The Hermitage Garden: Behind the Scenes
Kimberly Cooper, Interim Historic Garden Manager
Chilly winter days in The Hermitage Garden seem quite slow. The ground is too hard to dig holes for new plants, many plants have entered dormancy, and some days, it’s just too cold to be outside for long periods of time. If you happen to visit the garden during this time of year, you may not see a gardener working in the garden beds. What, then, is the gardening crew up right now? Are they sitting inside a cozy office, sipping hot tea and gossiping about the latest gardening trends? They are not! Well. . .not entirely anyway. Though there are days that we can’t help but stay inside (looking at you, sub-zero winter storms), we cannot be found inside the office or breakroom.
What many visitors don’t know and may never notice is we have a production greenhouse onsite. It’s tucked away behind fences in an employee-only area. Jackson did not have a greenhouse, and therefore, we keep it out of sight. It’s a humble, small-scale greenhouse where the gardening crew can sow seeds and stick cuttings to produce plant material for spring plantings. Having plants ready to go out after the last frost date takes a lot of planning ahead!
Plant cuttings are taken at the end of October into the beginning of November. This is a great time to take cuttings because temperatures have started to dip but not so much that plants are fully dormant. Cuttings are used to produce plants that take a long time to grow from seed. What exactly is a cutting? It’s a vegetative portion of a plant, usually the stem and a couple leaves, that will be cut from a parent plant, then stuck in soil and kept warm and moist until the cutting produces enough roots to sustain life. Cuttings can take anywhere from one week to two months to grow an adequate root system. The rooting process is affected by moisture levels, temperatures and light levels. If I could effectively reproduce all plants from cuttings, I would, simply because it is my favorite form of plant production. But alas, not all plants take well to the process.
Seed sowing preparations start in December. The gardening crew comes up with a plan and decides what we want to plant and where in the garden it will be planted. When we plant is usually decided by Mother Nature. Maybe. In any case, we are planning to plant for spring and summer in early May.
To some this may seem as though we are missing spring. March 21st is the first day of spring after all, so why wait more than a month later? Remember when I mentioned the last frost date? For the Nashville area, that falls around mid-April, but it can be later. It can also take some time for the ground to warm up after the last frost. Aiming for May 1st to begin planting will give us the chance to set our greenhouse-grown plants outside to acclimate to the weather conditions while also staying close so we can monitor them for damage related to their new environment.
By January, we have already built a list of plant seeds we want to order or already have that will be sown in the coming months. We have the added requirement of only using plants and their cultivars that were introduced to America by 1920. This sometimes sets us on research tangents to make sure we are not selecting modern cultivars. As we place our seed orders and organize seeds already in our inventory, we compile a greenhouse inventory spreadsheet. This spreadsheet allows us to easily view cultivation information on all our seeds. This information includes days to emerge from seed, number of weeks needed to grow inside before moving outside, temperature requirements, a target number of plants to grow and any necessary special conditions. Based on the target number of plants we want to grow, we will check our inventory of pots, trays and soil to see if we need to order more before the seed season begins.
By the time February rolls around, we have the seed spreadsheet organized in order of estimated sowing date. We base this by the number of weeks the plant needs to grow inside before it can go outside to be acclimated. A few seeds may get sown by the end of the month.
March is a very busy month. This is when seed sowing hits its peak and the garden starts waking up from winter. In the greenhouse, a lot of our time will be spent prepping trays with soil, sowing seeds, spreading vermiculite, creating labels and monitoring soil moisture levels. In the garden ,we will start seeing bulbs that were planted in the fall emerge from the soil. We will spend what time we can keeping the areas around the sprouting bulbs clear of weeds and scout out areas we will need to focus on weeding in April.
April is when The Hermitage Garden starts nearing its peak. Daffodils, hyacinths and tulips will be in bloom, the peonies will be emerging and budding up, and our greenhouse will start overflowing with seedlings ready to take on the outside world. Our time in early to mid-April is spent prepping the garden for spring planting. We will be hard at work weeding and working the soil, adding amendments where needed so that our greenhouse-grown plants can be planted as soon as they are done acclimating under our netted hoop outside the greenhouse in late April.
Some of our seeds will never see the inside of the greenhouse. These seeds are ones that do best when they are directly sown, or broadcasted, into the beds we want them to grow. For these seeds, we will clear bed areas of weeds and work the soil before broadcasting the seeds into the bed. We will then gently press the seeds into the soil to increase seed-to-soil contact. These seeds will need sunlight in order to germinate, so we will do our best to not cover them during the process. Once this is done, all that will be left is to water in the seeds and keep the area moist for at least a few days. We will add slow-release fertilizer after the seedlings start showing three to four true leaves.
By the time the peonies open in early May, we will have most of our greenhouse-grown plants, many already starting to open their first blooms, planted in The Hermitage Garden. Many of these seedlings will last through to fall, providing a lovely flower show through the summer months after the peonies and bulbs have faded. Truly, there is never a dull moment when working with The Hermitage Gardens Crew!