John Ernst

Foreign flowers, Rochester roots

by cathym on November 1, 2019

The Eastman Museum’s annual “Dutch Connection” show shares in the struggle against winter blues

Story by John Ernst; photos provided by the George Eastman Museum

Just a few of the potted flowers on display during the Dutch Connection

In 1895, 41-year-old George Eastman bicycled through Holland. “Two large fields that we passed were the greatest blaze of color I ever saw,” he wrote home to his mother in Rochester. “Reds, yellows, pinks, and white flowers three inches in diameter and the blossoms covered the ground. If we can grow them I will have a bed next year.” And he did just that. After his botanical bewilderment overseas, Eastman ordered tens of thousands of bulbs from Holland each year until his death. According to Eastman House landscape manager Dan Bellavia, “One of the reasons he built greenhouses is so he could have flowers in the house at all times.” Each year, Eastman’s live-in servants would transform his home into a Dutch summer field. After he built his East Avenue mansion in 1905, this meant constructing five greenhouses to prepare fifty rooms’ worth of floral color. Later, in 1917, he even dug a tunnel from a greenhouse to his house to prevent the winter cold from hurting plants when it was time to transfer them.

One hundred years after that loving letter to his mother, the Eastman Museum decided to bring the billionaire-philanthropist’s tradition to the people of Rochester. The event has continued to grow each year, and its twenty fifth anniversary is no exception. “It’s become almost a year-round job for me and my crew,” Bellavia says. “I have my orders in by June and they’re usually delivered in the last week of September.” After months of expert care in their greenhouses, the flowers are brought into the house for the Dutch Connection in February. “We almost always have extras that live longer than we expect, so it ends up going until the second or third week of March.” April through June involves cleaning and disinfecting fifteen thousand pots before it’s time to order again.

Bellavia only has two employees, so the event runs on volunteers and community engagement. “We’d be nowhere without them. We try and feed them breakfast and coffee, but we can’t thank them enough,” he continues. “We have anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 flowers that need to be watered every two days.” From the beginning, the primary economic force behind the Dutch Connection has been local sponsors Gerald P. and Karen S. Kral. “The museum was just starting up in ’95, so we knew they were interested in helping with gardens and initially asked if they could help with just the printing costs,” Bellavia says. “Since then, they’ve donated and sponsored the show ever since. And each year they seem to find a way to help out more.” Each year the museum spends roughly $12,000 on the event—up to $8,000 on bulbs alone.

The kids program is a unique opportunity to learn about gardening during winter

Two years ago, Bellavia and his team developed a program for kids to plant their own bulbs and learn about gardening and community stewardship. “I really push education,” he says. “They learn a little bit about gardening, and they take it home to watch it grow and bloom. Then they can plant them in their gardens outside.” This year the openings have almost doubled from 2017’s slots. Bellavia notes that a lot of parents grow tired of “big germ factories” like some children’s museums in winter, so the Dutch Connection is a great opportunity to try something new. “But anything to get your kid’s nose out of their phone is great,” he laughs.

After the success of the kids’ event’s first year, the Eastman House decided to try something special for adults. “Learning to plant bulbs is just as enriching for grown-ups as it is for kids,” Bellavia says, “but we wanted to couple it with something trendy.” After partnering with Bushnell Basin’s Lost Borough Brewing Co, “Blooms and Brews” was born. “We allowed 60 people to come in, plant some bulbs, and try samples of Lost Borough’s new seasonal beers,” he says. Admission to Blooms and Brews includes a house tour and a series of appetizer pairings for each beer.

Overhead view of the conservatory
Display in front of organ in the conservatory

The Eastman House utilized Cornell University’s extensive archive of Eastman’s catalogs to determine his exact orders. “I still deal with one company he originally ordered from,” Bellavia says. “some of the varieties of tulips are no longer in existence, but we order the closest varieties we can.” Eastman ordered nine types of tulips, differing namely in the time that they bloom. That way, Bellavia says, he’d have flowers blooming far beyond the typical season— “especially when he’d plant them outside, he’d have tulips blooming for two months.” Eastman’s catalogs also show narcissi (daffodils and paperwhites), hyacinths, amaryllis, freesia, clivias, hellebores, English and German primulas, Rieger begonias, and azaleas. “Depending on availability, I like to add another annual or two,” Bellavia says, “but I don’t know what until just before the show.” Interestingly, George Eastman favored monochromatic displays— “so it would be all pink or all white.”

