A standing ovation for management and staff at Gage Park greenhouses

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]March had arrived with a blast of high winds and bitter cold–but the new tropical greenhouse at Gage Park was having none of it. Opening the door brings a welcome feeling of warmth and spaciousness.

The foyer area is a long, conventional hallway that shares a glass wall with the tropical greenhouse. During public events, such as the bulb show, the entrance area is set up like a cafe, with a coffee and snack vendor and seating. This hall provides access to the new mechanical room, an office, and the existing production greenhouses. 

The greenhouse, built-in three sections, is 40 feet at its tallest–three times higher than the now-demolished old structure. With floor space more than double that of its predecessor, this fully accessible building can hold 125 people. It was near capacity on the first Saturday of the spring bulb show, easily coping with the influx of double-width strollers, wheelchairs and other mobility aids, something the old structure just couldn’t do.

The smaller, deeper pond on the south end flows under the concrete walkway, which becomes glass at the crossing to create a see-through bridge that delights the children as they spot the koi underneath.

The layout of the rectangular space is clear and simple. There is a near-continuous wide, rectangular border planting area, a main planting bed in the center, and a path between them. The southeast side of the rectangle has been made into a seating area with four rows of concrete steps, each about 51 cm high and 6 metres long. This area creates a natural amphitheatre for speakers or presentations, meetings, corporate events, and weddings. It’s not the most comfortable seating so, for extended relaxing, be sure to bring a cushion or yoga mat. As well, there are rows of uplights on waist-high pillars, making the space suitable for evening events.

On each end is a pond with waterfalls and goldfish. The smaller, deeper pond on the south end flows under the concrete walkway, which becomes glass at the crossing to create a see-through bridge that delights the children as they spot the koi underneath. Greenhouse Supervisor Neil Schofield mentioned that staff, not contractors, built both ponds. “They did an amazing job,” he said, “considering we don’t build ponds everyday.” Schofield has two new full-time staff for the greenhouse, both graduates of Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, who handle the plant care.

The entire planting area is covered by a drip-line system supplemented by hand-watering for the thirstier micro climates. “We grouped the plants according to their water needs” says Schofield, so hand-watering is pretty straightforward. Gardeners with an irrational distrust of Hamilton’s water supply should note that the greenhouse uses plain tap water, unheated and untreated, for irrigation.

The temperature and humidity are automatically controlled by sensor boxes that signal to a computerized regulator whether to increase or decrease. Temperature is mainly controlled by an air exchange system on the building’s north side. Winter heating is via hot water, piped along the building’s inside perimeter and along the roof trusses. The boiler system comprises one master vessel and four smaller ones, each balanced for optimum water and energy use. The roof is covered with shade cloth that allows 25 percent of the light to penetrate, keeping the temperature down for both the plants and people, especially in summer. The “glass” walls are one-centimetre thick clear Lexan polycarbonate. The huge, curved structural ribs are made from Glulan, an engineered wood product that approaches steel in strength and is used to create structures too large for typical wood construction methods.

The soil, an extra-porous type of pro-mix, is three feet deep to accommodate the big palms. The mix, surprisingly, supports Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, a tiny ladybug-type insect that consumes mealybugs and their larvae, as well as certain types of scale and aphids. The biological program (Schofield calls it it “bugs and feed”) also uses beneficial nematodes, mite-eating mites, and sticky trap monitoring.

Bio-controls also include free-roaming, insect-eating birds. “Right now we have two Diamond Doves who like to hang out underneath the Pygmy Palms,” says Schofield. “We’re getting two more, along with five Button Quail.” The caged birds from the old greenhouse are back at the aviary in Westdale.

Schofield proudly explains that although the original collection was robust, it was fairly pedestrian. The new plants are special–even the most discerning plant nerds will surely be impressed. “Most of them were grown in Florida” said Schofield. “Our horticulture manager drove there with a broker to choose them in person.”

Among the many eye-catchers is Golden Plume (Schaueria favicana), a flowering perennial in the Acanthus family. Shrubby in habit, it features large plumes of tubular, pale yellow flowers that attract butterflies and nectar-seeking birds in its native Brazil. What a treat to see it flowering on opening day!

Podocarpus elongatus, a semi-tropical coniferous relative of the yellow-wood tree, is now available with blue foliage. This “Blue Ice” cultivar provides nice textural relief from the many palms, bromeliads, agaves, and other smooth-leaved plants. The greenhouse specimens are already about four feet tall.

Travellers’ Palm Revenala madagascariensis, is not actually a palm. More closely related to the banana tree, it will grow to at least 30 feet and display unique flat fans of foliage that orient themselves east to west, creating a botanical compass for travellers.

Managing to simultaneously stage the annual traditional bulb show and showcase the new greenhouse was no small feat!

Hailing from the remote Seychelles Islands between Madagascar and India, the Seychelles Stilt Palm (Verscheffeltia splendida) is globally endangered. The Gage greenhouse specimens range from three to six feet tall and already show the distinctive spindly “stilts” where the roots join the narrow trunk.

Other palm species include: Gum Palm, Cardboard Palm, Ruffled Fan Palm, Cuban Wax Palm, Queen Palm, and Lipstick Palm. Looking up the botanical names for these beauties should occupy but a few minutes for the dedicated plant nerds reading this …

There were quite a few food plants as well: pineapple, cacao, mango, banana, and dates. The collection includes many ferns, cycads, and bromeliads, as well as honeysuckles, jasmine, mimosa, lilies, and a large crapemyrtle tree. The variety is truly spectacular.

And, of course, the spring-flowering bulbs were on display–most at or near peak-bloom. Kudos go out to the greenhouse staff for growing and timing them so well. Managing to simultaneously stage the annual traditional bulb show and showcase the new greenhouse was no small feat! The Hawaiian Luau theme provided plenty of opportunity to fill spaces in the not-quite-fully-planted beds with colourful flip-flops and surfboards. This was obviously a huge undertaking and the greenhouse staff and management deserve a standing ovation.

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