April 1, 2011

A week at Longwood: Dateline fall 2010


A busman's holiday anyone? That's exactly what I did this past fall when I spent a week touring, visiting and volunteering with staff at the world-renown Longwood Gardens in southern Pennsylvania, about an hour west of Philadelphia. Longwood Gardens was the home of Pierre DuPont (of DuPont chemical company fame) who created this pleasure garden over 100 years ago. Today, Longwood controls over 1,077 acres, complete with conservatories, greenhouses, display gardens, fountains, meadows, woodlands and sunflower fields.

Longwood is actively involved in plant and environmental research and educating the next generation of horticulturalists. Indoor displays of orchids, bonsai, palm trees, tropical rain forest and more are open year-round to the public. The conservatory also hosts special seasonal displays, such as a chrysanthemum show in the fall, and poinsettias before Christmas. Outdoor display gardens are also open year-round, but really reach their peak in the summer, with collections of tropical water lilies, topiary, fountains, fireworks and outdoor concerts. One of the most intensively planted and colourful display gardens is the 600-ft. Flower Garden Walk. On each side of this brick walkway are deep borders of flowers planted in such a way so as to mimic the colour spectrum. Starting with violet at one end of the walkway, you pass through blues, yellows, oranges and reds as you stroll along. This pattern is achieved in spring with bulbs, followed by annuals in summer and then coloured foliage and chrysanthemums in the fall.

After tasting some of the pleasures of this garden on a brief visit to Longwood four years ago, I vowed to return and do a proper tour of the gardens. That time came for me this past fall, when I made arrangements to spend a week at Longwood as a volunteer and visitor.  During that week, I had the opportunity to spend some time with different gardeners and their specialties. Throughout my stay, I was constantly amazed at the effort by these folk to make me feel welcome and to share their knowledge. Clearly, the educational part of their mandate is something they take very seriously.

Day1: Orchid day
I spent the morning with the head gardener responsible for the 1,200 sq. ft. permanent orchid display. Every day, she and her staff manicure the orchids in the public part of the greenhouse. Orchids past their prime are replaced Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with those from the production houses that are in peak bloom. The rest of their time is spent in the production house, repotting, propagating, and otherwise caring for the 8,500 back-up orchids required to maintain a display of 300 to 500 blooming orchids year-round.

Following my orchid tour, I spent a number of volunteer hours in the afternoon working on the largest living wall in North America. The 3,590 sq. ft. living wall lines the hallway of a new addition to the East Conservatory, housing unique dome-topped washrooms.  The living wall is constructed of 12 x 12-in. square stainless steel panels. Each panel is filled with a proprietary mix of growing media, which includes three inches of coconut coir matting. Each panel is planted in one of 29 different configurations using a selection of ferns and other low-growing tropical species. The panels were planted and grown on in Florida; once the construction at Longwood was complete, the panels were carefully shipped north and snapped into place on the 14-ft. vertical wall. Each panel is watered by trickle irrigation tubes hidden in track supports on the wall. As a volunteer, I spent a number of hours cleaning dead leaves off the newly installed panels. The wall was officially opened to the public the week after I left.

Day 2: Wildflowers and compost
Surrounding the intensively-gardened heart of Longwood are acres of fields, bush, wildflower meadows and other work areas. Far from the prying eyes of the public, cafeteria waste (including biodegradable cutlery, plates and glasses), garden waste and manure from local farms are combined in a process to produce finished compost that is used in the garden's flowerbeds. On Day 2, I participated in planting tall-growing native grasses around the compost area, both to help stabilize the sloping sides of the facility and to naturalize the vegetation in the area.

Following this, I visited a managed wildflower meadow which was a former agricultural field allowed to establish naturally from self-seeding. Woodlands surround the meadow and a large tree house tucked into the edge of the woodland offers a panoramic lookout on the meadow. Invasive sumac patches are held in check by judicious mowing.

After cleaning up from my planting experience, I gave a noon-hour talk to Longwood's gardeners, staff and students about the University of Guelph and my experiences with horticulture in Ontario. My mention of the cosmetic pesticide ban in Ontario caused many in the audience to raise their eyebrows. Apparently this mindset has not yet reached Pennsylvania.

