Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants


Hello plant people!

The days are slowly but surely getting longer, and if I blur my eyes I can almost pretend it’s spring. The daffodils are in full force, the sun is shining outdoors and I must admit I’m in much better spirits then a couple weeks ago. The gentle harmony that is my house is back in sync and I can once again smile at the end of a long day. I’ve been a bit fatigued this week, I’m in the midst of acclimatizing my body to the “ravenges” of nurserywork. It happens every year, the slow progress of shedding one’s Christmas weight and building back the necessary muscle that was lost in the winter. It’s a good burn.

Anyhow onto the topic at hand. Yesterday the boss’s took me on a little field trip to the mainland to check out some greenhouses that supply us with our plugs. Having worked here for five seasons now it was interesting to see the other side of the process. We skip the majority of propagation at our nursery and order in plugs to save time. It’s interesting how many hands touch a plant before it makes it’s way to your garden. A poor little petunia seed has a long way to go before it’s that amazing sprawling monster you see in every hanging basket in town. Some greenhouse’s hold agreements with the big plant producers (IE Proven Winners) and have the rights to produce these patented hybrids. Cuttings are flown in from Costa Rica, Italy, and even Ethiopia. At one nursery we traveled to they said they get their geranium cuttings from Ethiopia in less then 52 hours. From a plant in Africa to a rooting station in Vancouver in less then 3 days, that’s an incredible feat of today’s global economy.

Over a million seedlings, growing on to be shipped to wholesale growers all over.

Impatiens seedlings 

Having visited 4 different industrial greenhouses throughout the course of the day, you really got to see a broad view of what other businesses are up to. For the most part the vibe was pleasant enough, everyone seemed to have a different view on how to do things. It was interesting to see the contrast between one operation and the next, it real put it in perspective for me. While our greenhouse is certainly not the largest operation in British Columbia it’s still got a lot of soul. A lot of these business’s focused on monoculture and produced only a handful of different plants and/or planters. While supplying a chain of big box stores with geraniums might seem like a decent way to make a buck, I don’t think it would be overly stimulating. As they say variety is the spice of life.

More then a football field’s worth of geranium, verbena & petunias….

One greenhouse in particular had more “toys” then you’d ever know existed. Planting machines, wrapping machines, cranes and bob cats, and sprayers, it was intense. A whole army of labourers can be replaced by a 500,000 dollar machine, it was fascinating to watch but also put my brain in a loop. I work with 35 people at the most, a lot of these businesses had staff in the 100’s.

Semi-automated planting machine.

An absolutely giant boiler for running hot water under the floors of a giant greenhouse.

Industrial crop sprayer

I woke up at 5:00am to get onto the 7:00am ferry and didn’t return home for another 12 hours after that.  The day was surprisingly busy and we utilized almost every moment we had. In time each greenhouse blurred into the next as essentially they all do the same thing. I suppose the main thing I took away from this experience is that there is a 100 different ways to do something. What separates you from the rest of the pack is the quality of what you produce (IE. beautiful plants) , the pride you take in your facility (IE tidiness and maintenance) and the happiness of the staff you choose to keep around. Like it or not you’ll be spending a lot of time with these people so you’d hope they’re happy and fun to be around. Aside from that, I would say growing your business slowly as opposed to expanding rapidly would probably be in your best interest.  You can have all the toys in the world but are you turning a profit? Sometimes the biggest isn’t always the best. “Mom & Pop” operations are on the decline, but there is something quite beautiful about a smaller enterprise. People know each other, they aren’t scared to talk to the boss, and you serve a noticeable role in the business. I’ve never enjoyed the idea of being one ant in a million.

An interesting day to say the least.

After potting up my new palm trees yesterday I found myself in a fury of greenhouse rearranging. This winter we were in such a hurry to get the greenhouse done that when we actually did move in, everything was haphazardly placed this way and that. Yesterday I made the time to organize things properly, it was nice to clear out the junk and keep things tidy. Plants are certainly a demanding hobby, overwintered tropicals need a quick inspection once in a while. Dead leaves, minor rot, and impractical placement all need to be considered. Bugs are more likely than not, and a quick spray of trounce is good even as a precaution. If you’re even a bit OCD about cleaning, this practice will most likely be pleasant and it’s a good meditation for a Sunday afternoon. As the hours went on, nature forgot I was even there, and a murder of crows landed nearby. The valley still supports an amazing amount of wildlife, their songs could be heard carried in the wind. I love silence, it gives me space to think, it’s my favorite kind of music.  A dying tread in a humming world of technology, moments spent in the garden have made me much more aware of this fact.

In a blink of an eye a couple hours had passed. I’m often amazed by the work that can be achieved in only a couple hours. From disaster to masterpiece the place had certainly taken on a new look. I grouped the succulents and dormant dry pots in one area, actively growing tropicals in another, and utilitarian nurserystock adjacent. I love organizing and consolidating, and oddly this is what I do for a living. The greenhouses must have brainwashed me…

Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonn’ flowering in January.

