George Sant & Sons Greenhouses: Sowing the Seeds of Family Life
Sants Greenhouses is a sprawling five-greenhouse operation that helps beautify not just southern Ontario but all corners of North America.
Visiting George Sant & Sons Greenhouses on a chilly February day is like discovering the place where spring hides out during the dark months of winter.
The air is warm and moist inside the bright, interonnected greenhouses. Carpets of bright green baby plants stretch out in every direction, destined for nurseries and retailers across North America, either as seedlings or in colourful hanging baskets.
This quietly bustling nursery operation sits on a 100-acre property at the edge of Bolton. Family homes mingle with greenhouses, shipping docks and even an independent seed wholesaler (As Sants has become one of its top Canadian suppliers, a U.S. seed wholesaler has set up an office on site.)
Behind it all is an epic family history that the current generation can trace back to 19th-century Malta – and over years of toil and hardship.
Theirs is a classic Canadian immigration story of starting small and building a life and a family out of hard work and dedication.
Mark Sant is a proud great-grandson of Angelo and Mary Sant, who started it all by leaving Malta in 1917 with a dream of farming in Canada.
Angelo and Mary may not have envisioned just how far their original farming venture would take future generations of their family – but no doubt they’d be pleased.
Mark has written a memoir about the tall tales, laughs and tender moments – and, of course, the all-important first tractor – the Sant family has experienced over the past century.
At 24, Mark is currently manager of the seeding department. With a staff of local and foreign workers, he oversees the very exacting work of starting begonia, dahlia, coneflower and other flower seeds in trays of soil, checking via a new X-ray-style machine to be sure each tiny tray compartment indeed holds a seed, and finally shuttling the trays to one of three sauna-like mist chambers, where the seeds will germinate over a period of a few days.
The week I visit, this soft-spoken Sant is presiding over 5,000 trays of sprouted flowers, each holding 300 to 500 plants. Mark tells me he’s especially fond of the notoriously finicky dahlias precisely because they are not easy to grow.
While he has fancy technology at his fingertips to ensure efficiency and productivity, his love of the difficult may be his most valuable inheritance from his great-grandparents. It’s with them his family story begins.
A Son’s Memoir
by mark sant
The roots of my family were dug into Maltese limestone in 1895. Angelo was my great-grandfather and, in fact, he was born in a cave.
As an iconic image of humanity’s humble beginnings at the dawn of time, it seems appropriate that our family destiny started this way. It’s not as if it was unusual for poor families to make their homes in the rock cliffs of Malta at the turn of the century – Angelo’s mother and father were far from the only ones. The limestone chipped easily enough and rooms could be made to dwell in, making caves the ideal real estate for penniless Maltese families who had suffered through yoyo-ing recessions for a few hundred years.
Angelo was the second eldest of eight children and he never met his youngest siblings before leaving Malta forever.
The merchant navy – referred to as the “fourth service” – enlisted my great-grandfather when he was 12 years old – an age when I was still wearing pyjamas with cartoon characters on them.
He worked as a navy seaman for ten years and then something turned him off the job, namely the First World War. In 1917 he jumped ship in Halifax to make a new life in Canada. He met a Maltese immigrant named Mary Sammut and worked any job he came by, eventually finding prospects just outside Toronto – in an area now paved over by Mississauga. He was 22.
The early years
I’m told those days were hard. The coldest ones seem to stand out most in their memories, as if they’ve still not shaken the freeze. My grandfather George, the third-born whom Mary gave birth to in 1927, recalls being so destitute his mother would send him and his brothers hiking down the snowy railroad in search of coal on the off chance it might have fallen from a train.
Angelo rented farmland and grew vegetables, but the winters were without much income and there wasn’t enough money to keep the woodstove burning all night. My grandfather – or nannu in Maltese – recalls waking up on winter mornings to find frost in the house and a layer of ice over pails of water used because indoor plumbing was still just a pipe dream. It was just one of a thousand little hardships endured every day.
