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The Gardner’s garden How the Gardner’s garden grows Nursing the Gardner Museum’s plants back to health

Stan Kozak, chief horticulturist for the Gardner Museum in Boston, with an oleander plant that had been on display at the museum in July and now in its green house in Hingham. Stan Kozak, the Gardner’s chief horticulturist, with an oleander plant . (Below), lemons (left) and pyrancantha (right). Stan Kozak, chief horticulturist for the Gardner Museum in Boston, with an oleander plant that had been on display at the museum in July and now in its green house in Hingham. Stan Kozak, the Gardner’s chief horticulturist, with an oleander plant . (Below), lemons (left) and pyrancantha (right). (photos by Barry Chin/Globe Staff/ (LOWER RIGHT) JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF photos by Barry Chin/Globe Staff/ (BELOW, CENTER) JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF)
By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / August 19, 2012
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HINGHAM — This coastal town of 22,000 has lots to boast about: the Talbot’s clothing chain started here, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt praised its central road as “the most beautiful Main Street in America,” and the 17th-century Old Ship Church here claims to be the oldest meetinghouse in continuous religious use in the United States.

HINGHAM — This coastal town of 22,000 has lots to boast about: the Talbot’s clothing chain started here, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt praised its central road as “the most beautiful Main Street in America,” and the 17th-century Old Ship Church here claims to be the oldest meetinghouse in continuous religious use in the United States.

HINGHAM — This coastal town of 22,000 has lots to boast about: the Talbot’s clothing chain started here, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt praised its central road as “the most beautiful Main Street in America,” and the 17th-century Old Ship Church here claims to be the oldest meetinghouse in continuous religious use in the United States.

Hingham has bragging rights to dozens of famous residents, past and present. And as of March, it also can get credit for a link to the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a Boston landmark 20 miles away. That’s because the museum opened a greenhouse here to supply all the plants used to create the lush botanical displays featured in the museum courtyard.

The greenhouse replaces one at the museum that was demolished to make room for a spectacular $114 million wing, which opened in January. A small greenhouse that is open to the public went up at the new wing, but the bulk of the growing operation has moved to suburban Hingham.  

“I’m just as excited about the new greenhouse as everyone else is about the new [wing],” said Stanley Kozak, the museum’s chief horticulturist.  

The Hingham greenhouse, tucked behind a nondescript office building on a busy street, is nothing special from the outside. But inside, there are hundreds of orchids, hundreds more chrysanthemums, rows of hydrangeas, jasmine and papyrus, bay trees and jade plants, lemons and limes, shelves of ferns of varying varieties, three huge fishtail palms.

Altogether, about 6,000 plants fill the 9,000 square feet of greenhouse space, which is divided into three temperature zones, Kozak said. Each plant will end up in the museum courtyard, part of eight carefully planned displays.

“We have a game plan that covers two years, so there is always flowering plant material in the courtyard,” Kozak said. The designs primarily focus on color, but also on leaf textures and plant heights, he said. He is constantly working to make sure plants are ready to take their spots.

The current design features 6-foot-tall blue and white campanula, or bellflowers, and yellow and white flowering maples. While the display will look the same through the summer, the individual specimens will change. They’re replaced frequently — victims of a light-restricted environment designed for artwork, not greenery, Kozak said.

Hence the need for the greenhouse: Essentially it’s a big glass warehouse filled with backup flora, sort of a spare-parts storage area that doubles as a rehab center where light-starved plants are nursed back to health.

“The average lifespan of a flowering plant in the courtyard is seven to 10 days,” Kozak explained. “Some would last six to eight weeks in the greenhouse, but the museum is set up for artwork, not plants. That’s why we have so many plants. When plants come out of the courtyard, they’re kind of spent. We’re like a hospital, getting them back in shape. Here we cut them back, re-pot them, groom them. We get them ready” for their next turn on display.

Kozak and his staff of four also propagate new plants, taking cuttings and sowing seeds.

Each summer, for example, the gardeners plant the museum’s trademark orange nasturtium, which flow from the third-floor balconies over the courtyard walls. The campanula in the current display were started from seed two years ago, he said, and jasmine cuttings take three to four years to mature.

Some of the 40-plus flowering jade plants are 50 years old, Kozak said.

“We have some of the same plant material as when I first started, 42 years ago,” he said. “There’s a lot of tradition in what we grow.”

Kozak has been with the Gardner his entire career, starting as an intern and becoming chief horticulturist in 1990. A Dedham resident, he said he doesn’t grow things at home. “The plants at the museum and greenhouse are enough,” he said.

Kozak has his favorites. He likes hydrangea, because they last up to three weeks in the courtyard — about three times longer than most other plants. He’s also partial to the Miltonia orchid with its purple and white blooms. “When they open, they have a beautiful face,” he said.

The greenhouse has about 20 varieties of orchids, Kozak said, and they are scattered throughout the space. Most were in the courtyard from January through March and are now being repotted and restored for their next stint there, he said.

The jade plants in the horticultural collection also were in the courtyard in January — altogether for the first time — for the opening of the new wing, Kozak said. “They made a great display. The whole plant is covered in white star-shaped flowers,” he said.

Most are back in Hingham for rest and resuscitation, packed in with Norfolk pines for the Christmas display and rows and rows of ferns and enormous begonias.

Kozak said it will take probably two years for him to figure out exactly where everything belongs in the greenhouse. “Some plants have moved three or four times already, and will be moved again,” he said.

He said the Gardner settled on its South Shore location purely by chance. When the greenhouse at the museum was demolished, Kozak moved his operation to Natick for a while, but had to move and then was able to strike a deal to build in Hingham.

“It’s great to have a home again,” he said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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