Outside the Lawton Greenhouses, the seasons arrive at their own whim. But inside the Clinton Street complex, spring is sprouting on a strict schedule.
The structures, which have been in place since the early 1920s, still serve as Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation’s center for starting and storing many of the great variety of plants seen in public spaces of the Summit City.
The project encompasses 14 ranges, or round-topped greenhouse structures, where plants are grown. Lynda Heavrin, the manager of Landscape and Horticulture for Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation, estimated that in one year, the greenhouses are responsible for raising “probably a couple thousand kinds of plants.”
Plants are grown for many purposes at Lawton Greenhouses. First of all, this is where plants are incubated for use at the city parks and in public greenspaces. The greenhouses also handle the plants for the Foellinger-Friemann Botanical Conservatory, and give shelter to the large potted plants from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo during the snowy months. Finally, the greenhouses raise plants for the School Children’s Flower and Vegetable Association program, and for the Mother’s Day plant sale.
Are plants raised from seeds? Definitely. “We (raise) quite a few from seeds, we buy some plugs, we have some cuttings,” Heavrin said.
For example, to keep the Botanical Conservatory full of spring flowers, the greenhouses have a large chilling unit. Flower bulbs, including tulip bulbs, are stored in the chiller and the temperature is set at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the course of multiple weeks, the temperature is dialed lower and lower, until the chiller reaches about 34 degrees. Heavrin, who earned her degree in horticulture from Purdue University, explained that this process imitates what would happen in nature. Thoroughly chilled bulbs can then be potted and sent to the Botanical Gardens, where they will bloom.
Large pots of palms are taken from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in the cooler months, and stored at the greenhouses. Heavrin said giant pots with Bird of Paradise palms, tropical monstera plants and more are moved by forklift and truck to the Lawton Greenhouses and then back to the zoo when it is warm again.
Heavrin said the greenhouses distribute 18,000 plants to schools for children in Grades K-4. These plants, which include begonias, spider plants and coleus, are kept over the summer in students’ homes until August. Then each school has a plant show at which students can display their green thumb work. Plants that receive a blue ribbon earn their owners an invitation to the Blue Ribbon Show at McMillen Park Community Center. Those plants usually are distributed in April, but Indiana learned last week that all schools will be closed through the balance of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heavrin chuckled when she noted that, at the Blue Ribbon Show, she’s seen some houseplants that have been kept for 40 years, ever since the growers received them in grade school. However, she said it is more common to see plants that have been kept for 10-20 years at the Blue Ribbon Show.
The Mother’s Day Plant Sale illustrates the variety of plants grown at the greenhouses. The Lawton Greenhouses start 700 varieties of plants just for this event, and that variety includes herbs, vegetables, perennials and more. When questioned about the kinds of plants they raise, Heavrin said, “Oh my heavens — everything!” There are 30 types of tomatoes, 30 types of basil, and a lot more.
The 2020 Mothers Day Plant Sale is scheduled for May 8-10 at McMillen Community Center, 3901 Abbott St. Follow botanicalconservatory.org for details and updates.
There’s always something new coming up at the Lawton Greenhouses, on North Clinton Street just south of Science Central. Heavrin, who has been with Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation for 21 years, said that they are growing plants all year. From mums for November to poinsettias and native-to-Indiana elderberries, there’s sure to be something fresh at the Lawton Greenhouses.