Every year in late winter, when we’re all desperate for the sights and smells of springtime, the botanic gardens of Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges bring us their fabulous annual spring bulb shows. This year’s shows will run from March 2 through 17, promising, as always, to delight visitors from all over New England.
At Smith College’s Lyman Conservatory and Mount Holyoke’s Talcott Greenhouse, staff members and students have been busy for months preparing the stunning arrays of crocuses, hyacinths, narcissi, irises, lilies, tulips and more that will come into their own during the first two weeks of March. A question that many visitors ask is: how do you make sure that everything is ready to bloom at the right time?
Over the many years that the colleges have been putting on the shows, they have refined the technique of synchronized blooming. To prepare for the annual bulb shows, students at both colleges pot thousands of bulbs and put them in cold storage to simulate a period of winter dormancy.
In January, the pots are brought into the greenhouses to wake up and start growing. Spring plants grown from seed, such as pansies, are started in the fall. Because the plants all have different blooming schedules, there’s an artful science to bringing the bulbs into flower during the same two-week period.
Timing and temperature control are key to creating the spectacular display. “We can push them or slow them down if we need to,” said Tom Clark, director and curator of Mount Holyoke’s botanic garden. “And we don’t want them all to be in full bloom on opening day.”
But there are limits to what can be done. “When the temperature hit 60 degrees a couple of weeks ago,” he said, “all we could do to keep things cool was to open all the vents in the greenhouse.”
Snow is also a challenge, he added, because it does not melt when the greenhouse roofs are cool. “If we warm up the greenhouse to get rid of the snow, we’re making it too warm for the plants.”
In addition to the usual spring favorites, the shows will feature smaller bulbs such as chionodoxa (glory of the snow) and muscari (grape hyacinth). “We like to have some plants that aren’t so common,” said Clark. “We like to introduce people to new things they can try in their own gardens.” One such plant is the fritillaria meleagris, or snake’s head fritillary. It grows only 8 to 10 inches and has nodding, bell-shaped flowers in colors ranging from white to dusty-wine and purple. Smith’s show this year will feature “a slew of anemone nestled together which makes for a great sight,” said greenhouse assistant Dan Babineau, who does much of the planning and execution for the show.
Both shows use “supporting actors” from the permanent collections to add dimension and texture to the displays. And both feature branches from spring-flowering trees that are forced into bloom with heat and moisture. “I'm particularly excited for the many new forced branches,” said Babineau. “The buds of cornus mas and officinalis, dogwoods, are on the way along with a couple varieties of cherry, some apple blossoms and more.”
Last year, Mount Holyoke introduced a new feature: a complementary art installation created by students specifically for the show. The work, a sculpture evoking the college’s main gate and large fountain that created a rain-like effect, was so successful that this past fall, Clark asked sculpture professor Ligia Bouton if she might have students interested in doing a piece for this year’s show. Three students, Deborah Korboe, Emily Damon and Lauren Ferrara, took on the challenge, advised by Bouton and Amanda Maciuba, visiting artist in printmaking.
“We gave the students a couple of possible ideas to work with,” said Clark. These included “an evocation of the Pioneer Valley” and “colorful spheres, perhaps hot air balloons, that are popular in the area.” From these themes, the students created a spectacular array of mobile pieces in metal, plexiglass and wax hanging from the greenhouse ceiling that represent fall, winter and spring, the three seasons they experience here in the Valley.
“We liked that idea [of hot air balloons], but wanted to go with something a little more abstract,” said Damon. “We played around with the idea of hot air balloons, air, wind currents, then settled on the theme of ‘winds of change’ which is representative of the three seasons we have hanging above the flower bed.”
The work consists of 625 handmade elements, each strung and hung individually. The delicate leaves of fall, the shimmering ice formations of winter, and the magnified spring seeds, buds and other organic shapes of spring, provide a magical counterpoint to the array of flowers beneath it. “The overall span and shape of the piece emulates a gust of wind that starts at the door and carries you through the amazing flower show,” said Korboe. “It is a journey as well as a transition. A journey between seasons while looking forward to the next and still experiencing the present.”
“It was an amazing experience working on this project with such a creative and ambitious group of student artists,” said Bouton. “They really worked hard, and I feel the piece is a testament to their dedication, creativity and perseverance.”
The Smith College show will kick off March 1 at 7:30 p.m. with a lecture titled “Advancing Racial Equity Through Regenerative Place-Making” at the Campus Center Carroll Room. Speaker Duron Chavis is a nationally known leaer in urban agriculture and advocate for community-designed solutions to local challenges. His talk will focus on ways to mitigate the harsh realities of racism and racial inequality through place-making, a process that capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and wellbeing. The event is free and open to the public.
Both shows are open March 2-17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. The Smith Show is open till 8 p.m. Fri. to Sun. For more information about the shows, go to: mtholyoke.edu/botanic and garden. smith.edu.
Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.
Upcoming garden events:
Landscape architecture book launch
On Mar. 2 at 10 a.m., Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge will host a talk by well-known local landscape architect Walter Cudnohufsky, about his new book, Cultivating the Designers Mind — Principles and Process of Coherent Landscape Design. Cudnohufsky is founder of the Conway School of Landscape Design. His book is a culmination of 60 years of studying, teaching and practicing landscape design. While the book is intended for all landscape architects, architects, planners and engineers, it is both accessible to and useful for all audiences. This talk will share some of the sources of personal inspiration, discovered principles and insights made in capturing on paper the elusive task called designing. There will be ample time for planned audience engagement and questions and answers in the one hour talk. Members: $10/nonmembers: $15. For more information and to register, go to: berkshirebotanical.org Community tree conference at UMass
The 40th annual Community Tree Conference will take place at Stockbridge Hall at UMass on Mar. 5. This event is designed for tree care professionals, volunteers and enthusiasts including arborists, tree wardens/municipal tree care specialists, foresters, landscape architects and shade tree committee members. This year’s theme is Species Selection in the Urban Environment. Topics will include creating bird habitats in the urban environment, the effects of climate change at the local level, and choosing trees for storm resistance. Cost: $95 ($75 for each additional member of the same organization). For more information and to register, go to ag.umass.edu/landscape/events
Pests and diseases in the landscape: Q & A
One positive thing I can say about winter is that pests and diseases are less of a problem in the garden. But spring is just around the corner, and it’s not too soon to start thinking about how to deal with these problems. At Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, on Mar. 9 from 11 a.m. to noon, there will be a Q and A on the subject of insects and disease in our landscape. Gary Alia, field supervisor for Rutland Nurseries, will answer your questions about problems affecting trees, shrubs, perennials and lawns. Gardeners are encouraged to send your questions in advance to email@example.com. Cost is included with admission.
Rainwater as a resource
The final clinic in Hadley Garden Center’s weekly series is about using rainwater as a resource around your home and garden. Mar. 2 at 1 p.m. 285 Russell St. (Rte. 9) Hadley. For more information, call 584-1423. The session is free but come early to get a seat. And while you’re there, consider buying yourself something nice for your garden to celebrate having almost made it through another winter.