You CAN Fool Mother Nature
New England flower shows are a time-tested cure for those end-of-winter blues. Strolling past towering delphiniums, sweet-scented roses and weeping cherry trees -- all blooming weeks ahead of schedule -- one question comes to mind:
How do they do that?
Frank Wolfe has the answers when it comes to fooling Mother Nature. For nearly 30 years, the proprietor of Lake Street Garden Center in Salem, N.H. has forced plants for flower shows large and small from Bangor to Boston.
“The astilbes in greenhouse four need water,” Wolfe barks into his walkie-talkie as he makes the rounds of his six greenhouses on a cold February day. Inside temperatures range from a chilly 35 to a tropical 70 degrees and auxiliary lamps overhead burn from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. to augment weak winter light.
Ducking to avoid hanging baskets of jasmine, Wolfe squeezes past a giant container of trailing purple petunias and pink toadflax destined for the Providence, R.I. show. Thousands of plants are packed cheek-by-jowl on tables, each tagged for one of 20 exhibitors who order from Lake Street. A cluster of bleeding hearts and a thicket of mauve foxgloves surrounds pots of rosy ‘winter elegance’ sweet peas clambering up birch branches. Ten-foot lilacs in tight bud and a pink dogwood are tilted sideways, too tall for the greenhouse roof. In the corner, a pair of tall trellises covered with Golden Shower roses are sure to be show-stoppers.
There’s an art to forcing flowers in the dead of winter, one that requires timing, a close eye on the weather and constant shuttling of plants from warm to cool greenhouses. “You want to avoid a situation where one-third of the plants are at their peak, one-third have gone past and one-third are lagging behind,” says Wolfe. “Everything’s got to be ready at the same time.”
Forcing is different every year because weather is such a factor. A stretch of sun can bring plants into bud fast, but cloudy days delay bloom. Heavy, wet snow -- the kind that can collapse a greenhouse roof -- or subzero temperatures on delivery day are other worries. “It never fails,” Wolfe sighs. “It’s always 20 degrees the day we ship.”
So forcing plants is not for wimps? “It gets a little tense,” admits Wolfe, who clocks 14 hour days before the shows. He is aided by a hard-working staff of 15, including his wife, Mary and son,Tim.
A keen plantsman with advanced degrees in botany and taxonomy,Wolfe collected plants in South America for the National Arboretum. He has an uncanny ability to look at a plant and understand its cultural requirements. ”Some of our competitors will ask us, ‘So what books on forcing did your dad read? “ says Tim Wolfe. “But it’s just been 30 years of trial and error.” (contact the author for the rest of the article.)