flowered Louisa crabapple) and the next few weeks will see them produce their spectacular displays.
Johnston orders trees both in the spring and fall. The deliveries that arrive late in the season roll leisurely in and are handled by truck drivers who are not rushed and happily warmed by cups of coffee. Johnston says that this helps to ensure their careful handling. Smart man.
In the spring, Johnston visits his southern Ontario tree suppliers and handpicks his stock, taking care to choose attractive specimens with strong leaders (primary stems/trunks) and regular, dense branching. He selects a combination of new hybrids and cultivars (for example, the Regal Petticoat maple, otherwise known as Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Tunpetti’) alongside old favourites like pin oak, ginkgo and sugar maple.
All of the trees at Peter Knippels are sold in containers rather than balled and in burlap. Some are in pots that have holes punched along their sides to ensure good drainage, and are displayed inside larger pots sunk in the ground to allow for easy removal and consistent placement.
Johnston has arranged its tree selection in the parking area according to size so that customers can choose accordingly. Small ones (under 20 to 30 feet tall) like Amur maple or the spectacular Hot Wings tatarian maple (Acer tataricum ‘GarAnn’), river birch, serviceberry and Japanese tree lilac are grouped together, followed by the columnar cultivars of well-known species and then the bigger shade trees.
Each selection is introduced with an identification card so customers can see how the tree will look as it matures. More compact weeping trees are located alongside the shrubs within the garden centre proper and this is where you can find some real gems, like the weeping larch.
Johnston will go out on a limb with trees, especially with the changing climate and shifting tastes. For example, he carries Parrotia persica, an Iranian species in the witch hazel family with great fall colour and an interesting patchy trunk. He also has a soft spot for the Katsura tree, with its outstanding autumn display and delicate heart-shaped leaves. He points out a stunning ornamental crab called Royal Raindrops, which will soon be covered in red-pink spring blooms, cut-leaf purple foliage, diminutive and persistent red fruit and lastly, orange-red fall colour.
Do make a point of visiting this venerable Ottawa nursery this summer to buy your perfect tree and tell them I sent you.
Peter Knippel Garden Centre
Where: 4590 Bank St.
Open: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Contact: 613-822-0383, knippelgardencentre.com