Difficult Challenges and Great Rewards!

Posted February 25th, 2016 by Nicole Mihalos and filed in Client Stories, Dea Digs, Gardening, Greenhouses
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Clients come with needs and wishes in all shapes and sizes. And sometimes the most challenging are the most rewarding.

In 2010 I was introduced to an exclusive collector client by a landscape architect I met while displaying at the Washington Home and Garden Show. The client was having a unique conservatory built by none other than wonderful Tanglewood Conservatories. But no one involved, even the architect’s firm’s landscape maintenance division, had experience with caring for plants under glass. They knew they needed an uncommon expert. I was that expert for five years.

Bullock_Final Exterior CopyrightClick here to read more about this greenhouse!

At the start, I didn’t know I’d have to call on all my experience, knowledge, creativity, and the occasional miracle to make things happen for this client. Tanglewood worked their magic in creating a beautiful structure. The landscape architect then subcontracted the rest out before I was brought in. Rather than the usual benches, tables, and pots, there were stone beds built (similar to institutional greenhouses) that I would then design and fill.

After consulting with the client, the challenge was to keep plants from multiple climates in a very limited space. I designed an interior landscape I was sure he and his family would enjoy, with lots of unusual and flowering tropicals as well as some which produced fruit. I was asked to incorporate a good-sized lemon tree he’d had which was dying from nematodes. But after some specialized intervention, the tree rebounded and did very well. There was a succulent/cactus bed, an orchid bed, a large tree fern, bananas, angel’s trumpets, and many other wonders. A rock wall was planted with epiphytes and appropriate climbers. A lovely café table and chairs was added in order to enjoy the beautiful space.

The first two challenges to the health of the plants was the heating, which was built into the floor (sort of a modern version of Roman-style), and the automated watering system (which was an outdoor landscaping system tailored to fit the beds). Both were great in theory, but unfortunately terrible in practice. I strongly recommend against such heating systems for built-in beds and also against automated watering for greenhouses housing multiple climate species. While I couldn’t do much about the heating, at least the watering could be done by hand and the automated system shut down. A Horticulturist must combine botany, biology, chemistry, geology, meteorology—well, I hope I’m making the point that it’s an interdisciplinary thing usually resting heavily on experience. It’s one area where you can’t your fake your way—which leads to an important note about contained systems like greenhouses. They just can’t be fully automated if you’re planning on growing several different species. Unfortunately, in a complex, eclectic collection, each plant needs weekly and even daily care. It was clear the collection needed a caretaker and I was asked to come twice a week.

After the first year I learned not to get too attached to the plants, as I was used to in my own greenhouse or that of other clients. This client was ever keen to replace and try new things. We collaborated on various changes many times during my tenure. The bed which originally housed the angel’s trumpets, eventually became the home of various hot pepper cultivars. More edible plants were added, including an avocado which happily bloomed, but because a ‘mate’ had not been provided, there were no avocados. However, there were plenty of lemons, limes, and tangerines.

There were ever-blooming hibiscus, many re-blooming orchids, herbs, and myriad other plants. The bromeliads and miniature vines in the stone wall eventually took it over. I refused to use pesticides as not only were small children frequent visitors, but also because of the animals.  Thank goodness for herpetological skills, because caught reptiles and amphibians were regularly deposited into this burgeoning ecosystem by the client’s children. (I aided in the escape of many natives, like skinks, toads, Eastern Box Tortoises, and frogs). My ‘green’ sensibilities found natural ways to keep pests under control, which included using lady beetles, praying mantises, spiders, and tiny predatory wasps. It worked very well.

Wonderful triumphs, most unknown to the client, came of solving the challenging problems presented by such an eclectic collection. I kept a watchful, preventative eye, which told me when to do things like specialized pruning, root drenches, or move lady beetles from plant to plant in order to target aphids. When the time came for me to leave the tricky care of that unique conservatory to others, I knew how much I would miss it—despite the sometimes stressful challenges.

The ending of that wonderful experience offered an unexpected gift, thanks to that beautiful, solid structure that housed and protected so much life—the chance to connect with Nancy, Alan, and the Tanglewood artisans. Like me, they appreciate the unique, remarkable, and well-crafted, especially when it comes to conservatories and the treasures they might contain.

By Dea Schofield

To view the details about the Greenhouse, CLICK HERE!

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