Just as I was considering leaving, the lighting seemed just right and out came my camera and tripod. This was the first real photo-shoot I’ve had at our new greenhouse, and I was mesmerized by all of the points of interest. A flowering Senacio cristobalensis, an unusually early Iris reticulata, and a tropical Buddleia macrostachya in bud and bloom. A big smile rested on my face as I stood there in the pre twilight of the hour before nightfall. Tis the best time of day to photograph plants and flowers, and very well anything and everything at all.  The shadows are forgiving, the lighting honest and true. What a dream it is to have a heated greenhouse in the winter. I hadn’t realized what a gift it really was, this will surely help me get further with my plant studies.

Up close and personal with a Senacio cristobalensis

You’ve gotta love the whimsical leaves of the Senecio cristobalensis. Straight out of a Dr. Suess book, this border-line hardy perennial will add a touch of magic to your garden with little effort on your part.

An emerging node, it’s leaves are even cuter when they first appear. These amazing purple tinted fuzzy trees grow up to 8-10 feet in one season. I’ve read that if they’re properly mulched they’ll grow back in spring after frost. Of course all rumor aside I couldn’t dare sacrifice this one to the elements, as I wanted to see it’s winter flowers.

Right on schedule this plant put out multiple plumes of these strange senacio flowers. While Senacio’s come in pretty much every shape and size, they’re flowers are all remarkably similar. Old granddad Senacio from a million years before must be proud.

As expected the flowers are identical to other senacios I’ve witnessed bloom. The only difference being the color in which they’re tinted. Senecio cristobalensis is the most remarkable shade of vibrant yellow. The flowers coated with enough pollen for an army of bees. Too bad none seem to be buzzing about this early in the season.

A slightly fuzzy close up. A boring flower from affar, interesting upon a closer look.

Off topic, topic specific plant science breakdown!?

A plant that looks nothing like Senacio cristobalensis but is most definetly a relative, Senecio articulatus in bloom mid summer 2011.

Significantly different from either of them, Senecio rowleyanus otherwise known as string of pearls is also a strange distant relative. How about that for wierd plant science!?

Back to the topic at hand!

Buddleia macrostachya began flowering this week. I’ve watched the blooms form since I first recieved it mid November. The horticultural mastermind Lynda from Happy Valley Lavender Farm gifted it to me when we first built our greenhouse. The tag says Royal Roads 2007, it seems this one has been around for a while now. A quick look online has very little information about it, but sources say it’s from China. The hardiness is subject to opinion and it seems to enjoy the shelter of the greenhouse. Any info someone might have on it would be much appreciated, an exotic addition to collection none the less.

Eccremocarpus scaber seedlings amongst plectranthus cuttings.

A lineup of agaves, echeverias and aloes.

I have no idea how these bulbs found their way into my agave pot. Tis the simple pleasure of working at a nursery, sometimes the compost you take home has extra goodies in it. My garden at home has anemone blanda all over the place for this very reason. While I tend to get tired of these iris reticulatas, it’s always a tell tale sign that spring is just around the corner.

My Agave geminiflora is certainly enjoying it’s winter home in the greenhouse. It hasn’t stopped growing since I got it, I love it aquatic appearance.

There seems to be no shortage of brugmansia’s this year. A friend and I have been growing quite a collection. Inquire if you’d be interested in trying one this summer, we have lovely 5 ft tall year and a half specimens.

Flowering mid summer Puya mirabilis’s seed pods are still developing. I intend on trying to grow a small army of these from seed, and after nearly six months I still wait patiently for them to mature.

Here we come to the end of my greenhouse tour. Think warm thoughts, spring is only a couple months away. Counting the days, minutes, and seconds! :) For those that made it this far through the post, an extra gift to you today. Check out this site, it seems like an interesting enough idea. Free Plants by Mail

As some of you may already know a couple friend’s and I have been working on a greenhouse at the nursery. We recently got a push to get things finished quickly as space is running low in the main house and the spot where my tropicals were living needs to be freed up by Monday. We put a good effort in Saturday morning and I was really blown away by how much we accomplished. The main structure is now whole, and we even got it skinned. Now all that remains is the finishing touches, a second layer of plastic and the doors in the front. By next weekend we should hopefully have it ready for the plants, of which have now been transferred to racks and have been moved to another non permanent location.

It doesn’t look much right now but soon it will be filled with many tropical oddities. 

I can’t tell you enough how much I love greenhouses, what a treat it is to walk around a lush growing area at this time of year. Dianthus, cyclamen and primulas are almost ready for the first hit of spring. Next thing you know I’ll be pulling racks of Danova mix primulas, dead heading, dead heading and more dead heading. Thus is the life of a nurseryman. Having worked with this company for almost 5 years now I must say we’ve really pulled it together. While things were certainly fine when I first  arrived, as the years go on one notices the recipe for success is much more fine tuned. Our fearless leaders do a great job and I’m pretty proud to be apart of it all. Everything’s looking so nice lately.

A quick December Greenhouse walk around:

Earlier this year I was reading about different techniques for taking cuttings of Dahlia imperialis. One person suggested cutting off a 1ft cutting with a growth node and to lay it down on it side. 1-2 months later it looks like the cutting is a success, new growth has started and I’m pretty sure this will be a viable cutting. Meanwhile the other cutting in which I cut the top growing tip and plopped it in the soil, is also growing quite happily. The conclusion? Dahlia imperialis cuttings are extremely easy to get going, and next year I’ll do a lot more.

