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June 5th, 2012

Learning to be a Professional Gardener

By Michael Rolli—

I am a Professional Gardener student at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Originally from West Caldwell, New Jersey, I have a degree in sociology from Penn State University. Before I came to Longwood, I worked as a seasonal gardener at Greenwood Gardens in Short Hills, New Jersey, a former private estate surrounded by scenic protected woodlands in its final stages of its restoration and transformation into a public pleasure garden. My primary interests in horticulture are native plants, sustainable landscapes, and organic gardening.

The Longwood Gardens Professional Gardener Training Program is a 2-year, tuition-free immersive program that offers horticulture education through traditional classroom-style learning and practical experience. Graduates of the program have ended up in various horticulture industries, from floriculture enterprises to nurseries to public garden management. There are two classes of about eight students each enrolled at all times. The class of 2012 is the “senior” class, while my class, the class of 2013, is the “junior” class.

The 2013 class of Professional Gardener students, or PGs, is made up of eight students of various ages, geographic locations, horticulture experience, and interests. For the next 2 years, we will be alternating through 3-month cycles of work rotations and classes. Work rotations are essentially month-long internships in different parts of the gardens; so far I have worked in indoor display (in the conservatory), production, and arboriculture. Classes are structured similarly to college semesters, where we learn everything from math and chemistry to landscape design and how to manage a greenhouse.

Housing is provided in the form of duplexes that date back to Pierre S. DuPont’s time, when he decided to keep his staff his close by. Living within the grounds of Longwood Gardens makes for an incredible learning environment.  PG students, interns, international trainees, and some staff members live on Red Lion Row (or simply, The Row), which is a straight road with houses on one side and garden plots on the other, tucked away behind Longwood’s production greenhouses, the Forest Walk, and the Meadow.

rolli-PGplot

Each PG student is provided her or his own 16-by-50-foot garden space, divided into a 240-square-foot ornamental plot and a 560-square-foot vegetable plot. We have an ongoing garden practicum that provides a few guidelines for our ornamental plots but allows plenty of room for creativity and experimentation. The vegetable sides of our plots, however, are dedicated to what has been affectionately dubbed the “Veggie Venture.”

Never having grown my own vegetables before, I’m pretty excited by the Veggie Venture. We grow and sell organic produce to 1906, Longwood’s fine dining cafeteria, which is open to guests of the gardens.  One of the senior PGs is in charge of creating an accession sheet based on a list of vegetables, including specific cultivars, requested by the chefs of 1906. We grow what they ask for, they pay us for what we grow, and we put all of the money toward our trip to China in 2013. We each grow several different crops in our plots, oversee a certain category, and harvest when ready (for example: right now I’m growing lettuce, snap peas, Swiss chard, and peppers, but I am in charge of overseeing all pepper crops and their harvesting).

As a guest blogger, I will be writing about my experiences with organic gardening as a student at Longwood Gardens and as somebody who is completely new to gardening. More specifically, I will be writing about how my class is growing vegetables and cut flowers and pursuing other creative ways of raising funds for our trip to Shanghai, China, in 2013. I will also try to include “Top Three Things I Learned This Week” (about gardening, that is) and “My New Favorite Plant.”

The Top Three Things I Learned This Week:

1. Groundhogs will eat kohlrabi!

2. If you tell somebody at the supermarket that you are a gardener, he or she will assume that gardening is your hobby, not your profession or field of study.

3. Back up everything on your computer so that when your hard drive crashes you don’t have to write the same blog twice!

My New Favorite Plant:

Night-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala ssp. bicornis)

rolli-Matthiola

My neighbor grew some night-scented stock for our porch, and I couldn’t have asked for a better neighbor. Not only does this plant have little white and purple flowers that bloom at night, but they are more fragrant than I could reasonably expect for such small flowers. The flowers look wilted when I come back from class or work at the end of the day (as do I sometimes), but by the time I’ve eaten dinner, the flowers are wide awake and offering a pleasurable scent to anybody who happens by it.

More information: Professional Gardener Training Program

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June 4th, 2012

The Virtue of Forgetting

By Alex Norelli—

alex-open-bud

Perhaps it was outright laziness, but at the end of last year’s dedicated season, it didn’t really seem all that unpardonable to leave a few surplus onions laying about unharvested. The worst that could happen is they’d be wasted (really only returned to the soil), and the best that could happen, well…that I didn’t know.

Let us out of here!!

Let us out of here!!

So I left them there with about as much thought as I’d give to pulling out a nondescript weed. After months of dealing with groundhogs and enjoying the harvest, my thirst for gardening felt quenched and I was looking forward to winter’s break. What I didn’t foresee is that an abnormally mild winter would not sunder them, and a precocious spring would give them more than a head start. Its not even June and I am met in my garden by the bulbous head-high minarets. Within their thin sheaths bundled clusters of tiny blooms press against the barrier, forcing its expansion and eventual rupture. Their ascending stems looked serpentine, as they kneeled in support of their nearly insupportable height.

Strange, Wild, Wonderful…the onions of this garden!!

Strange, Wild, Wonderful…the onions of this garden!!

The color of the conical unopened blooms once the sheath has ruptured is an icy blue, like that of a glacier in the form a golf ball, but with the opposite of dimples. About a year ago I visited Landcraft out on the North Fork of Long Island and they were growing Okra as an ornamental, its large-petaled Hibiscus-like flowers a soup for the eyes to drink in. Ever since then I’ve been trying to let plants show me their attributes, to approach them without any preconceived notions of what they are. Yes, maybe they are a vegetable, but that is not all they are. For me an onion was something in the ground, but now, after letting them grow an extra year, they are something reaching for the sky, inhabiting another atmosphere.

alex-allium-sidexside

At the other end of my garden, the globe Allium were in heady bloom, though not long ago they looked similar to the onions. They too had the translucent minarets filled with eager buds. The resemblances are pretty scarce from there though…the allium have broad vaulting foliage radiating from the ascendant stalk, and their “onion” is a bulb usually planted about 6 inches underground. Apparently, if you go by Wikipedia’s estimates, there are somewhere around 750 varieties of allium, and Allium in Roman times was actually Garlic.

I really I just forgot to take them inside after I picked them…there were so many last year!

I really just forgot to take them inside after I picked them…there were so many last year!

Maybe next year I will choose a place in my garden to plant my surplus onions, and turn the fruits of happenstance into the tools of expressive gardening. But then again there will be something I let go at the end of the season if for no other purpose than to see what it will do when I cede my will to its own, and allow it to show me something.


ARtist, poet, Gardener www.AlexNorelliARt.com

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