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Notes From the Garden: Visiting Longwood Gardens in Winter

I recently traveled to Pennsylvania to visit family, and while there I visited Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. It was a fabulous break from winter and a good chance to see flowers in bloom before the flower show season gets into full swing. From now through March 24 Longwood’s four acres of glass conservatory are displaying more than 5,000 orchids — and much more.

I’ve been to many greenhouses over the past few decades, both in the U.S. and Europe. Often I find them too hot and humid, particularly if I’m dressed in winter clothing. The Longwood Garden conservatory has figured out how to do it right. The greenhouses were built in the 1920s for Pierre du Pont, who, it would appear, had more money than he knew what to do with. These greenhouses have very high ceilings, about 50 feet in places. Hot, sticky air accumulates near the ceiling, leaving us mortals on the ground with warm, pleasant air.

Walking into the main halls of the conservatory, one is greeted with a massive arrangement of potted orchids made to look like cut orchids in a huge vase. It is an arrangement of whites and yellows, two different kinds, standing in a shallow pool of water. Light poured in everywhere through the ceiling and walls. To your left, a lawn! That’s right, a perfectly manicured lawn big enough to host a game of croquet. In this season, it was a refreshing sight.

I like the fact that all the plants are labeled (which is mostly true outside the conservatory, too). I carry a notebook so I can research plants I like — not all are suitable for New England. I loved a yellow daisy-like plant with blue-gray foliage called Grey-leaved Euryops (Euryops pectinatus). Unfortunately, it is a South African shrub suited for California, or indoors, but not my garden.

I observed a euphorbia (Euphorbia tirucalli), called “Sticks on Fire,” that I simply must find, and accept that it must stay in a pot that will allow me to bring it in during the winter. It has miniscule leaves, but the stems are yellow, progressing to red toward the tips of the plant. It is very dramatic, and would be a nice houseplant.

Longwood Gardens is definitely child-friendly. In one section docents were handing out plastic-coated cards with plant pictures for a scavenger hunt, and there is a nice water feature that allows kids to get a little wet, but not soaked. The moving squirts of water are definitely exciting.

Docents are everywhere, and very helpful. One was showing children vanilla pods picked from a long, viney vanilla orchid, and allowed them to sniff the vanilla scent. The plant fascinated me — nearly 25 feet tall with fleshy green leaves, it had been in the conservatory since 1980.

In that same room with the vanilla plant were examples of orchids of every hue, from bright red to purple to orange and yellow to white. I was amazed to see each in perfect condition, no spent blossoms or droopy leaves. Then I learned from a docent that these potted orchids are changed out two to three times a week. Only perfection is on display.

I like to learn from each garden I visit. One new growing trick that I liked involved using standard sheep fence to hold up flowers. But instead of running the fencing vertically, as is standard, three layers of fencing were stretched between cross bars horizontally. The first bar was about two feet off the ground, the next at three feet, and a top layer at four feet. Those supports were about 15 feet apart. This support system allowed floppy roses to grow through the 6-inch openings of the fencing, and to lean on the wires as needed — without being tied up. This would work well for any type of tall flower outdoors that might get beaten down by the rain.

Also of interest was a rose variety called “Pink Cherokee” planted in the conservatory in the 1920s when it was first built. It is a simple single rose that has climbed more than 20 feet up and blooms (in the greenhouse) in spring, summer and winter.

The greenhouses included many standard flowers besides the orchids: daffodils, tulips, freesias, oriental lilies (including a double one, “Double Star,” with twice the number of petals). I loved seeing some rare yellow clivia — I grow the standard orange one, a real work horse of a house plant with glossy long strap-like leaves. The yellow one I had heard of, but had never seen.

For more information on Longwood Gardens, go to www.longwoodgardens.org. Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors (62 and up), and $8 for students 5-18. If you are in Pennsylvania, the gardens are worthy of a visit in any season — the outdoor gardens in summer are fantastic.

Henry Homeyer can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Visit his web site at www.Gardening-guy.com.