For the Love of Plants

Greenhouses bring color and life to many homes during the off-season.

It is early February. Martha’s Vineyard is in the midst of an icy winter. Yet tucked off of dirt roads and byways around the Island are edifices that contain remnants of the previous summer and whispers of the summer ahead. These greenhouses are lovingly tended by those who understand the promise of plants. Each greenhouse enables its enthusiastic owners to grow and propagate plants in flower-friendly temperatures all year long.

A worldly collection

For Trudy Taylor, a greenhouse is a lab as well. “I’ve loved gardening since I was a child,” she says. “My first memory is of my mother walking with me around the yard and encouraging me to peer into the petals of plants, smell them, touch them. By the time I was thirteen, I begged my father to let me have my own plot of land, and he did. He designated a twelve-by-twelve-foot square next to a rock wall. My first adventure was to sprinkle soil on the concave sections of rocks atop that wall and to plant portulaca seeds. Within weeks, those portulaca cascaded over the wall. I was hooked!” Trudy scheduled her time so that, each day, she’d work a small section of the soil to ready her garden for planting.

When she moved to the Vineyard full time in 1970 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Trudy knew a greenhouse was a must. In 1974, she ordered a prebuilt greenhouse and had it assembled on the south side of her home, facing the Atlantic. Her modest greenhouse appeals to the visual and olfactory senses as well as the auditory, with a fluctuating number of bright yellow canaries singing vociferously in its midst, sometimes drowning out the sounds of the waves nearby.

“Every plant that is here now came from somewhere else,” she says. “Half of all the plants in the world came from the Orient.” Trudy traveled the world searching for the histories and origins of some of her plants. Three trips to hidden villages in China brought her face to face with a small, walled garden in Sujo that she calls “the most beautiful garden in the world.” That celebration of water, stone, and plants dates back more than a thousand years.

Back on the Vineyard, Trudy’s greenhouse is filled to capacity with plants, including an unpotted fig tree whose roots grow deep into the soil. Trudy explains that the best floor for a greenhouse is dirt. The dirt, topped by loose slate pieces, absorbs heat from the sun during the daytime. Trudy’s greenhouse helps to heat her house as well. “And at night,” she explains, “the house helps to heat the greenhouse.” The fig tree begins to get fresh leaves every March and, by summer, yields a peck of figs. “People stop by to eat them.” For years Trudy wondered where the blossoms were for the fig tree whose fruit was so abundant. Always the amateur scientist, she finally learned that there are clusters of little blossoms inside the fruit itself. She notes that tiny bugs crawl into a small hole at the bottom of each fruit to fertilize the blossoms and promote the productivity of the plant.

The laws of Darwin are the laws of Trudy’s greenhouse. Once she had a plumbago, but her new canary devoured its leaves. “No more plumbago,” she concludes. Her birds make their own nests and lay their eggs. “We had quite a drama,” she says, “when a white-bellied rat burrowed in and threatened the nests. You should have heard the squawking.”

Under the soil floor of the greenhouse, tree frogs hibernate. “I know it’s spring when those frogs start croaking,” she says. “And they just love Al Roker on the Today show. Every time he speaks, those frogs croak and croak.”

One of Trudy’s most beloved greenhouse plants is her Cherokee rose. She found it along a trail near the Big Island volcano in Hawaii, cut off a small piece, removed all but two leaves, and carried it in a plastic bag moistened by tissue all the way back to the Vineyard. She says, “It rooted and grew and grew. It couldn’t survive in the outdoors, but my greenhouse was the perfect place for it. It wanted to express itself and filled a large area.” A few years ago, when the greenhouse was undergoing a restoration with the installation of energy-efficient double-paned glass, that Cherokee rose died. “I missed it very much,” Trudy admits. She called a botanist in Hawaii and learned that the Adkins Arboretum in Maryland could supply her with another. She is lonely no more now that a replacement Cherokee rose blooms profusely even on the darkest winter days.

Near the Cherokee rose, a hardy asparagus fern awaits its tenth dividing during its life of more than twenty years. Trudy explains that she and her garden helper Andrew “Cody” Jephcote simply cut the root ball and divide the plant to share with friends and neighbors. “I’ve created hundreds of new asparagus fern plants this way over the years,” Trudy says, “and how I love helping others to start their gardens with them! Sometimes I simply leave a box outside the Chilmark Post Office and invite plant lovers to just help themselves.”

