Green Thumb, All Heart

A typical day for Nishan Kooner of 10 and 10 Garden Centre revolves around helping customers find the right plants – all while raising funds for Ukraine.

June 24, 2022 | | Back Issues

Nishan Kooner, the busy co-owner of 10 and 10 Garden Centre, spends his days sorting plants and hanging baskets and fielding gardening questions, but admits during these past few months his primary endeavour – helping save pet or stray cats and dogs (and the odd zoo animal) from war-torn Ukraine – is never far from his thoughts.

“I just want to be back in Ukraine,” says Nishan with a wistful look in his eyes. He spent two weeks there in March with Breaking the Chains, a U.K.-based animal rescue operation. During that time, the former carpenter put his skills to use building emergency kennels, along with living quarters for the other volunteers.

Although spring is the busiest time at the Mono garden centre (the month of May accounts for one-third of the year’s sales), it doesn’t compare to his 18-hour days in March, extracting the animals and bringing them to safety in Romania. This often required the rescuers to sleep in trucks at the side of the road. “It was extreme, but every hour we worked meant more animals saved. Faced with that reality it was hard to take a break.”

Nishan Kooner runs 10 and 10 Garden Centre in Mono – although these days his animal rescue and humanitarian work in Ukraine are never far from his mind. Photo by Rosemary Hasner / Black Dog Creative Arts.

Nishan is home on this day for a few weeks before a third trip to Ukraine in June. He also returned there in April with a group he pulled together, adding humanitarian aid to his work.
Nishan’s longing to be back in Ukraine is tinged with remorse for the extra work it means for his garden centre co-owners, mom Asha, dad Jasbir and wife Chantel Ramnanan. “They’ve been so supportive. There’s no way I could do it without them.”

Here’s a look at a day in the life for Nishan while he preps for his next journey.

8 a.m. Nishan rolls out of bed and grabs an apple for breakfast. In spring and early summer, the garden centre is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., often later. Others are already greeting customers while Nishan starts his work on supply and inventory. The family lives on the property, which means the commute is convenient, but it is hard to separate personal time from work life. Asha and Jasbir bought the spot in the spring of 2011 and started running the 10 and 10 Driving Range and Mini Putt. Nishan helped build the original greenhouses and their wood shelves a year later. New, larger greenhouses were finished in 2019.

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  • 9 a.m. Chantel, who oversees the retail side of the business with Asha, guides a customer with a question about a dying tree over to Nishan. He refers the customer to a nursery that can supply a mature replacement tree.

    Although he trained as a carpenter, growing things is in Nishan’s blood. Both sets of his grandparents were farmers, in Dunnville and Caledon. Nishan, who grew up in Caledon, learned to grow vegetables from his grandparents while his parents focused on professional work – Jasbir in banking and Asha in quality assurance for a large company. “It’s nice to get back to growing food here. We produce several vegetables sought after by the Asian and Indian communities – like bitter melon. We grow over 30 varieties of peppers.”

    10 a.m. Nishan wanders over to see Asha, hard at work with the annuals and hanging baskets in the greenhouse. “They’ve become our specialty,” Nishan says. “We grow most onsite, which allows us to offer a good price.” The team produces about 4,000 baskets every spring. Soon it will be closer to 15,000 with the family’s plans to expand the centre to four times its current size, taking over space in the agricultural field behind the current location (expect a pumpkin patch and rows of vegetables there, too). “We’ve been practising for 10 years. We’re ready to grow.”

    11 a.m. Nishan enjoys a quiet laugh with Chantel. The two are often featured in the business’s social media thanks to a dedicated social media manager – one of seven core team members. The garden centre also hires 10 seasonal workers to get through the busy time from May to the end of June.

    “Working in a greenhouse is tough,” Nishan says. “A lot of people think it’s their dream job. We give them a one-week trial because we know the conditions are extreme – it can feel like 40C and it’s a sweatbox. Not everyone lasts the week or even the day. It’s not all talking to plants or wandering through the garden.”

    Lest plant lovers be dissuaded, Nishan does have career advice for the next generation. “If you take postsecondary training in horticulture, you’ll be able to find a great job, no problem. This industry is absolutely booming and there are just not enough skilled workers.”

    12 p.m. Lunch break. When it’s busy, the team relies on takeout. Their favourites include Orangeville’s RJ’s Taste of Asia and Curry Mantra – both of which accommodate Nishan and Chantel’s vegan diets. Nishan also appreciates how active both restaurants are in the community. It makes sense that those establishments’ charitable deeds strike a chord with him; other businesses are often in awe of how much 10 and 10 Garden Centre donates.

    “They say we’re doing it wrong and, yes, it hurts the bottom line, but we take what we need to live and run the business. We’re happy to share some of what’s left over.”

    About three-quarters of their donations – some from special sales and events in the greenhouse – usually go to animal rescue outfits including Silver Willow Farm Rescue in Mansfield, GLO Farm Sanctuary in East Garafraxa, National Wildlife Centre and Procyon Wildlife in Beeton, although Ukraine is the focus for now.

    This outreach and fundraising are Nishan’s passion. He is also often the voice of the company, answering email, Facebook messages and the phone. That means a lot of his work can be done remotely, a plus when he returns to Ukraine.

    1 p.m. The garden centre’s mascot, Rockwell the Rooster (a rescue), strolls by. A donor gives Nishan an item for a silent auction for Ukraine; the team secured $16,000 in a March auction and plans to do several more. After chatting with the donor, he offers warm thanks.

    2 p.m. Nishan answers a call about gardening services. That’s not something offered by 10 and 10, but Nishan takes the time to make referrals, all in the name of community. “The best part of this job is the people. We couldn’t do what we do here anywhere else. This community is absolutely amazing.”

    3 p.m. to 8 p.m. The afternoon flies by in a blur. Sometimes equipment fails and needs repairs. Because managing inventory falls under Nishan’s purview, he’s often dealing with supplier shortages, fallout from the Covid pandemic. “It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s been a nightmare. There have been so many problems and prices have risen by 30 to 40 per cent.”

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  • A key part of the business is indoor and tropical plants, and Nishan has become a collector himself. “My favourite is the rare, variegated ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), featuring some white leaves. I have three and I’m not selling – established plants like mine are pricey!”

    It’s a hobby he enjoys at the end of a workday, which in early summer is only a brief interlude between staggering back home for dinner and heading to bed. (Nishan and Chantel have also been known to host friends after hours in the greenhouse when time allows.)

    From providing a haven for animals rescued from Ukraine to nurturing rare plants, Nishan’s passion for living things is intense – and energizing to witness.

    About the Author More by Janice Quirt

    Janice Quirt is a freelance writer who lives in Orangeville.

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