Plant People: A Grand Display of Nature

In 2016, I attended a two-day Interior Plantscape Symposium hosted by the National Association of Landscape Professionals and American Horticulture. The event was held at the incredibly beautiful Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

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Longwood Gardens Green Wall

My purposes for attending the symposium were to participate in Green Plants for Green Buildings (GPGB) Economics of Biophilia course, to visit the gardens, to meet like-minded horticulturists, and to see the largest curved, indoor living green wall in North America.

The wall, which holds over 47,000 live plants, rises to fourteen feet and spans 300 feet. With almost two million visitors a year, the path to the eighteen pristine public restrooms has never looked so good or been such a jaw dropping experience.

Attending the Interior Plantscape Symposium was terrific on many levels, and the immense, floral spring backdrop of nature both inside and out was a sight to behold.

Karl Gercens: A True Plant Person

During my time at Longwood, I met Karl Gercens when he presented on the living wall. Something really struck me about him that has not diminished over three years later. His enthusiasm and passion for Longwood and what he does excited and inspired everyone who encountered him. It was delightful to witness.

I remember thinking that here was a person who shares the same passion, if not more so, for nature, especially colored foliage plants. How refreshing to see someone truly walking the walk!

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Longwood Gardens Display

Karl has been at Longwood Gardens for twenty years. He currently serves as the Conservatory Manager. Karl and his team, consisting of three full-time, four part-time, and up to seven students per day, manage all the design, planning, and sourcing of plants for the conservatory, usually a year in advance. With the help of forty volunteers working every week, they plant and maintain the magnificent nature displays in each section.

You would be hard pressed to find a yellow leaf at Longwood that is not there on purpose. The level of grooming is superb. In my opinion, the grounds of Longwood are unsurpassed and the conservatory with its Main, East and Exhibition Hall sections are a wonderful place to pause and get lost in the swirl of colors.

The History of Longwood Gardens

1914 marks the construction of the first conservatory. In 1921, the conservatory opened with the tagline, “A Perpetual Indoor Flower Show.” Since then, it has undergone numerous expansions and renovations, but it still remains a breathtaking plant display.

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Longwood Gardens Holiday Lights

There are nine different walkways through the Main conservatory. The displays change frequently, but they never repeat. In other words, if you’ve been before, you will never take the same picture against the same nature backdrop.

Volunteerism is very important at Longwood. The Gardens have volunteer opportunities from being part of the interpretive docent team that guides visitors through the displays to serving as a garden ambassador to assisting with the children’s gardens. As a visitor, you can wander aimlessly and in awe for hours, but I highly suggest the guided tours.

As in every conservatory and interior plant environment, you will find countless insects. Longwood has an extensive integrated pest management program, tackling mealybugs, thrips, scale, and spider mites.

Karl’s Memories of the Gardens

Besides finding exotic and unusual plants no one has seen before, Karl derives great satisfaction from using ordinary plants in extraordinary ways. He fondly remembers being guided in the garden by his grandmother and learning from her style of using a mix match of annuals in brilliant colors but no specific order. His penchant for gardening developed further at the tender age of eleven when he received the gift of a small greenhouse. There, he learned how to germinate seeds, propagate ferns, and experiment with air layering. 

karl gercens
Karl Gercens

Karl’s enthusiasm and curiosity for plants never stopped. In college, he earned a B.S. in Ornamental Horticulture at Mississippi State University, then continued on to do internships at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and at Filoli Estate in the San Francisco Bay area in California.

Today, Karl travels extensively all over the world, exploring gardens for twelve to fifteen weeks of the year. He lectures and researches, with most of his travel revolving around horticulture. Karl plans his travel around flower shows months or even years in advance and is known to take a spontaneous weekend trip to a greenhouse or field trial in the States.

While Karl loves travel and the challenges, strategies, and planning involved, he makes time to decompress after those long weeks by returning to his home’s personal garden, which he has incorporated and helped design for the thirteen-acre planned townhouse community where he resides.

Nature: Karl’s Favorite Plants

On a trip to Ohio, Karl stumbled across Begonia “Canary Wings.” He brought the idea back to Longwood, where the team planned for the carpet and hanging baskets that are currently on display.

Begonia "Canary Wings"
Begonia “Canary Wings”

The display boasts over 900 plants and ten orbiting globes that are three ft across. It is definitely a must see in person, as pictures do not do it justice. I highly recommend a visit to Longwood at any time of the season. You will not be disappointed!

Karl uploads pictures daily on social media. To learn more about this inspirational man, catch his enthusiasm, and see more amazing plants and pictures from around the world, visit his Flickr account. You can also check out his adventures on social media – Facebook and Instagram.

Robbin Voight is a 30 year veteran of the plantscape and horticulture industry. Her horticultural consulting service is based in Georgetown, Texas. She is an active trail guide at several preserves in Austin, and a hobby naturalist. Robbin is a Registered Green Plants for Green Buildings Trainer looking forward to presenting the accredited 'Advanced Living Walls' continuing education course and 'The Economics of Biophilic Design' to architects and interior designers across North America. You can reach her at [email protected]

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