Day 3: Mt. Cuba Centre
While in the Longwood area, called Brandywine Country in the tourist brochures, take the opportunity to visit some of the other gardens nearby that are open to the public. On my last trip, I visited the Mt. Cuba Center, in Delaware, just across the border from Longwood. This garden and research centre has guided tours of its gardens and focuses primarily on the horticultural use of native plants from the Appalachian piedmont. This is an inspiring site for those wanting ideas about native plant gardening (www.mtcubacenter.org).

Also, nearby in Delaware is Winterthur Gardens. I saw this garden four years ago in the spring when the woodland garden was carpeted with a sea of blooming spring flowers. More information about this garden and its accompanying museum can be found at www.winterthur.org.

I also visited Chanticleer, between Longwood and Philadelphia. The word whimsical has been used to describe this garden. Manor houses, ruins and garden sculptures combine with plants to create awe-inspiring vistas and sometimes amusing vignettes (www.chanticleergarden.org).

The Morris Arboretum is in the suburbs of Philadelphia. This site is now run by the University of Pennsylvania and amongst other things, features specimens of the first dawn redwood introduced to North America, and an incredible selection of ferns in a very humid greenhouse (www.morrisarboretum.org).

Day 4: Thousand bloom chrysanthemum, and more
Longwood Gardens is known for decorating its conservatories in the fall with incredible displays of chrysanthemums. My visit happened to coincide with some of the final preparations for these chrysanthemum displays, and I was allowed behind the scenes to tour the preparations. I got to see how the giant mum carpet wall hangings and topiaries are created. A critical part of the process is patience, nimble fingers and perseverance. Fifteen months can pass between starting a mum cutting and the final mum display.

In recent years, Longwood has been perfecting the Japanese chrysanthemum training style of the 'Thousand Bloom.' This involves training a single chrysanthemum plant into a tree that has hundreds of perfect blooms. This training can take 18 months and involves pinching the plant many times to encourage branching and re-branching. The branches are supported with fibreglass and metal rods hidden within the foliage. The back of each bloom is supported with a wire disc, which is installed when it is still in the bud stage. When the blooms open, this disc forces the bloom face out in a perfect position. The 2010 version of the Thousand Bloom chrysanthemum had 991 blooms and an overall diameter of 11 ft. Each year the mum specialist at Longwood has been able to increase the bloom number as she develops her skill. A record of 2,220 blooms on a single plant was achieved in Japan.

I left the mum training facility to tour the research and production greenhouses at Longwood. On my tour, I learned that Longwood is involved in many projects, some of which may have an impact on horticulture in Canada. Globally, canna lilies are under attack by at least three different viruses. Longwood is looking into tissue culture and seed production to clean-up propagation material. Other projects include camellia breeding to lengthen the bloom period and increase hardiness, breeding and production of yellow clivia and the introduction of new exotics. Longwood Gardens was instrumental in the early introduction of New Guinea impatiens as a horticultural crop.

Day 5: Education
My last day at Longwood got off to a wet start, as a tropical storm tracking up the east coast caused flooding, and bridge and road closures. By the time I reached Longwood that morning, I had missed some of my appointments. However, I did get to learn about the educational opportunities available at Longwood, starting in kindergarten, and going through to grad school and opportunities for professional gardeners to increase their skill base. Internship programs of three and 12 months are also offered to college and university students. Both the professional gardening programs and internships are tuition-free and housing may be included as well; Canadians are invited to apply for these positions. Visit www.longwoodlearning.org to find out more about these opportunities.

At the end of the week, I began my long drive back to Ontario. I left Longwood with fond memories, newfound friends, and of course, a desire to go back and see the gardens again, perhaps this time in another season. When and if this happens, I know I shall be warmly welcomed (www.longwoodgardens.org).
Rodger Tschanz is the Trial Garden Manager for the University of Guelph in Ontario. For information on the U. of G. Trial Gardens, visit www.plant/uoguelph.ca/trialgarden