Mount Holyoke's Talcott Greenhouse getting the credit it deserves

This article was originally published in the January 13 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Gazette Contributing Writer

The recent frigid weather has finally given gardeners and flower lovers a taste of real winter. As we peruse seed catalogs and study gardening books we yearn for a bit of color and fragrant flowers to brighten the dark days.

Walk into Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley and breathe in the pungent smell of moist earth, the sweet fragrance of orchids and the bright flowers of cyclamen, jasmine and loropetalum. You enter through the head house, the working heart of the greenhouse complex where you probably will find a staff member sowing seeds or repotting an overgrown plant.

Until recently Talcott Greenhouse was an unsung horticultural gem in the Valley, playing reluctant second fiddle to the highly publicized and larger Lyman Plant House at Smith College. However, last fall the Massachusetts Horticultural Society recognized the 30 years of work at Talcott by the greenhouse manager, Russ Billings, awarding him a silver medal.

"We take pride in our plants. At least I do," Billings said last week as we strolled through greenhouses filled with tropical plants.

Billings succeeded John Walker as greenhouse manager 30 years ago. He oversees a staff of one full-time person, two part-timers, two work-study students and a few volunteers. Billings trained as a master gardener with the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association as did his two part-time staff people. They also maintain the surrounding outdoor gardens, especially since former botanic garden director Ellen Shukis retired 18 months ago and hasn't been replaced.

Talcott is half as large as Lyman Plant House, but it still covers 6,000 square feet in several rooms. From the street you can see bright red and pink cyclamen in full bloom in the cool production house where pansies, cineraria, freesia, primroses and ipheion are being grown for the Annual Spring Flower Show that opens March 3. The bulbs themselves are still down in the greenhouse basement until later this month.

Each greenhouse room provides a different condition for a wide palette of plants from desert cacti in one area to warmth-loving, humidity-craving orchids in another. The biggest room was built with funds from the Talcott family in the late 19th century so the entire complex is named for them.

Each year, in the small research room used by the biology department, Billings sows peas that professors will use in class. "They want 'Little Marvel' and 'Alaska' sown in two rows of three seeds in 4-inch pots," Billings said. While he gets students to fill the pots with soil, he sows the seeds himself. "We do 1,500 to 2,000 plants," he reported.

Students also use the greenhouses for research. One student deposited a dozen tea plants from a North Carolina nursery with Billings just before Christmas. "She's going to collect the leaves and try to brew tea," he explained. Like most of us, Billings was surprised to realize that tea comes from a member of the camellia family, C. sinensis.

Each fall, Billings and his staff pot hundreds of houseplants to give to first-year students. They provide an assortment of plants from which students can choose: spider plants, jades, aloes and Swedish ivies. "Next year I'm thinking of trying asparagus ferns," he said.

Billings tells the novice growers they can bring their plants back for repotting when necessary. However, employees don't baby-sit the plants over vacations or summer break. "The best part of it is when they come in as seniors and brag about how they have kept the plant going for four years," he said.

Daily challenge

Maintaining thousands of plants with varied growing needs is a daily challenge, Billings acknowledged. Just watering them all is time-consuming. On a hot day some plants may need a drink two or three times - something that is done by hand at Mount Holyoke. Billings says his first chore every morning is to turn on the hoses and check the plants. Then he fills up the green watering cans kept by the hoses.

Spraying for insect pests is an ongoing chore. "Mealy bugs," he said with a groan. These fluffy white insects are a major problem in greenhouses and very difficult to eradicate. "I use biological stuff," he said. "What I use most is horticultural oil ... I do use Safer's soap a bit but it smells like a locker room for a week after I use it."

One side benefit of horticultural oil is "the plants get a nice shine on the leaves," Billings noted. He always uses it just before the bulb show opens.

The first greenhouse we toured last week is the succulent room. With the help of volunteer Jimmy Grogan, Billings has spent the past year refurbishing this area.