Sadly my Echium pininana isn’t looking any healthier even though it lives in the warmest house on the property. Still trying have faith that it will bounce back come spring. “It’s just a little wilty, it’s still good, it’s still good!”

Succulents and tropical foliage. It was nice to spend some time with the plants today.

Sometime’s I wonder why I do this to myself. Then I quickly snap out of it, I love them!

Hamming it up with my refugee tropicals.

We’ve been blessed with gorgeous sunshine for almost two weeks now. If December was like this every year I wouldn’t be so eager to escape to the tropics.

Some people fight for the corner office, I think my view is better.

Greenhouse 1 of 6, primulas. *Shutters*

So many Dianthus super troopers. Looks like a healthy crop!

Probably one of my most favorite crops we grow at the greenhouse, florist cyclamen (cyclamen persicum cultivars)

Thanks for joining me on my tour.

Filmed on an iphone, makes for a squished video.

Spring is in the air, the snow from last week has melted and the sun rises once again. We’re mostly in a planting stage right now at work, but there is the odd thing coming into perfection. Here’s a quick post highlighting some of the more exciting things going on at the greenhouse.

While my daffodils in the back garden are only half developed these daffs spent their spring in a greenhouse and have a bit of a head start. I mentioned in my last post that I was worried these might have been damaged by last weeks snow storm. While the extreme weather took a couple casualties (a couple flats of frost burn, a couple flats of bent flowers) the majority of the crop remains unharmed.  Dutch Master daffodils looking rather nice.

The cyclamen are looking incredible as of late, and it’s a real treat pulling them for orders. Every couple days a new color starts to bloom, everybody’s been talking about them at work, I think we have a winner. I’ve had a time lapse camera set up on them for the last 2 weeks, I’m excited to see the process sped up.

The greenhouse doesn’t exactly specialize in succulents but every once in a while they give it a go. These aeoniums have been growing for about a year now and started in 5″ last spring. Over the winter they were planted in 12″ pots and they really performed well.  If I had a greenhouse I’d have ten.

We grew thousands of fuschia baskets this year, and over the last couple of weeks we’ve been hanging them up.  This is an above the head muscle twisting exercise as the hooks are often less then cooperative. It can be fun if you blur your mind and enjoy swearing frustration all day. Life of a greenhouse worker.

Dianthus super trooper has been a spring staple at the greenhouses as long as I’ve worked there. This is an impressive crop with less casualties then usual. Shades of pink and apricote, white, red and orange. Although it’s sold mostly as an annual, dianthus super trooper is actually hardy through zones 6-9. The specimens I planted in the garden last year seem completely unscathed by our winter, which is pretty good in my books, we were down to -10 this year.

One of my favorite plants of all time overwintered at the greenhouse and started producing flowers. Melianthus major otherwise known as the peanut butter plant (if you crush it’s leafs and take a sniff you will smell peanut butter) is an amazing plant and I’m excited to see these flower spikes develop. For those of you who are not familar with this plant, I’ve included a picture of mine from this summer. The sad news being that my specimen wasn’t as fortunate to spend it’s winter in a heated greenhouse and has died to the ground, and I’m hoping it comes back once spring warms up.

Well that’s the end of this week’s tour, thanks for taking this walk around with me. Remember on these cold variable weathered days, spring is but a few months away, and the gardening season is starting up as we speak.

Today I spent 8 hours Sorting, Cleaning and spacing hybrid primulas. Although you’d think I’d hate these things after handling over 20,000 a season, I can’t help but to love their early spring color. Hybrid primulas are definitely a bargain, ranging anywhere between $1.00-$1.50 you can get a beautiful primula that will produce 100’s of flowers before anything else in the garden even gets started.

So far work is going great this year. I guess after two trips to the tropics, I’m well rested. I have considering trying different jobs in the field of horticulture but I have a hard time leaving a place with such an abundance of greenery. Good people and tea at break, life could be a lot worse. The visuals of this job are a real bonus, and greenhouses mimic tropical climates on a sunny day.

Iris “reticulata” in full bloom

Whenever I get fed up with my job I try to remind myself that life is not as bad as one makes it out to be. I think the main strain runs on the 40-50 hour work weeks, week after week, month after month. At that point it doesn’t matter where you work, your mind will get frustrated with the pure concept of never being home. The endless work week tends to put a strain on relationships, creative endeavors (such as this) and plain and simple “Cold Chilling“. Of course in the end this is life and for the most part I’m quite happy where I am. I’m excited to see what 2011 has to offer.

Greenhouses at sunrise.

Greenhouses at sunrise, a yellow beam of morning light.

Mr Nat. Gardener, Plant Nerd
Tips and tales about gardening in one of the most mild climates in Canada. Specializing in rare and strange plants from far out destinations, this is the story of an obsessed young gardener in Victoria B.C. Let's create more tropical gardens in the garden city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
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