Ed Lawrence Talks Retirement, Connecting With Listeners, And Cozy In The Garden

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Ed Lawrence is online to talk about his recent retirement and I already know my first question. It’s a question I’ve wanted to ask him for years.

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« I have a 30 year old miniature orange tree that I grew from seed… »

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Lawrence laughs, listens, then dispenses advice as tenderly and empathetically as a doctor in a neonatal intensive care unit.

“He wants and absolutely needs light,” he begins in that voice so familiar to gardeners. « Light, light, light… »

For the next 10 minutes, Lawrence makes me feel like my miniature orange tree is the most important plant in the world – which it is.

« Send me a picture, » he adds, with the sincerity of a doting grandfather on his grandson’s first day of school.

For 40 years, Lawrence shared his gardening know-how with the Green Thumbs and Brown Thumbs on CBC Radio’s midday phone show. Pulling back from this, as he did on August 29, was not easy.

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« It was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life, » says Lawrence, who turns 72 next month. “There was some resistance. There were pleas. But when the decision was made, the decision was made.

“There are young people who are qualified and they also need a chance to do things. How do they stand a chance if I cling again and again? Setting a target of 40 years seemed fair.

Lawrence was born in Toronto, one of nine children, and studied horticulture and landscaping at Humber College. He found a job in Ottawa after graduating from the greenhouse at Rideau Hall. After a few years in Orangeville as a co-partner in a landscaping company, Lawrence returned to Ottawa permanently in 1977 to work for the National Capital Commission at Rideau Hall and Governor General Jules Léger.

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One of his first tasks was to prepare flower arrangements for Queen Elizabeth on her Silver Jubilee tour.

« Madame Léger said, ‘Her Majesty is going to wear pink so let’s see what you can do with pink,' » he recalled.

Lawrence brought a selection of flowers from the Rideau Hall greenhouse and outside suppliers.

« Which are we going to use? » He asked. « All, » replied Leger.

Although royal visits and state dinners have added pressure, the standards at Government House have remained the same.

“There is only one standard of service at Rideau Hall and it is excellent,” he says. « It didn’t matter if you were the queen or someone receiving a medal for bravery. »

Lawrence began answering calls on CBC in 1982, initially for just one week in August. He was so nervous that he wore baggy pants to hide his wobbly knees. A producer gave advice he never forgot.

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« She said, ‘You can relax in there. Everyone encourages you. They want you to be good. So take that energy and turn it around. Send it back to them.

Lawrence retired from the NCC in 2006, the same year his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She only lived for months. Nearly 15 years later, Lawrence vividly describes encounters with doctors and treatments during this dark time. His death left him destitute.

Gardening guru Ed Lawrence, has retired after 40 years working with CBC call-in shows.  Photographed in his own garden at his home in Almonte.
Gardening guru Ed Lawrence, has retired after 40 years working with CBC call-in shows. Photographed in his own garden at his home in Almonte. Photo by Julie Olivier /Postmedia

« For four months that was all I focused on and then one night it was over, » he says. “I was a bit confused. I was surviving, not thriving.

During his wife’s illness, Lawrence let the farm where they lived become overgrown. It took a while, but he returned to his CBC show, to speaking engagements for a book he’d written — and to his garden.

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“When you do something you love, it’s not like working. It was something I was used to and kind of healing,” he says.

“Finally, life goes on. It’s something you see in gardening. It’s not that you’re not mourning the loss of someone. It is a case that it is part of a natural cycle. We see him in the garden. It happens every year and we don’t practice it.

At the age of 40, Lawrence was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. You can feel it in his enthusiasm for his subject – and in the tension of his co-host trying to wrap up a discussion about plants before a mandatory break from the station.

“I could go on forever. I cannot be silent,” he said.

« He (ADD) wasn’t known as such when I was a kid – you were just a boring kid, » he joked. “But it was also a plus because gardening is a solitary activity. If you don’t believe me, look around when it’s time to get some work done in the garden. You’ll think, ‘Where did all the help go?’

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Lone chase or not, Lawrence’s Monday call show has attracted a community of thousands of loyal gardeners who tune in weekly. After giving advice, he would often urge people to report on the condition of their plants. Often they did.

« They were calling back and describing the call and I really remembered it, » he says. « They were like, ‘Do you really remember or are you just being polite?’ But I remembered. It surprised me sometimes.

« Having people phone and talk about the plants was really special, » he says. “Someone might say, ‘This tree was planted by my father and I killed him.’ And I would say, « Plant morning glories at the base and they’ll grow up on it. » You will still have the tree and you will have flowers on it.

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“Empathy is the big thing. A lot of times we don’t think about that. But it’s there,” Lawrence says.

« When we were talking about your orange tree, you were talking about something really personal, a real connection with a plant. It’s something I can identify with. It’s something I’ve worked with all my life. my life. I listen and think, ‘What are you saying?’ You may not know what the problem is. It’s my job. But in sharing there is a connection. And it’s really special.

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