Thursday, May 26, 2011

Growing up in a Greenhouse

In May my favorite activity is visiting every greenhouse for a 20 mile radius. And my favorite color is green. Why? Well because I grew up in a greenhouse! Literally.

My parents met at the University of Kentucky. They both emerged with degrees in Horticulture (you can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think) , and within a couple of years, had returned to my mother's home town to buy the Busti Greenhouses. For about 5 years we actually lived IN the greenhouse. Our little 2 bedroom house was attached to the end of the two original greenhouses.

When we arrived, the greenhouses still had their original glass panes. The roofs were soon replaced with plastic because having loose glass panes falling on your plants and customers is rather inconvenient. But the greenhouses retained their vintage charm. I remember a concrete slab near the end of one house had a date in the 1920s scratched into it.

The center of our home was the Sales Room. Mom cozied up the sales bench by stapling bright plastic picnic table clothes over it. I would sit on the counter for hours blowing bubbles, sniffing flowers, and examining the bright pictures on the seed packs and boxes.

As I grew up I advanced to stapling boxes and punching the sales numbers into the old cash register. My family sold out when I was a teenager, but I returned during college to work in the summers. Memorial Day Weekend was our big sales time, but the two or three weeks leading up to it were utter mayhem as well. My mother planted hundreds of combination pots that were set out in the cemeteries on "Decoration Day". And, if the normal mayhem was insufficient, Mom would invite the radio station in for a remote broadcast, put on a pot of Marigold Chowder and dye her thumb green.

The existing, more contemporary, outlying greenhouses were inefficient, so one of the first things Dad did was tear them down and replace them with modern hoop houses or "Quansuts". We referred to them as "The Tomato House", "The Petunia House", "The Marigold House" and "The Pansy House" based on what dominated their contents.

I remember watching them scrape the ground level with the plow on our Allis Chalmers Model B, and I spent a lot of time with my own tiny tools digging in the mud.

I was three years old.

I spent my formative years playing in dirt. My inherited Marx farmsets were set up on the dirt and the animals grazed on freshly plowed fields full of perlite and peat moss. Each spring my Dad would "make dirt" which involved mixing the various contents and cooking the resulting potting mix to sterilize it. I still love the smell of warm dirt. Any dirt bin or wheelbarrow full of the stuff was my playpen.

This was the view out of the picture window in our dining room, hundreds of geraniums grown from cuttings. We grew almost everything we sold. We didn't ship it in from large wholesale growers. Everything was started in the warm and steamy seed room. My mother still has the weathered doors from the seed room hanging on her wall as rustic art. All the planting dates and amounts were entered in a grimy ledger.

My little sister got a chance to grow up in the greenhouse too. Mom put her out of harms way in her own "hanging basket".

My Dad shows Holly how to transplant Wizard Mix Coleus.

Greenhousing runs in my family. My father's father took a summer hobby (he was a shop and math teacher) and turned it into a full time job during his retirement. Above are PaPaw's Barlow Greenhouses in Shelbyville, KY. They are now gone, and Fletcher Lane runs to their west in honor of my MaMaw Mary Fletcher Hodges Barlow.

The inside of Barlow Greenhouses. In my eye, these modern houses were never as charming or esthetically pleasing as Busti's vintage houses.

THE actual honest to goodness original Rototiller™.

Much like all facial tissues are not Kleenex, and not all adhesive bandages are Band-Aids... Not all rotary tillers are Rototillers. PaPaw is tilling the soil inside the newly constructed tomato house. The dirt in Kentucky smells completely different from the dirt in New York.

Each spring I anxiously await the opening of the greenhouses. I walk methodically through each one looking for old friends and new varieties. Both the Busti Greenhouses and the Barlow Greenhouses have been flattened to the ground and erased, but their legacy lives on.

PaPaw and I in the geranium house. Dad is back in the upper left corner. Look at those clay pots and peat pots! How Retro!

Hey Mom, how come you're not in any of these pictures? Probably the same reason I'm not in any of my gardening pictures!


  1. Hmmmm...somebody looks like she's doing her very best to be like her grandaddy ! :)

    Although my parents definitely did NOT own a greenhouse operation, my favourite high school job was working at a greenhouse/nursery/landscaping combination business. Because I could run every piece of equipment they owned including their tree spades and dump trucks I was paid accordingly. Ten bucks an hour doesn't sound like much money now but it was good money in the late 80's, especially when working 70 or more hours a week !

  2. I will NOT be retiring into greenhousing and gentleman farming. In fact, now that Spring Gardening Project #4 is done (more on that later) my plan is to sit in a chaise sipping Margaritas while I watch the garden grow.

  3. What a wonderful post! I felt as if I was there looking at a photo album with you!! Loving your cold frame too.