When you cut through the glamor and class, there’s a simple reason Eastman chose to decorate his home with flowers—to uplift spirits through the winter. “February, you know, is lovely around here,” Bellavia laughs. “But by getting people in here, we remind them that winter’s almost over. And there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” As depression-fighting as the flowers themselves can be, watching them grow and develop adds a new level to the good-mood magic. “If you come in one day it’ll look gorgeous,” he continues. “But if you come a few days later, you’ll see the changes as bulbs open up and the flowers change color. You see the differences.” Bellavia notes that a membership to the museum makes it easy to return as often as you’d like.

“After working here fifteen years,” he says, “I still walk in some mornings and just go, ‘wow.’”

John Ernst is a writer and graphic designer based in Rochester. See more of his work at johnmwrites.com.

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story by John Ernst; photos provided by Mark Weiss

Aerial view of Lan’s Flower Farm

Here’s a fact—one of New York’s largest flower farms started with a twelve-year-old girl from China trying to learn English.

Today, Lan’s Flower Farm spans four acres managed by five employees. That girl—the daughter of Mark Weiss and Xiao Lan— immigrated here in 2005. “She didn’t speak any English, and we brainstormed how she could learn really fast,” Weiss says. Having previously started a landscaping business that didn’t take off, “I had 2,000 empty pots around the property,” he says. He told his daughter she could start selling plants, where she could learn conversational English all day long while making money. “So we started potting bulbs, she had a little roadside stand, and she would sit out there eight hours a day studying. And people would come and buy her plants.”

And then the cards fell into place. “She was doing very well,” Weiss tells me, when one of the local perennial growers went out of business. “So it was kind of an open slot in the community that we were able to fill.” 

Clinton Farmers Market
Bee balm and peonies

A slot Weiss and Lan take very seriously. In addition to offering a variety of 700 perennials to the Syracuse region, the farm engages in a range of community service and donations. “Aside from working with various schools and churches,” Weiss says, “we also donate to terminal patients to help pay for medical expenses.” Lan’s also funds scholarships and runs tours for garden clubs. “It’s really the backbone of the whole business,” he says. 

“We try and do everything as organically as we can,” he adds. “When you’re growing in containers, it’s difficult to have 100 percent organic—it leaches out too quickly. But we don’t spray at all and our soil has no chemicals to speak of.” For fertilizer, they recycle a byproduct of the nearby Anheuser-Busch plant. “Other places have plants in bloom when they shouldn’t be in bloom,” he says, “but we winterize everything. It makes plants hardier.” 

Herb and Flower Festival 2018
Helleborus ‘Amethyst Gem’

Weiss and Lan formed an official business partnership in 2006 with a couple hundred plants. In 2014 they incorporated, and today sell upwards of 30,000 plants a year. 

With their farm organized into four categories—shade, semi-shade, sun, and grass—they do their best to predict what the market will demand each year. “But there’s really no telling. One year a guy bought over 500 containers of grass in one swoop,” Weiss laughs, “so we had none leftover for the next year.” 

To stay up-to-date on the perennial world, Weiss and Lan head to Baltimore for MANTS, the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show. “Plugs, roots, greenhouses, potting machines…anything that can make growing in our industry easier, you can buy there,” Weiss says. “If we see something interesting we’ll try to have it ready for spring, but a lot of it really is like looking into a crystal ball.” It’s hard to decipher what will be popular in the next year, he tells me, and a lot of the new plants are patented and require a license to legally propagate. 

Weiss and Lan aren’t completely in the dark, however, when it comes to next-season predictions. Catmint, hostas, and echinaceas are among consistently reliable best-sellers. “We’re actually well-known for our hostas,” Weiss says. “They’re real popular because they have leaf color, come in so many different sizes, and they grow nice flowers—some of them are fragrant. But,” he warns, “the deer love them. So if you have a deer problem, they’ll get destroyed.” Grasses are becoming more popular, too. Weiss says they’re hardy and drought-resistant, surviving through winter if they’re cut short. “But don’t cut them down too short,” he says. “[The landscapers who tend to our local Wegmans stores] cut them right to the ground, which decreases hardiness.”  

Despite its grass maintenance habits, Weiss admires the Wegmans approach to landscaping. “They’ve developed this whole buying experience—and it starts at the curb,” he says. “You drive in, and they have beautiful grounds with flowers, trees, and shrubs. Then you go into the grocery store and you’re hit with aromas of baked goods and flowers,” he says. “You go to these other stores…with bright lights and you want to get out as fast as you came in,” he laughs, “but Wegmans has really got it down.”

