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May. 28, 2022 | Saturday
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'Hostaholic' Bruce Cumpson prepares to retire
Bruce Cumpson has had a love affair with hostas for over 30 years. He’s often called a “hostaholic.” He operates Olde Towne Gardens on Lakeshore Road.

NOTL grower is one of Ontario’s best-known Hosta 'collectors'


This is the latest in a sometimes series of stories about NOTL gardeners and growers and what makes them tick.

Bruce Cumpson describes his 30-year obsession with growing and selling hostas as a “hobby that got out of control.”

His Olde Towne Gardens is a small perennial farm and garden centre nestled, almost hidden, among larger tender fruit and vineyards, along Lakeshore at Townline Road.

Drive down the short driveway, past the farmhouse, to the barn and into another world inhabited by hundreds of shade trees and literally thousands of hostas—more than 600 varieties—that thrive in the dappled sunshine of a summery afternoon.

Hostas are one of the most popular perennial plants in North America, often called the friendship plant because it is so easy to divide and share with your neighbours. The large leafy, often sprawling, plants thrive in partial shade and need protection from the heat of the afternoon sun.

Some call Cumpson a hostaholic. Others a hosta whisperer.

Long before the world of hostas became an obsession and a business, Cumpson bought a house on Niagara Street in St. Catharines. As fate would have it, there was a thriving hosta garden on the new property.

“There were more than a hundred hostas,” Cumpson, 68, smiles, remembering the discovery as the start of his hosta odyssey. “I didn’t know what the plant was. I asked my neighbour. I thought it was lettuce or something.”

Cumpson started reading and researching about hostas. He was gradually drawn into the hosta world.

“In those days, almost all hostas came from the States. And were they expensive! I heard about a Hosta Society and joined it. Then I got a life membership.”

In the early 1990s, Cumpson bought his current property, then a peach orchard on its last legs. He was thinking of retiring after a long career with General Motors in St. Catharines, and his dream of a hosta business would help make that happen.

Cumpson is an Old Town boy, through and through, but he has trouble pinpointing his heritage. “Gosh, we’ve been more than 100 years in Niagara, but I’m not exactly sure. I had a great uncle who owned the stagecoach that went from Buffalo all the way to Hamilton.”

“My grandpa was a gravedigger at St. Mark’s. He rang the church bell faithfully every day at noon and five. He let me ride the bell.”

As a boy, Cumpson remembers his father had one great job as a confectionery salesman for Gullion’s Wholesale on Queen Street. He travelled throughout the Niagara Peninsula selling candy to local food and convenience stores.

“So, I got the first Eatmore ever sold. And I got the first Turkish Delight, before anyone else.”

He attributes his love of gardening to his father.

“Dad was a rose man. He had 900 roses on the Lakeshore property. My job was to take care of the roses. I had to hoe them up in the fall.”

His mother was from Nova Scotia and spent 40 years as a nurse at the Niagara-on-the-Lake hospital. “She came up from Nova Scotia with three other ladies to work at the hospital. They stayed in the old nursing residence behind the hospital. The building that was just torn down.”

Cumpson’s family lived on Lakeshore Road, not far from the old rifle range. He attended both Butler and McNab public schools and went on to Niagara District and Kernahan Park High School in St. Catharines.

But school wasn’t really his thing.

In 1970, Cumpson was 17, and the Pillar and Post Restaurant was just taking shape, his father told him to go over and ask the chef for a job.

“So, I walked into the kitchen. The chef told me to come here the next day at 8 o’clock. I was a pot washer. ‘I’ll be here chef.’ ”

Cumpson spent eight years at the Pillar and Post, from kitchen, to dining room and, finally, bar manager. He attributes his ability to connect with his customers to his years at the hotel.

He also got married at the P&P.

That was when he realized he needed a job that provided benefits for his family. He spent the next 30 years at General Motors in St. Catharines, a job he describes as “tough — it just wasn’t for me.”

But he persevered, working his day job and spending nights and weekends with his hostas.

Cumpson describes himself as a collector, just like stamps or hockey cards. Over the years he’s travelled all over North America searching for that one variety he covets.

“My first order from Ohio was $1,100 for 10 hostas — just one stem, no leaves. More than $100 a plant. But those 10 plants became hundreds.”

He’s even had one of his varieties registered with the American Hosta Society. It’s called the Niagara-on-the-Lake. “I own that right now.”

Cumpson doesn’t practise what is called man-hybridizing, creating new varieties by purposefully pollenating varieties, to make new ones.

But he is happy to have the bees do that for him. “I have so many varieties, the bees are hopping.”

Cumpson lives on the farm with Judy, his partner of over 20 years. Together, they have a blended family of four grown children from previous marriages, and two rambunctious grandchildren.

In the early days, Judy helped him run the garden business before he retired from GM in 2008. But now he pretty much does everything himself, often working, after a brief supper, long into the evening.

He admits, he is tired.

The couple had the farm and garden centre up for sale and it just sold this week. They hope new owners will keep the business going.

“I don’t know what I will do if it doesn’t sell as a hosta business. I just keep potting now so I don’t have to think about it.

The transition to their new life is already underway. They are renovating a home on the Niagara Parkway, preparing for the transition.

Cumpson laughs at the suggestion he might not have any hostas in his life after the sale and move happen.

“I’ve got lots to plant. I have got 300 over there (at the new house) already. I’m going to do seedlings. I will do seedlings and sell them at the market in St. Catharines. Setting a table up.”

But he admits leaving his hostas will not be easy. He knows almost all his plants personally, by their formal name.

“I know all about hostas. I’ve done everything from one end to the other with hostas.”

His customers will miss him.

Expert tips for hosta care

Bruce Cumpson, hosta aficionado and owner of Olde Towne Gardens, has some must-dos for would-be hostas gardeners:

  1. The soil is important. The best soil is a sandy loam. So, if you have clay, mix in some sand.
  2. No hot afternoon sun for most varieties. They work best under partial shade from trees.
  3. Beware of slugs. If you have them, get chicken grit to ward them off.
  4. And, finally, feed them with Miracle-Gro – slow release if they are in pots. Chicken manure works, too. But pellets, not raw.