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Bob Keith, the CBC’s Ontario Gardener, is Dead!
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale

email: art@artdrysdale.com

Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at http://www.artdrysdale.com


March 10, 2002

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Bob Keith while celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary in 1986.
In a letter to the CBC in Ottawa, dated March 9, 1969, Tom Earle, a senior official of the Bank of Canada and obviously a long time CBC listener, spoke of several changes to CBC Sunday morning programmes including this comment: “You have also done things to standard features like Bob Keith, the Ontario gardener. I have always regarded Bob Keith (along with the Bank Rate) as an anchor of civilization. Nevertheless, when he has told me in the past how to grow tuberous begonias, I have never believed him because it never works out that way for me. This morning he told us about it again in a way that suddenly fitted my real life experience. Where begonias were formerly described as organisms having reasonably predictable reactions, I now learn that (a) they like light (b) but do well in shadow (c) like cool (d) but need warmth, and so on. I now believe Bob Keith because I know myself that growing begonias is only possible to seventh sons of seventh sons. Nothing else matters.”
Bob Keith was, for almost 40 years, the CBC’s Ontario Gardener with a 15-minute part in the national network’s then famous Sunday morning programming. His son Robbie tells me Bob began his radio career on February 20, 1944 and he broadcasted 1,986 programmes--the hand-written and later typed scripts are now archived with the Centre for Canadian Historical Horticultural Studies at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton/Burlington. It is interesting to note that in a letter from Ab Kempt (commentator, CBC Farm Broadcast) dated January 28, 1944, Bob was told: “Each script is to be of sufficient length to fill the fifteen minute period allotted, including opening and closing announcements which are written here. That means that your portion of the script should run 14 minutes and 10 seconds.” Just how these scripts were prepared is also fascinating. In the beginning, Robbie tells me that his father and mother would sit at opposite ends of the dining room table with his father writing notes about the topics and ideas he wished to convey to the listeners that week. His wife, Daisy, would re-write them in a more legible fashion so Bob could read them without hesitation, and so they could be timed to the critical 14 minutes and ten seconds each week. Eventually Bob acquired a used wax cylinder dictation machine. He could sit in his study and record the script--to have it typed neatly by a stenographer. And, when a wax cylinder was ‘full’ it was simply a matter of setting the knife-edged portion of the machine to trim off a very thin layer of wax. This left it in perfect condition for the next recording. I hate to say it but I remember seeing several of these machines at my first office job with Canadian Oil Companies (White Rose!) back in the late 50s, but the company was no longer using them. I wish I had saved one from the trash!
Bob’s CBC show was done ‘live’ for over a decade and he was required to go into the studios every Sunday, except twice a year, which two Sundays were the allowed holiday time, but recorded scripts were required. Then with little notice, about 1957, the policy changed and he was told that in future all sessions would be recorded and so early each Thursday morning he went first to the studio and from there to work at the family seed business, Keith’s Seeds, on King St. East in Toronto. 
In Toronto, Bob’s programme was broadcast right here at this frequency (740 on the AM dial) every Sunday morning. Many older CBC listeners will remember that the format changed significantly in the latter years when Bob and ‘Fresh Air’ programme host Bill MacNeil chatted informally about gardening. Bob Keith was not just the Ontario Gardener, but before I tell you about his work in the family business, Keith’s Seeds, let me give you an idea of just who he was.
Born to John and Georgina Keith in Winnipeg in 1910, he grew up in North Toronto attending John Ross Robertson (public) School, and University of Toronto Schools for his secondary education. His post-secondary education was at the Ontario Agricultural College from whence he graduated with a BSA in horticulture in 1932. While at OAC he played football (including on several championship teams) and sang in the annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions. He then worked at OAC for four years (mainly on rose culture) until 1936 when he both married his wife, Daisy Lillian Richards (a 1931 graduate of the MacDonald Institute, then a companion college; now both OAC and Mac are integral parts of the University of Guelph), and moved to England where he studied at Kew Gardens in Richmond (London) for 13 months. Bob and his wife moved back to Toronto in 1937 where he worked in the family business, George Keith and Sons Ltd., noted seedsmen and gardening suppliers, located then at 124 King Street East (now the location of the city’s impressive St. James Park). Bob’s grandfather, George, had started the family business in 1866 at that original location.
Having a nagging urge to have a more extensive garden personally, he moved his home to the very suburban Richmond Hill in 1940. In the early 1950s, the company opened a branch in Thornhill, just south of Richmond Hill, and both locations operated until 1969 when the business was sold; the mailing list bought by Stokes Seeds in St. Catharines and the buildings by others.
I remember buying seed-starting supplies, and flower and vegetable seeds for my garden in the early 50s from Keith’s Seeds, as well as from their competitors, Rennies, right across the street on King Street. I don’t believe I knew Bob until just before I moved to Niagara in 1958 to attend the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture. But I got to know him well during my final year there, and in the early years following my graduation. In front of me as I write this I have the stub of a warranty card for a Silent Yard-Man lawn mower I bought from Bob at Keith’s Seeds on May 30, 1963! It is a model 1010-2; yes I said it is, because I still have the ‘pushmobile’ reel lawn mower. It would still cut grass (if I had any) except for a broken roller support which an over-anxious TV producer broke during a Weather Network shoot a number of years ago! It was called ‘silent’ because it was manufactured to tolerances that required the turning reel be adjusted so that it be only the thickness of a piece of newspaper away from the stationery bed knife. In other words, there was no metal grinding against metal as with other brands, and there was thus much less dulling of the blade. I remember during the 20 years I used it that it worked very well.
In 1969 Bob sold the family business and taught horticulture part time at Humber College. Always active with horticultural societies especially during his broadcasting career, Bob was awarded the Ontario Horticultural Association’s highest award, the ‘Silver Medal Award of Merit’ at the association’s annual conference in June 1979. In 1981, he moved even further north of Toronto, to Orangeville and later was made a lifetime member of that society.
Throughout his life, Bob was interested in all types of gardens and gardening, but roses were his love. He was a long-time member of the Canadian Rose Society, first joining in 1968. By 1969 he was on the board of directors, and served as vice president in a number of years. He was made a Patron of the society in 1981. The work of which he was most proud in the CRS was as an accredited judge. In fact, he was a major force in establishing the judge accreditation standards and procedures for the CRS. Bob judged roses, and virtually all other horticultural/gardening crops at fall fairs and horticultural shows/meetings all across Ontario and much further afield. His own rose gardens first in Richmond Hill and then in Orangeville were part of the CRS’ programme of demonstration rose gardens and he welcomed visitors from near and far over many seasons.
A few years ago the “Robert H. ‘Bob’ Keith Arboretum Educational Programs Endowment” was founded at the University of Guelph with the intent of collecting funds that would be applied to the sponsorship of lectures, workshops and horticultural courses at the U. of G. Arboretum. That endowment is a beneficiary of Bob’s estate. The endowment will soon be able to sponsor individual lectures and one- or several-day lectures and workshops on gardening--likely three or four per year.
Quoting son Robbie in his eulogy, on March 5, “To be with Dad amongst his roses was to sense his continuing awe of this flower. As tight buds unfurled their inner beauty, the judge in him would critically assess each bloom, while the spirit in him marveled at their magnificence.” 

Hail and Farewell from a long-time admirer Bob!

 

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