Piano music and the earthy aroma of plants drifted out of the open doors of Ledgewood Gardens’ nursery greenhouse on March 8, quickly dissipating in the cold winter air. In the snowy woods of Orrington, the family-run operation was busy preparing for spring, when customers would visit with plant lists in hand.
“Today is geranium day,” Karen Ramsey, who started the business more than 30 years ago, said.
A couple thousand tiny geranium plugs had arrived at the greenhouse the day before. They needed to be pruned, then potted and set in the sun to grow. Helping her with the task, her 80-year-old mother Jean Rosenberg stood at a work table pinching leaves off the plants with swift decisiveness that only comes with years of practice.
All around Maine, Ramsey said, greenhouses are busy — and they’ve been busy for months, planting seeds and potting plugs throughout winter to get a jump on the region’s short growing season.
“The hardest part is the timing,” she said. “You know, are my Mother’s Day baskets going to be big enough? Am I going to have blooming pansies when we open?”
Working through winter
Just a few towns away in Old Town, Mary Murray, head grower at Ellis Greenhouse, was busy transplanting pansies and marigolds.
“So many people think that greenhouses are still sleeping,” Murray said. “Most of the greenhouses in the area grow a lot of their own stuff, and we have to start early.”
In January, they start the seeds, Murray said, and not long after that, their ordered seedlings begin to arrive. As snow piles up outside, the greenhouse rapidly fills. By March, Murray said, it’s not unusual for her to work six or seven days a week just to keep up.
“The plants don’t wait,” Murray said. “We just gave all our onions a haircut today,” she added, referring to the wayward leaves that sprout from the plant’s bulb.
“I don’t think people have any idea how busy all the greenhouses are right now,” Sally Smith, owner of Country Junction Greenhouse and Gardens in Bradford, said. “Most greenhouses are already working from dawn until dark. There’s so much to do to get the flowers ready.”
Subzero temperatures and snowstorms can present some special challenges for Maine greenhouse owners and managers. Sometimes, they have to act fast or risk losing their plants.
“We heat with wood,” Smith said. “Last week, I was getting up every 2½ hours [during the night] to check on the stove.”
Snow and ice can also be a problem. As it slides off the warm, smooth walls of a greenhouse, it piles up on the sides, blocking out sun, which is essential for the plants to grow. In addition, a long spell of cloudy days can noticeably slow plant growth and delay blooming.
“Then we get a beautiful sunny week, and you come in, and all the sudden the plants are huge,” Ramsey said with a grin.
This year’s plant selection
Planning for this spring started last fall, when Ramsey combed through catalogs to order seeds and plugs, which are seedlings or cuttings of adult plants grown in small trays.
“For some things, seeds are just fine,” Ramsey said. “For some things, cuttings are better. It totally depends on the plant.”
The variety she orders changes a bit every year, mostly based on customer feedback. Ramsey keeps a book at the checkout counter for jotting down requests. For example, last year, one of her customers couldn’t find horehound anywhere, so Ramsey is growing the minty perennial this year.
“I have loyal customers that come and get the same thing every year,” Ramsey said. “I also have people who come and want to know what’s new.”
It’s all about finding a balance, she said. While she brings in many new plant varieties every year, she also continues to carry the tried-and-true staples of Northeast flowerbeds.
“Marigolds and wax begonias are a dime a dozen,” she said, “but we love them.”
Trends also factor into greenhouse orders. Coral-colored flowers, Smith said, are one of the trends she heard about for this year. Smith is also attempting to grow more snapdragon flowers, because the National Garden Bureau has designated 2019 as the “Year of the Snapdragon” for annual plants. Also for this year, the bureau named dahlias as the bulb crop, salvia as the perennial plant and the pumpkin as the edible plant.
“If you see a lot more of those plants this spring, that’s why,” Smith said.
The problem, Ramsey said, is finding room for it all. When you’re constantly adding new varieties to your selection, you have to let some of the old varieties go, otherwise you run out of space — or you’re forced to make more. In 1989, Ramsey opened with just one greenhouse located up the driveway from her home, and since then, her Ledgewood Gardens have expanded to a complex of five greenhouses.
She prides herself in carrying “a little bit of everything,” from perennial and annual flowers to berry bushes. She hasn’t counted how many plant varieties she now carries, but she has 40 varieties of tomatoes alone.
“It’s almost like an addiction, you know?” she said. “It’s like, they’ve got another color. Can I get that too?”
Opening their doors
In Maine, while some greenhouses are open year-round, the majority are closed for the winter and open at the end of April or the beginning of May. By then, the ground has thawed and gardeners can start planting some of the hardier varieties of plants.
“The real trick is that a lot of the stuff that’s been shipped in [to Maine greenhouses] has been grown in warm climates,” Rick Gilbert, owner of Sunnyside Florists and Greenhouse in Bangor, said. “So here, I only heat the greenhouse to 40 degrees at night so the plants are hardened up to go outdoors.”
In the months leading up to planting season, even though it can be hectic, Ramsey said it’s a joy to work in a greenhouse. As the days lengthen and the sun grows stronger, the building rapidly heats up and the scent of green growth attracts sleepy bumblebees and the first returning hummingbirds. As they work together in the mornings, Ramsey and Rosenberg listen to classical music.
“According to research, plants like soft music,” Rosenberg explained as she fitted a geranium plug into a pot of soil.
“When I’m in the other greenhouse, in the afternoon, it’s rock and roll,” Ramsey said, with a smile. “The plants like both.”
Ledgewood Gardens always opens the last Saturday of April, and leading up to that date, they do an eight-week countdown on Facebook by posting weekly photos of the interior of their greenhouses. The transformation, Ramsey said, is amazing.
“[At first], everything is small and lined up and tidy,” Ramsey said. “[The plants] are all like little children behaving. Then, all the sudden, spring comes and they start growing up and into each other. They become wild, like teenagers, and it’s time for them to go out the door.”