Lessons from a hothouse

A plant conservatory's head gardener shares her steamy secrets

Seattle's Volunteer Park Conservatory can trace much of its lush beauty back to a garden on Beacon Hill and a woman who was born in 1876. Leata Gordon ― the great-grandmother of the conservatory's current senior gardener, Stephanie Johnson-Toliver ― lived until she was 99 and gardened almost as long, sometimes with Stephanie at her side.

"I think it's just in my blood," Johnson-Toliver says as she strolls around the Fern House, snipping a defunct frond or bending down to push soil up around exposed roots as she goes. "My grandmother lived near Volunteer Park. All through my childhood, we'd come to the conservatory. Something told me I'd always be connected to this place."

Connected indeed. These days Johnson-Toliver manages the staff and volunteers, masterminds the plant collections, and dreams up the seasonal floral shows.

Though her great-grandmother first gave her the gardening bug, Johnson-Toliver had a few mentors as well, including Toshio Kiyonaga, the conservatory's former head gardener who was known for his prowess with orchids. "Tosh was a rare and wonderful man who taught me so much about plant husbandry and life," Johnson-Toliver says. (Fittingly, there are two photos on her desk: one of Kiyonaga, and another of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Volunteer Park a century ago.)

Johnson-Toliver joined Seattle Parks and Recreation in 1978, after a brief stint as a corporate auditor. Though successful, her career left her unfulfilled. "I had to be among plants," she says. At that time, the conservatory, built in 1912, was in a state of disrepair from lack of both funds and public interest. As soon as Johnson-Toliver took over, she set about refining the collections and imparting a distinct character to each of the conservatory's five houses.

Now in its 91st year, the conservatory is thriving. A gift shop and resource center just opened, and the Friends of the Conservatory in Volunteer Park organization is pushing new projects, such as an outreach program to offer horticultural lectures and classes. Another goal is a contemporary addition that would triple the size of the 8,000-square-foot antique glass house.

All this will require new sources of funding. But Johnson-Toliver is undaunted. "In life and in gardening, it's all about moving ahead, day by day, keeping things growing," she says.

That's probably something else she learned from her great-grandmother.

THE TROPICS AT HOME

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver hates seeing disappointed gardeners. "They come to the conservatory and think they can grow exotic plants at home like we do here. Unless you have your own conservatory, you really can't." Her advice: "Stick with tried-and-true plants, and treat them well." Here are some of her top picks for plants to grow at home.

Aglaonema (Chinese evergreen). Ornamental leaves and callalike flowers. Very tolerant of low light.

Aspidistra (cast-iron plant). Grows well in low light, even in a northeast window.

Sansevieria (snake plant). Drought-tolerant. Give it strong light and it will flourish, maybe even bloom.

Spathiphyllum. Leafy, easy, and forgiving in low or moderate light.

Volunteer Park Conservatory: 10-4 daily; free; 1400 E. Galer St., at the north end of Volunteer Park; 206/684-4743.

PLANTING TIPS

Here are Stephanie Johnson-Toliver's suggestions for growing indoor plants.

Provide optimal light. Don't grow sun lovers in a dark corner. But don't put them too close to windows; they may burn.

Use good soil. Use commercial potting mix. Also, in spring and summer, fertilize monthly with a complete fertilizer. Fertilize at half strength (or not at all) in the winter.

Water wisely. Most plants like evenly moist soil when days are long, slightly dry soil when days are short.

Humidify. Dry household air encourages spider mites (the worst of the houseplant pests). Mist at least weekly.

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