They say Mary was the driving force. It was she who instilled in her sons and daughter the work ethic that has carried this family for generations. She was the one booting the kids out the door at six in the morning to help Angelo with the crops before school. When they got home from school, they had a half hour of rest before they returned to duty in the fields.
I never knew Angelo, but I was fortunate to know my great-grandmother – my nunna – who was blessed to live to 99. I only know her as the sweet, aged, lovely woman who baked Maltese doughnuts, pastizzis (a Maltese ricotta pastry) and macaroni, and who always had cookies at the ready for her 33 great-grandchildren.
I know it was her love and devotion to work and family and unity that has lasted so definitively through my family’s bloodline. Her inherited recipes are still revered like the solemn rituals of some religion.
Mary gave birth to eight children. Nannu describes himself and his siblings as committed go-getters who wanted to help in the fields more than horse around, go to parties or attend too much school. They grew up knowing that when it’s time to work, you work, which was often on the farm.
When the work was done for the day, my nannu would play guitar with his brother Albert on accordion at every hall, centre and party all over Caledon and Vaughan – people were always dancing to their music. When they weren’t biking towns away or camping in the bush or building their own clubhouses and playthings, they always had the simple pleasures I fear my generation can’t ever know.
I’m fourth generation, so I’ve only known us as we are now, a homespun clan that came from nothing and ended up so pleasantly surprised. The values of a simple family are not only still pulsing in our veins, it’s those values that made us a force to be reckoned with in the first place. Love. Solidarity. Hard work. And a knack for multiplying like rabbits.
Angelo, who began and cultivated the seeds of this story, died of emphysema in June of 1964. He never got to see the next chapter. He left behind eight children who had grown up and found their own lives.
At the time of his death, it was George and his brother Frank who remained working on the farm, with Mary still watching them carry on their father’s legacy.
Success came only in fits and starts. Before that it was growing to get by. There was no such thing as a savings account – there was only a jar on the counter labelled “tractor.”
Until 1946 horses did all the work in the field, but then Ford came out with a new tractor. George brought it home with $100 down. Working on his own field and for $1.75 an hour on neighbouring farms, he paid off that tractor in under a year. He continued working as hard as he knew how. He even started using the tractor to dig cellars for people’s homes in the Peel area – a few of which are still there to this day.
A move to the hills, a new crop
George moved from the farm on Richview Sideroad (now Eglinton Avenue) in 1947 and purchased his first plot of land in the hills. It’s the farm on the outskirts of Bolton that continues to run and grow to this day.
Back then, George would wake some mornings just after midnight and drive the Ford pickup down to the stockyard to load manure, working by the light of the moon. Tomatoes, beans, peas, potatoes, eggplant, cabbage – he’d try to produce anything. And once harvested, he’d truck them to the farmers’ market in Toronto at 5 o’clock every morning.
That was where he discovered the demand but lack of supply for bedding flowers.
An unimagined fate was sparked on a whim when he purchased some of the only seeds available in our area at the time – pansies. If he could grow vegetables, he thought, then he could grow flowers. He built wooden hotbeds outside the farmhouse and planted the seeds in the autumn. He was planting pansies in 1955 when his mother came running out of the farmhouse to tell him his wife Audrey had just delivered their first baby boy.
My nannu speaks little of his childhood and maturing years. His memories seem to take on colour only when his children came into his life. It seems the fond focus of an older world – pure unbridled dedication to the children and the family. Nothing else mattered. Of his five sons, my dad, Dan, was the eldest. Then came my uncles Rick, Doug, Jim and Ron.
The boys grew up as only a fledging farmer could raise them. Their property neighboured George’s brother Frank, who, with his own three children, cultivated a farm of his own.
Angelo’s other children, my great-aunt Jean and great-uncles Joe, John, Albert, Charlie and Ed, bought homes in the same area, so all the cousins grew up together. My father and his siblings know that kind of family proximity is a rare gift that shapes a person’s entire life.
They were sometimes rambunctious. My dad would blow out the old man’s transmission and try to get the car fixed before he got home from the cottage in Muskoka.
