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Greenhouse Manager Tends To Historic Plant Collection

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Greenhouse manager Lynn Ackerman admits she was a bit unnerved at first about taking care of 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? I was a bit of a wreck being steward of these noble plants.” But now, after serving as Lyman Estate horticulturist for over two decades, Ackerman, 51, said she’s more comfortable taking care of the notable collection. The historical estate in Waltham has among the oldest greenhouses in the country, built between 1804 and 1930, and still houses plants from those eras. Ackerman tends to thousands of plants and maintains award-winning orchids, while welcoming visitors to the greenhouses in all seasons.

Q: What’s the story behind these greenhouses?
A: There are four greenhouses, the earliest built in 1804. They are all connected with a brick backbone, and each one was constructed for a different sequence of plants by subsequent generations of the Lyman family. There is a camellia house, grapery, and a greenhouse for cut flowers. Today the greenhouses also shelter orchids, citrus fruits, exotic houseplants, orchids, and herbs, and are open year round to the public so visitors can enjoy the picturesque blooms.

Q: What makes the greenhouses different from other greenhouses?
A: They are completely different from commercial greenhouses, which use the latest technology in automation and insulation materials. But 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. The lean-to style greenhouses have a glass roof facing southeast to capture the most sunlight. And instead of vast monocultures of mums, for example, we might grow 10-20 different plants.

Q: Which plants are the most difficult to tend to, and why?
A: I would say the camellias, because although the cool temperature and lighting are all perfect in the wintertime, in the summer time it’s a different story. The plants are rooted in a semi-permanent ground bed, so the trees have to stay in the greenhouse even in the 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, and make sure the fans are going to keep evaporation up.

Q: How did you become interesting in horticulture?
A: I grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. My grandmother was a fantastic gardener and plant person. 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.

Q: If there was one question you could ask the original owners of the Lyman Estate, what would it be?
A: Oh god, there are so many. Even all this time, I wish I could be a time traveler and see exactly how the Lymans did things. They didn’t even have rubber hoses to water plants, yet they accomplished big gardening feats.

Q: Do you believe people are born with a green or brown thumb?
A: I don't think it's green or brown – I think it's a matter of awareness and having horticultural common sense.

Q: What’s your favorite plant at the greenhouse?
A: I guess it would be a particular Madagascar orchid. It’s fairly small but very regal looking, and blooms almost continuously with white, thick and waxy flowers.

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