The Olcott Park Greenhouse in Virginia, flourished in its heyday, supplying bedding plants for elaborate floral displays in the park and around town and hosting huge begonia and chrysanthemum shows that drew thousands.
The historic Virginia landmark remains the only botanical garden in the state north of the Twin Cities, housing plants that grow in the tropics alongside interesting specimens more at home in arid climates.
Although the greenhouse has experienced some tougher times, it is blossoming once more — a location where people gather for parties, meetings, weddings and to practice yoga.
And there are many plans for growing the greenhouse into a place where many new memories are made — where school children care for seedlings that will eventually mature into healthy snacks and where kids can observe and “grow up” with tropical vegetation, leading to the “I remember when” moments older generations have when talking of Virginia’s indoor gardens.
The nonprofit Friends of the Greenhouse is seeking to expand the site’s capacity in the community, to involve people of all ages and abilities, and to provide fresh opportunities for education and enjoyment.
But that all takes work, especially for a place that thrives on the help of volunteers.
Virginia’s Olcott Park Greenhouse could use even more “friends.”
The greenhouse, which was built at Olcott Park in the 1920s-30s, originally employed a dedicated botanist. In recent years, Dave Koeneman served as its grower.
But the landmark is currently run as a partnership between the Friends of the Greenhouse organization, which has a seven-member board and roughly 80 active members, and the City of Virginia.
“We have a great working relationship with the city,” said President Shaun Hainey.
However, the group is seeking to refresh the greenhouse and expand its potential with the community’s help.
High on the list is identifying and cataloging all of the numerous plants, ranging from the gigantic, leafy “bird of paradise” that greets visitors in the main room to the jade plant that is somewhere near 100 years old.
Roosevelt Elementary fifth grade teacher Chris Holmes and his students launched that project, with each child tagging a plant to study and identify.
It’s been fun for the students, who feel like they have “adopted” their plants, said Cheryl Weappa, soon-to-be treasurer of Friends of the Greenhouse.
The building is now Wi-Fi-equipped, which will make it easy to log the vegetation on a computer, and perhaps each plant will have a QR code that visitors can scan to learn more, Hainey said.
The group also plans to work with conservatories in St. Paul to obtain volunteers who can assist with identification and such things as pruning and planting.
Despite budget and staffing cuts, the greenhouse has seen many positive changes in the past handful of years, thanks to grants the city received to make it more energy-efficient and sustainable. Upgrades include insulation of the foundation, replacement of polycarbonate panels, and installation of photovoltaic panels, a new heating system, and restrooms.
Thanks to help from the city and in-kind serves from area businesses, the greenhouse is also outfitted with lighting that will allow the building to be open after dark.
And the structure, which has a main space and “north” and “south” extensions, has new grow lights and renovated bench tops in the “North Room.” There, elementary students will have the chance to start seedlings and visit occasionally to care for and watch them grow.
The city, school district and county are additionally looking to begin a Farm to School project.
“It’s open-ended as to what that will look like,” Hainey said.
But it will provide the opportunity for kids to “get their hands dirty” planting and caring for vegetables and herbs that will be harvested as healthy and locally grown food for the schools.
Virginia Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt “has been very receptive” to the idea, he said.
The greenhouse is also working on launching a pilot program with Applied Learning Center students at the Northland Learning Center in Virginia. Students will assist with such tasks as cleaning and caring for plants, Hainey said. They may also work with younger school children on projects.
Many people have wonderful recollections of such things as the lemon tree that once grew in the greenhouse, said Friends of the Greenhouse Vice President Mark Haavisto. The group would like to plant a selection of new, more exotic vegetation so younger generations can create such memories at the greenhouse, he said.
There are also ideas for arranging the current plants in original ways, such as creating a desert-scape for the cactuses. And visitors can expect to see additional seasonal plants and flowers, such as tulips, in the future.
A small pond in the main area is one of the greenhouse’s newest additions. Virginia City Councilor Steve Johnson recently released goldfish into the water, and perhaps the pond will be home to koi fish one day.
Many groups already host meetings at the greenhouse, which can be rented for events including weddings, birthday parties and photo shoots. And yoga classes are held at 9 a.m. Saturday mornings, taught by various instructors, with participants providing a free-will donation.
While the greenhouse is currently open noon to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, there could be expanded hours once students begin volunteering during the week. The greenhouse is always open to the public when volunteers are on-site.
Haavisto also expects increased interest in the greenhouse as new things happen at the park, such as the renovation of the historic Olcott Park Fountain, which is slated to be running again this summer.
The Olcott Park Greenhouse, he said, will continue to grow — its evolution by way of a big community effort.