Ben Owens started with the college in 1996, working his way up to supervisor two years ago. Originally from North Carolina, he graduated in 1979 with a degree in Landscape Gardening from Sand Hills Community College. The program has produced many successful graduates, including Peter Hatch, Director of Garden and Grounds for Monticello, and Dale Haney, the grounds superintendent for the White House. At the William & Mary nursery, Ben oversees a crew of four full-time employees.
There are three greenhouses at the site, though the plants are condensed down to two buildings in the winter, to save on heating costs. When I visited, two of the buildings were packed with poinsettias ready to be shipped out to buildings around campus. Ben grew a couple varieties this year including Ice Punch (below), Winter Rose, Eckespoint Snowcap and Prestige Red. The poinsettias are purchased with donated funds. Outside the greenhouse were the pansies that would soon be planted around campus, as well as dozens of boxwoods that Ben started from cuttings years ago. The cuttings were taken from specimens around the President's House, will provide a steady source of replacement plants in the coming years. All the plants at the nursery are watered with drip irrigation.
Wandering around the greenhouse, I came across two of the three cats that call the greenhouse home. Below are Bo (in black) and Spice. I didn't see, however, the wild turkeys that hang out outside the fence, or the hungry groundhogs that have been such a nuisance.
The greenhouse in back contains the tropical plants the crew places around campus. Stepping into the greenhouse was like walking into a miniature version of Jurassic Park (without the velociraptors).
The house is filled with things like orchids (for the President's House), fishtail ferns (below),
schefflera, bananas, ficus, and palms. Many of the plants are used for graduation setups and other special events. The majesty palms (Ravenea sp.) below, are about 10 years old and won't fit in the greenhouse much longer. Ben is hoping to give them away, but if he can't find a home, they're going to be trashed! If you know anyone who would want them, send him an email. You'll have to find a way to get them out the pots though (the state owns those).
Outside the greenhouse are some empty pots, a stark reminder of funding cutbacks. The crew used to plant around 10,000 plants every year. Now they're down to 8,000.
Over the course of several days I followed Ben and his co-workers as they installed new plantings at College Corner, one of the more prominent gardens on campus. During the warm months, College Corner is planted in annuals and tropicals.
This year the bed featured a nice specimen of cycad complemented by ponytail ferns and colorful annuals.
But with winter approaching, the annuals and tropicals had to come out. Here, Chester Edmondson is hauling away fatsia clippings. Though fatsia is marginally hardy here, it's tropical looking foliage won't work with the new scheme. The rootball will go back to the greenhouse for repotting,
and the cycad (back at the nursery) will go into a pot as well.
For the new display, Ben is planting 1,800 tulips. Every year, Ben and the landscape staff decide what the plants and colors will be. Next spring the bed will be a mix of tulips and pansies. The tulips they've selected are Banja Luka, Dordogne, and Big Smile. Ben described the planting as similar to Virginia Tech colors, with a bit of yellow thrown in. Ben and co-worker Carol Smith Chewning casually tossed out the bulbs for a informal mix of colors.
After the tulips were put in, the crew overplanted them with with three colors of pansies that will match next spring's tulips. I can't wait to see it!
Update - After many weeks of waiting, here's some shots of the tulip display just slightly past it's prime:
You can see more photos of the greenhouse and College Corner here.