Teenage hooligan Jim rode his motorcycle down the train tracks to escape a police car chasing him for speeding. One time Rick’s girlfriend Wendy (now his wife) specifically told 10-year-old Ron not to get on her horse, but the minute her back was turned, he was clinging for dear life atop Pokey, galloping full speed down the laneway with Rick and Wendy chasing behind on their bikes.
They haggled for the busted box off a cube van that they thought would make a good ice-fishing hut. They threw themselves into cutting down a tree only to knock out the power lines on the entire street for almost a full cold autumn day. They’d never back down from a race or a brawl.
When my uncles tell these stories, they always have the biggest grins on their faces, but then they often have those grins. We’re a family abounding with young-at-heart fun lovers, raised by George’s eternal creed, “When it’s time to work, you work. When it’s time to play, you play.”
And indeed, whenever there was work to do on the farm, they were all front and centre, tending to the crops and flowers. And every Sunday, all Mary’s children and all her grandchildren met at the farmhouse for dinner as a family.
I’m told my dad was my nannu’s shadow. Just as George as a boy had followed his father, Angelo, Dan followed his old man around like an apprentice.
When it became clear there was a better living to be had in flowers than vegetables, a glass greenhouse was built. It was the first of many, along with smaller, cheaper hoop houses made of plastic sheeting on curved supports.
The harder they worked and the more flowers they sold, the more fun there was to be had in the downtime. Achieving modest success by the mid ’60s, George and Audrey had bought that cottage up in Muskoka. It is their weekend haunt to this day. Up there the kids learned to fish and boat and water ski.
My dad and his brothers and an endless pack of cousins took Kleinburg and Caledon by storm. You either went to school with a Sant or you were friends with one or you dated one or you married one or you saw them burning out the wheels of some hotrod. There was a point in the local hockey league during the 1980s when any given game was essentially Sants vs. Sants.
My father wanted nothing more than to keep on the agrarian tradition. He wanted to grow flowers with his dad the way George had done with Angelo. When I ask him why, he says it was in his blood. It was his dream – he envisioned what could be and what has now come to pass, thanks to him and his brothers.
I see the same commitment and drive in my dad as I see in my nannu. Their children are sacred to both of them. If my dad was too busy working until eight at night and once literally stole a roast pig from a neighbour to feed his hungry children, he did it without shame. (It helped that the neighbour was a forgiving friend.)
The cousins found their respective callings and they somehow covered off every necessary trade – including some in related plant businesses. When a cousin, sibling or parent needed work done, favours were traded. A deck built by the carpenter had his car fixed by the autobody mechanic. The electrician helped his cousin in the flooring business and got his kitchen tiles installed at cost.
George’s and Frank’s sons had your gardens covered, while landscaping cousins, Charlie’s children, planted trees and tended the yard.
Go to a restaurant and someone’s wife or daughter would be your waitress and get you a discount on dinner. The more they networked in the area they gained connections to anything missing. They had their plumber friend and Bob the tire guy for the best deals. When a house or cottage had to be built, it was suddenly a reunion party, and they’d build it downing beers and listening to rock and roll. A horde of family was eventually an army of friends and comrades with nothing ever out of reach when they worked together.
Of my nannu’s siblings, the eldest Joe and the youngest Ed are already gone. Frank at the farm next door died recently of the same disease that took their father. Time marching on is what most prompted me to recount the family story.
The next chapter
It’s now a new chapter, and the business is a sprawling five-greenhouse operation that helps beautify not just southern Ontario but all corners of North America.
I love being part of this. I love the school of history and horticulture that I attend and learn in every day. I love seeing newer and more sophisticated and dazzling technologies introduced, and I love seeing my nannu continue to come and dabble in the business he adores.
It is a time when I can follow in family traditions and work with my father as many of my cousins have gone to work with theirs, a time when I can be having a barbeque with a cousin on my deck and see my grandma pass by on a golf cart, and then hear another cousin cruising around the property on his dirt bike.
I’ll look out across the pond and field and see my father on a tractor playing in the dirt – working late into the evening simply because he loves it. It is a time I can have lunch with nannu and grandma once a week.
It’s a beautiful blessing to know a family as I do.