While the rest of us have been shivering in our snowy landscapes, Russell Billings, Director of the Talcott Greenhouse at Mt. Holyoke College, has been busy cooling and slowly warming hundreds of bulbs and other blooming plants coaxing them to a perfect stage of bloom. On Saturday, March 2 the doors of the greenhouse will open to the public to present Primavera, this year’s bulb show featuring glorious tulips and daffodils as well as many plants of the Italian garden, herbs, camellias, oleander, lavender, and box. This year terra cotta Tuscan pots add an extra Italianate touch to the displays.
While we enjoyed a brief period of sun, Billings ushered me into the warm Talcott Greenhouse where the air was fresh and sweet. The room was brilliant with color, banks of cineraria and calceolaria, trays of pale schizanthus with delicate little flowers that I thought looked like tiny irises, as well as those familiar early bloomers, pansies and primroses.
Billings said the week before the show is busy with students and staff moving potted plants out of the working rooms of the greenhouse into the main show room where they will be arranged around a reflecting pool. The brick edged pool is surrounded by a miniature fantasy of fine turf which was grown in flats. “Sometimes we arrange moving water for the bulb show,” Billings said. “People love that, but it is different every year. We have never repeated a theme.”
While it gets very busy in the last weeks before the flower show, Billings said preparations actually begin the summer before. “There is always a theme, and then I order special plants that will work within that theme. We also start to design how to arrange those plants in the greenhouse,” he said.
Billings took me into the carefully temperature-controlled cool greenhouse where the tulips and daffodils are just coming into bloom. Remembering the time mice ate tulip bulbs I was forcing in my basement, I asked if they ever had trouble with critters. He said he has had mice enlarge drainage holes in a pot to get to the bulbs, but a bigger problem is with chipmunks and squirrels who get into the greenhouse during the warmer weather.
All the plants are in beautiful condition, but Billings said they did have trouble with whitefly earlier. He does not like to use poisons in the greenhouse. “Horticultural oil takes care of most of the problems,” he said. When he does have to use something stronger he makes sure it is nothing that requires closing up the greenhouse for longer than four hours.
Billings took me on tour of the slightly steamy tropical and subtropical rooms of the beautiful glass house which was completed in 1899. Here is the permanent collection, which includes orchids, cacti and succulents, ferns, begonias, bromeliads, and aquatic plants. The collection is used for study by the students in biology and ecology classes. “We also give a plant to every incoming freshman, usually a jade plant or aloe. I tell them to water only when the soil is dry. But some students are so conscientious that they water once a week or too generously and the plant dies. I’ve been tweaking the planting mix and I think I have something now that drains really quick and makes the students more successful.” He reiterated advice I have heard from other plants people. More houseplants are killed by overwatering than underwatering.
So what happens to the bulbs and other plants after the show closes down? Billings began his career at Mt. Holyoke over 30 years ago on the grounds crew so he is happy to move some of the plants to locations around campus. Others are sold and some are just given away. “People like the tulips and can’t bear to see them tossed. They put them in their gardens at home, but they rarely survive so we just give those away. At least half of the daffodils will bloom again next year.”
The free Mt. Holyoke Spring Flower Show runs from Saturday, March 2 until Sunday, March 17. Doors are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Groups should call 413-538-2116 ahead of time to make arrangements. The greenhouse is universally accessible.
The greenhouse is located right next to the Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum which is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m and Saturday and Sunday from 1 – 5 p.m. A current exhibit, Albert Bierstadt and the Legacy of Concern, features Bierstadt’s luminous paintings of the American west. The greenhouse and the art museum will give you two different types of experience, but both about beauty of the natural world.
The Lyman Plant House at Smith College is also holding its annual Spring Bulb Show March 2 until March 17. Hours are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. In addition, an exhibit at the Church Exhibition Gallery titled From Petals to Paper: Poetic Inspiration from Flowers will be on view. This display of contemporary poetry inspired by the beauty of nature was created by Janan Scott ’13 and Liliana Farrel ’13, who have both been working in the Smith College Poetry Center for the past two years. The exhibits are free and universally accessible.
Between the Rows March 2, 2013