At first, greenhouse manager Lynn Ackerman admits, she was a bit unnerved about caring for centuries-old camellias and grapevines grown from cuttings taken in the 1870s from Hampton Court in England.
“I’d wake up in the middle of the night wondering, ‘Oh God, did I close that greenhouse vent?’ ” she recalled.
But now, after two decades as horticulturist at the historic Lyman Estate in Waltham, Ackerman, 51, said she’s quite comfortable caring for thousands of plants and award-winning orchids that thrive in some of the oldest greenhouses in the country.
What’s the story behind these greenhouses?
There are four, the earliest built in 1804. Each one was constructed for a different sequence of plants by subsequent generations of the Lyman family. There is a camellia house, grapery, and greenhouse for cut flowers. The greenhouses also shelter orchids, citrus fruits, exotic house plants, orchids, and herbs, and are open year round to the public so visitors can enjoy the blooms.
What makes these greenhouses different?
They are completely different from commercial greenhouses, which use the latest technology. We strive to be historically accurate, so I take care of the garden just as they did 200 years ago. Instead of automatic watering systems and temperature control, I need to walk around and open vents and water everything by hand.
Which plants are the most difficult to tend to, and why?
I would say the camellias. The plants are rooted in a semipermanent ground bed, so the trees have to stay in the greenhouse even on sweltering days of summer when it easily gets over 100 degrees. This puts a lot of stress on plants, since we don’t have large air conditioning or cooling units. I have to do my best to hose and mist.
How did you become interested in horticulture?
My grandmother was a fantastic gardener. I was very inquisitive and watched her propagate geraniums for her porch. I was amazed you could take a little piece of plant and turn it into this amazing flowering bush.
If there was one question you could ask the original owners of the Lyman Estate, what would it be?
There are so many. I wish I could be a time traveler and see exactly how the Lymans did things.
They didn’t even have rubber hoses, yet they accomplished big gardening feats.
Do you believe people are born with a green or brown thumb?
I don’t think it’s green or brown — it’s a matter of awareness and having horticultural common sense.
What’s your favorite plant at the greenhouse?
A particular Madagascar orchid. It’s fairly small but very regal looking, and blooms almost continuously with white, thick, waxy flowers.
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.