Then I ask a question that stumps Weiss—if he were to open another location anywhere in the world, where would he go? “Where there are a lot of rich people?” he jokes. Then he tells me that the upstate New York demographic is very interesting. “Rochester and Syracuse are completely different demographics—Rochester is not the blue collar town that Syracuse is.” Syracusians, he explains, are more concerned with practical things like plowing snow than they are with designing their yard. “So people from Rochester spend far more on landscape architecture than we do in Syracuse. Plus, you also have a better climate from being closer to the lake.” 

Xiao Lan

Ultimately, he wouldn’t want to leave Syracuse. “I’ve been here in ‘Cuse since 1978. I know more people here than anywhere else,” he explains. “And our business is a very personal business. We know almost every one of our customers. My wife was at the doctor’s this morning, and we sat next to one of our customers in the waiting room. We know every one of our customers by name or face,” he continues, “and when you get real big you don’t have that anymore.” 

And the daughter who started it all? “She’s moved out now,” Weiss says, “but she talks about taking over the business…now that all the work is done!” he laughs. 

John Ernst is a writer and graphic designer in Rochester. You can see more of his work at johnmwrites.com

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The Tree of (a Secret) Life

by janem on March 23, 2017

story and photos by John Ernst

As it stood in February of 2016.

As it stood in February of 2016.

One summer during college, I worked as a landscaper at Genesee Valley Park. I savored the chance to work outside. Each day I would drive my Gator through the misty sunrise at 5 a.m., surveying the park and ensuring that all was well before hikers and picnickers arrived. And each day, I marveled at the mighty branches lying on either side of the trail. It was a bitch to mow and weed whack, so other employees let the grass grow, giving it a wild and unkempt appearance. A few weeks into my job I learned it was called the “tree of life,” and that it had been struck by lightning, breaking it in half, years before. Feeling an odd sense of connection with the tree, I started taking better care of it.

Years later, my attempt at research on the tree has borne little fruit. Its only online remembrance seem to be a photo gallery on the University of Rochester’s website commemorating the tree’s life, and a memorial page on Facebook. I learned that it was struck by lightning on July 4, 2010 and before it fell, it looked like a pair of hands opening to the sky. I also learned how genuinely Rochesterians loved it. Both the photo gallery and memorial page highlighted that.

For more information I called the Monroe County Parks office, which referred me to Chris Kirchmaier, Supervisor at Highland Park. He told me that he was actually on the forestry crew that cut down the tree the day after it was struck. “I’m not sure that there is a recorded history,” he said, “just a popular tree and a cool structure. Every day I drove by there were four, five, even ten people sitting in it or climbing it.” He told me that he’s only 36, and that his older co-worker Joe Bernal, the tree crew supervisor, might have more answers for me.

“Well, it’s a white oak,” Bernal told me when I asked what he knew about the tree. “It had a perfect crotch, probably eight or ten feet up in the air.” Frederick Law Olmsted designed Genesee Valley Park in the late nineteenth century, and Bernal figured the Tree of Life predated that. “That would make it over 150 years old, and that wouldn’t surprise me,” he said. Earlier in his career, Bernal removed tags from the trees Olmsted had planted, but didn’t remember the Tree of Life having one. He expressed similar fondness as Kirchmaier had for the fallen tree. “Even when it was busted in half, I tried to keep the character in both sides and moved it down to the path.” He said that he’d like to see the tree preserved: “White oak is a wood that lasts,” he said. “But if we really wanted it to last, we’d have to lift it off the ground, get the bark off, and maybe coat it with some preservative.” As Supervisor, Bernal doesn’t have the time to take on a project like that, but hopes somebody does—perhaps a group of volunteers or students from the U of R. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said before signing off.

Tree rings

Tree rings

I decided to revisit the tree and count the rings myself. I had forgotten how huge it was; heaving it up and preserving it would be no minor task. I set to counting the rings on the stub of a lopped branch. Many were so close together that they were indistinguishable, and the cracks didn’t make it any easier to count. I deemed it impossible to record any sound empirical data using this method, but I counted over a hundred rings. Maybe Genesee Valley Park’s ancient oak has no recountable history, but the Tree of Life has earned its nickname.

 

John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and video gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website, nerdofearth.com.

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