Tiny red flowers peek out from a nearly hidden space between the asparagus fern and the Cherokee rose. “Those are miniature geraniums,” Trudy explains. “Many geraniums want center stage. They are flamboyant at Memorial Day and on the Fourth of July, flaunting themselves in window boxes and on doorsteps all summer long. I like the miniature geranium. It’s small but it’s always in bloom.”

Trudy once found a vigorous bromeliad near a neglected house on Sanibel Island, Florida. She dug a small piece from the ground and brought it to Chilmark. Its flowers, pink in the winter, annually turn to blue later in the season. Like the Cherokee rose, it likes its home in Trudy’s greenhouse, as does a camellia more than thirty-five years old that blooms from Christmas time through February, its gentle white flowers tinged with pink on their edges.

Among Trudy’s greenhouse plants are those that provide food and spice as well as aesthetics. A Meyer lemon produces sweet lemons, a dwarf-banana plant propagates itself each year, and rosemary leaves grow with vigor.

Like Polly Hill, who created Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury and figured out how to bring non-native plants from other places and make them survive in the Martha’s Vineyard climate zone, Trudy has also traveled afar to observe and to honor the magic of plants. She has rescued some, she’s created others from tiny cuttings, and now she watches as they grow and flourish and enact their colorful dramas against an Atlantic Ocean backdrop.

“They’re my survival,” she says. “Winters are bleak here.”

Creating community with plants

Judy and Bob Jahries in West Tisbury are plant lovers, and in 1995 they approached John Abrams of South Mountain Company in West Tisbury and asked if he’d build them a greenhouse. That construction would be the company’s first greenhouse. Designed by Peter Rodegast and built by Peter D’Angelo from redwood recycled from beer vats at the Narragansett Brewery in Rhode Island, the Jahries greenhouse took shape. Located on the south side of their modest home, the double-paned glass welcomes the sun and provides warmth for the rest of the house on cold winter days. A slate floor placed over a sand base allows the Jahries “watering with no worry,” Judy says.

Predating the Jahries greenhouse are many of its plants. A rabbit’s foot fern dates back more than twenty-five years. Three Christmas cactuses are of the same vintage: Two bloom around Thanksgiving, the other in February. A pink begonia, twenty years old, lies dormant in its soil. During summertime Bob places it outside at the edge of a little pond and it grows to more than four feet tall. In late autumn he cuts it back, and it resurrects itself every springtime. Most amazing is a dark green Ardesia crenata (coral berry) with shiny leaves and robust red berries. “That one began in a dish-garden gift to Bob in 1995,” Judy boasts. “Bob took the little plants out of the dish garden and planted each in a separate pot. He loves to do that. Now this one is three feet tall!” A five-foot Kentia palm sitting nearby shares the same dish-garden history, as do the variegated philodendron on the greenhouse shelf.

The greenhouse is testimony to many other survival stories. “That chrysanthemum was resurrected from near death,” Bob says. A fifteen-year-old cactus sporting purple blooms in midwinter came from a tiny plant bought in a five-and-dime store in Summit, New Jersey. Several hardy hibiscus plants wait out the winter. On a tabletop sit twenty-nine four-inch pots of geraniums, cuttings that grew after Judy and Bob dismantled the previous year’s geraniums in the late fall. An old amaryllis with huge white blooms has just emerged from dormancy. “I let it die and put it in the cold basement,” Bob says, “then I bring it back to the greenhouse, give it some water, and here it is.”

Ten giant-sized mandevillas outgrew their spots in the greenhouse and had to be moved to the adjacent utility room. Their leathery leaves surround pink, white, and dark red flowers. “They bloom all summer long,” Judy says.

But the Jahries greenhouse isn’t just a tale of survival; it’s a story of birth as well. “We produced twenty-five flats of flowers and vegetables last year,” says Bob. During late March the greenhouse also becomes the site of pepper, eggplant, tomato, zinnia, and other annual seedlings. Hidden in the corner behind some greenery, a host of blue, red, and white Ag Fair ribbons are tacked to the wall. “We enter every year,” Judy says. “Our grandchildren come to visit every summer, and each year they plan a project to enter into the fair. See those gourds.” Judy points to a table top. “They make great birdhouses, a wonderful project for the grandchildren.” She explains that she and Bob teach the youngsters how to cut a hole in the side of the gourds, scoop out the seeds, shellac the outside, and hang the creations outside for the birds.

