So, onto working in the Conservatory…
Whilst I was at Hidcote I was asked to select 3 areas of Horticulture that I wanted to focus on during my 4 months at Longwood as a TRIAD Fellow. From a list of 8 I had selected ‘Conservatory Management’, ‘Outdoor Display’, and ‘Horticultural Research’. I was particularly keen to try my hand at gardening inside the famous Conservatory as, aside from my week-long stint on the Palm House at Kew back in December, I had no real experience of gardening under glass. Conservatory Management was my first rotation and I realised very quickly that 5 or 6 weeks here was not nearly long enough to gain what I wanted to from the experience, so I decided to drop Outdoor Display and to reduce my time in Horticultural Research in order to extend my time in the Conservatory.
My first task in the Conservatory, and one which would soon become my favourite, was to assist with one of the display changes in the Orangery, working under Karl Gercens, Section Gardener for the East Conservatory, and Andrew Hemme, Lead Gardener for the Orangery and Exhibition Hall. Working hours in the Conservatory are usually 7am to 3:30pm with a 30 minute break for lunch at 11:30am (I know, early right?), with the Conservatory opening to the public at 9am. Big and somewhat disruptive jobs like display changes are almost always completed in the morning to avoid inconveniencing visitors, or ‘guests’ as Longwood staff prefer to call them, as far as possible.
Next it’s time to plant the new plants – on this occasion Cannas and Pelargoniums. Generally staff and interns work in pairs, with one person unpotting and a second person planting out. That said, although these Cannas and Pelargoniums were removed from their pots, oftentimes plants such as Anthuriums are planted in their pots as they will be used again in future planting displays.
Talking of planting the low-growing plants at the front of the borders are planted using triangulation for a picture-perfect finish.
Speed – without sacrifice to neatness – is of the essence with display changes here. I remember a Longwood guest asking me where I had come from and, on hearing that I had previously worked in National Trust gardens, commenting that ‘this must be a change of pace’ for me. Initially I was offended – we work hard at the National Trust too – but I have to admit that the pace here is perhaps a little faster than it is back at home. I’m a pretty ‘neat’, detail-oriented person so it took a little while to pick up the pace of planting without diminishing the quality of planting but once I’d got the hang of it I rather loved working under the time pressure.
Once all the plants were in, we collected up the mats, gave the paths a quick sweep and, voilà, the axis was finished…
As I mentioned in my previous blog the planting alongside the paths in the Orangery and Exhibition Hall is continually modified to keep it looking dazzlingly fresh and colourful at all times – oftentimes the planting along one axis will be entirely or partially replaced after only 3 or 4 weeks in the soil.
Having spent 5 years with the National Trust where ‘peat-free’, ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘cost efficiency’ underpin all horticultural practice I have to say that the frequent changeovers were a bit of a shock – but then who says a little shock to the system need always be a bad thing! I found the planting displays here in the main conservatory dynamic, beautiful and inspiring – and a refreshing change from the ‘traditional’ and seasonal planting schemes I’m used to seeing in heritage gardens back home in England. Not that I don’t enjoy and appreciate these too of course (I do), but part of the point of undertaking the TRIAD Fellowship is to see and experience new horticultural ideas and practices and to compare and contrast these to what you already know and are familiar with. Obviously I am comparing the planting in a Pennsylvanian glasshouse with that outside in the UK, and in any case in a heritage garden setting there is a historical precedent for much of what is planted, but the planting schemes at Longwood left me wishing there was a little more space for experimentation back home.
Many of the plants that we planted out in the Orangery and Exhibition Hall I was very familiar with – Anthuriums, Argyranthemums, Cannas, Digitalis, Fuchsias, Hydrangeas, Pelargoniums, Petunias and Plectranthus are all fairly commonplace in National Trust gardens. However, there were many beautiful cultivars here which I had not come across before.
Then there were lots of plants which I was entirely unfamiliar with or had only really seen used as houseplants back home in the UK.
I even learnt to like one of my least favourite plants, begonias, as I had to admit that they looked rather splendid aside the paths in the Orangery.
As well as taking part in display changes at ground level there were also displays to change out overhead in the form of the large balls of plants suspended above the Exhibition Hall Floor, the Orangery Lawns and inside the main entrance.
When I first arrived at Longwood Gardens cobalt-blue Hydrangeas stole the show in the Exhibition Hall.
One of the jobs I was given from time to time was to take part in the daily watering of these.
The hanging plants are produced onsite by the Longwood Production team. The rootballs of the plants are set within a spherical metal framework, and the entire thing covered thickly in Sphagnum moss and bound tightly. At the top of each ball a plastic plant pot roughly 2 litres in size is inserted to act as a reservoir for the water.
Before too long it was time for the Hydrangeas to be removed and replaced with a pretty pink and green mixed planting of Tradescantia and Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’.
I didn’t get to take part in that particular changeover but I did get to help Andrew move the Tradescantia balls from the Orangery to the main entrance and replace these with Fuchsia. Staff in the Conservatory are fastidious with regards to health and safety (especially Karl) so it was hard hats all round with this particular task.
Returning to the subject of watering, you might be interested to see where the hoses are kept in the Main Conservatory and in the other parts of the original 1921 conservatory – under the floor! Pierre du Pont was something of an innovator and when the conservatory was constructed it was built with a network of tunnels beneath to facilitate under-soil heating and hidden reels of hosepipe. The hoses are concealed beneath a small metal disc; a metal cap on the end prevents the end of the hose from falling down into the tunnels. To water, the hose is extended and the cap removed and replaced with a watering lance (or ‘wand’ as the Americans prefer to call it). Two small holes adjacent to the hose pipe conceal the valves for water and fertiliser, whilst in some places a third valve enables the water to be directed to a number of the baskets instead.
Not all of the baskets can be watered in this way – most have to be watered by hand, using a ‘shooter’ on the end of the lance to direct water into the sunken plant pot at the top. It takes a little while to get the hang of the technique and to control the water flow; most people end up shooting the ceiling on their first attempt!
Watering at ground level is challenging in its own way too, even with the assistance of the concealed hoses. The plants in the borders in the Main Conservatory often have different watering requirements, so it’s never a simple case of watering every plant every day. Some plants also intensely dislike overhead watering (anyone fancy deadheading Petunias after a heavy downpour of rain?) while others appreciate the cooling effect of the water on their leaves. The Pennsylvanian climate presents a challenge too. It’s exceptionally hot and humid throughout most of the summer months, and sometimes the plants struggle no matter how much care and attention they are paid. I remember returning to work on a Monday morning after a particularly hot weekend to find the Hibiscus beneath the windows on the South East walkway almost entirely devoid of leaves. The few leaves which did remain on the plants were a distressingly bright shade of butter-yellow.
At Longwood though there is always a backup plan to keep a planting scheme alive and kicking for the entire duration of its time in the Conservatory! In such circumstances production are often contacted and asked to deliver a particular crop in advance of its scheduled planting date. This is what happened in the case of the Hibiscus, which we had no choice but to replace. On another occasion the Pelargoniums on the North West walkway had become yellow-leaved and a little leggy at their base in response to the weather. As they were still flowering well the Pelargoniums were not replaced but instead interplanted with Plectranthus to conceal their distress.
Attention to detail is high in this part of the Conservatory (which I think is why I particularly enjoyed working here) so tasks such as deadheading are often more involved than they might be elsewhere. Individual flowers are plucked from the inflorescences of plants including Cannas and Digitalis and the flower stalk only removed as a very last resort. I don’t think Andrew will ever forget the day he asked me to ‘deadhead’ the Digitalis on my first day…