"Jimmy recommended a cactus soil mix," he said. Grogan also suggested adding Soil Perfector by Espoma as an amendment to keep the mix aerated. Billings replaced all the pebbles that line the benches for drainage after watering. All the soil mixes and stones came from Hadley Garden Center.

Repotting a cactus, even a small one, is a nasty job. Billings pointed out a very large golden barrel cactus with thousands of sharp spines they repotted last summer.

"We wrapped one of our big poly tarps around it in many layers," he said. "That's the last time I'm doing that plant." It will continue in the cactus house until it needs repotting in a few years. Then it's curtains for that huge plant.

As we headed back through the show house to the tropical greenhouses, I noticed many tiny maidenhair fern seedlings poking out of nooks and crannies. Billings noted that some orchids that prefer cool conditions live here. Cymbidiums, the corsage orchid, were just about to burst into bloom. He said when they finish flowering the bigger ones will need repotting. One of them probably has been in the same pot since he started work there 30 years ago.

Apples and grapes

The show house will be the site of the Annual Spring Flower Show from March 3-18. This year, Billings said, the theme will be "Cider and Wine," so he has small apple trees and grapevines in cold frames outside the greenhouses waiting to be forced for the show. The plants came from Amherst Nurseries just over the Notch.

Among the herbaceous plants to be displayed for the show are seed-grown pansies. "I love pansies. They are so cheerful," Billings said. He gets double duty from his flats of pansies by planting them in containers around campus after the flower show.

In the tropical greenhouses you can't miss the enormous cycads in the center. Billings said he pruned them just before Christmas, one of his least-favorite jobs. "I do it on a cold day when I can wear lots of clothes," he said. The huge palm-like fronds are thorny, he explained, and he gets an allergic reaction to them so he wears leather gloves for the project. Cycad leaves don't decompose very well. "Five years later they are just the same." Now he puts them in the trash instead of the compost bin.

Mount Holyoke's orchid collection is quite eclectic, in part because the late Fred Morse of Northampton bequeathed his orchids to Talcott Greenhouse. Morse grew hundreds of orchids on glass shelves in the windows of his tiny apartment.

Grogan, who is an orchid expert and soon to receive his master gardener certificate, was working with the orchids the day we visited.

"Smell this," Grogan said, taking down a small plant strapped to a slab of tree fern. "It has a very fine subtle fragrance." The stalk of pale lavender flowers (Laelia rubescens) did indeed have a lovely scent. Another plant "looks like grass," he said, but has tiny flowers in abundance. Grogan said when he began growing orchids the first to flower for him was a Zygopetalum with a striped lip of lavender flowers. It had two spikes in flower last week.

Nearby is a Coelogyne pandurata or black coelogyne, which Grogan said is very famous. The lip of its flower is actually black and orchid enthusiasts thought they had found a black orchid. It should be blooming soon so look for it in the orchid house near the stairs to the large conservatory.

It's a jungle in here

The biggest greenhouse room holds a variety of plants in a jungle-like atmosphere. I loved the white jasmine (Jasminum rex) with large white flowers.

"Unfortunately it doesn't have a fragrance," Billings noted - and I had to acknowledge it would be miserable in my cold house. One of his favorites is Clereodendrum quadricolare, a large plant with an umbel of white and pink flowers.

He said it hadn't bloomed for several years until he moved it to the north side of the greenhouse. Now it is happy and he is trying to propagate it but has been frustrated so far. "I'll get it," he promised.

Keeping greenhouses at a proper temperature in our climate is a daily challenge, Billings said. Some cold mornings when he arrives there is frost on the inside of the glass panes in the conservatory. When the sun warms the glass, the frost melts. "It drips on your head like it's raining inside."

The greenhouse is located off Park Street near Stony Brook before you cross the bridge to the Willits-Hallowell Center. There is limited parking outside the greenhouse but ask for a parking permit when you go inside. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 1 to 4 p.m. on weekends. Admission is free but donations are accepted. For information, call 538-2116.