Hanging from the greenhouse ceiling are pots of cape primrose with lavender blooms that flower all year round. “These are the source of hundreds of plants reproduced in the Wakeman Center greenhouse and sold by the garden club each June,” Judy says. The Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club has approximately 250 active members who attend monthly programs about conservation and horticulture. The purpose of the garden club is to protect and enhance the natural assets of the Island, and its greenhouse at the Wakeman Center is used to propagate plants for a spring fundraiser.

Back in the Jahries greenhouse and tucked on shelves near some angel-wing begonias are nine varieties of orchids. “I like to experiment with them,” Bob says. “I tried planting one in soil. You never know what’ll happen.”

A solarium of color and warmth

For Rozetta Hughes, including a solarium on the south side of her planned Edgartown home was a must. Rozetta’s husband, Rupert, says, “The solarium was all she wanted. Nothing else mattered.” So they contacted an architect and a contractor who lived near their former Boston-area home and described what they envisioned. Within a year, in 1996, their house on Road to the Plains in Edgartown was erected. The Hughes solarium is a place of celebration. Stretching more than twenty feet long and two stories high, the edifice welcomes the sun through thirty-three panels of double-paned glass. The windows at the highest level open electronically so that the solarium, with its passive- solar heat, maintains even temperatures during the hottest days of summertime. A drain in the tile floor allows for easy watering. Dark green walls are topped with a knotty-pine paneled ceiling. In the center of the solarium, a spiral staircase connects the first and second floors of the home. “My plants are happy here, and, if they’re not, I figure out how to help them. They’re my children,” Rozetta says.

Climbing up the railing of the spiral staircase is a creeping fig, a vine with the tiniest of leaves but whose source is a huge pot that sits at its base. Next to the railing a mammoth ten-foot banana palm stands proudly. (Rozetta gave two smaller versions of this plant to the garden club for propagation last year.) Angel-wing begonias with dappled leaves more than ten inches long grow hardily nearby. The begonias aren’t blooming in wintertime, but Rozetta describes how beautifully the deep red blooms cascade during their summer flowering. In March, three red amaryllis buds are ready to pop open. Tropical plants flourish year-round in the solarium: a Christmas cactus, two large aloe plants, a fat cactus more than fifteen inches tall, a five-foot palm that started its life in a four-inch cup, and a thirteen-year-old jade plant as old as the solarium. In the southeast corner, a five-foot bog grass plant explodes with a starburst display of leaves. Tucked in another corner is a bush of four-foot circumference, an asparagus fern that has lived with Rozetta for thirty-four years.

Rozetta moved her forty-year-old peace lily, her oldest plant, from the solarium into her living room a few years ago. “He took the whole table over for himself,” Rozetta smiles, describing the plant as though it were a person. Beneath the table is a wood carving of five people gathered together, holding hands, in a sculptural depiction of peace. Back in the solarium, a prayer plant boasts deep-crimson veins with a mottled white channel down the middle of each deep green leaf. For some, the beauty of plants harbors religious overtones.

As in Trudy Taylor’s greenhouse, this solarium houses dramas of its own. The feature drama is the nightblooming cereus in the center of the room. “Its blooming is a real event,” Rozetta exclaims. She describes how the plant produces large buds with a furry edge. The buds grow plump and, one summer night, burst into blooms, white-edged with pink, the size of an adult’s open hand. “I can usually tell in the morning if a bud will open at night,” she says. “The bud takes about four hours to open. It starts at seven and is fully open by eleven p.m. In the morning it’s drooped and done. If you look closely at the very center of the bloom, it looks like a chapel.” The nightblooming cereus climbs for twelve feet alongside the spiral stairway. Rozetta knows her cereus plant very well. Each summer, on the day when she can tell the bud is ready to open, she calls friends who come to her house after dark and watch the process. The bud starts as the size of a fist and unfolds itself like slow-motion photography until it blooms as large as the size of an adult’s head.

Rozetta’s love for plants developed during her childhood in St. Vincent, West Indies, the home of the oldest botanical garden in the western hemisphere. “As a teenager, I loved to walk through that garden whenever I could. Really, the whole island was a tropical garden – everything was colorful, lush, and huge. So gardening grew deep into my bones.”

Gardening grows deep in the bones of many on this island. Some, like those in this article, are equipped within their greenhouses to nurture more than the common house plant during the wintertime. Others, like the garden club members who frequent the Wakeman Center, are drawn to the greenhouse as a special service and a community bond. Greenhouses are a way to create beauty and to share that beauty with friends, neighbors, and other Vineyard plant lovers.