The Secret Garden

On the summit of Science Hill, across the street from a row of fading Victorian porches and an aged gun factory with punctured windows, sits a wheelbarrow visibly worn by a loose summer spent outdoors. Cradling empty beer bottles, it perches near a chalkboard covered with Dave Garinger’s to-do list: “Weed. Divide Iris. Mow down Locust Sprouts. Transplant Veggies!!!”

For the last twenty five years, Garinger has lived inside a little clapboard house wedged between Mansfield Avenue and Hillside Place. As the groundskeeper of the Marsh Botanic Gardens, Garinger’s morning commute consists of putting on a pair of well-made shoes and stepping outside. “Since I live so close,” he says, “I did a comical video of my commute and sent it to my mom. The whole time I was saying things like ‘Look, Mom, isn’t this horrible? I tripped over a rock.’” He spends the workday weeding the rest of the garden, so you’ll have to excuse him if his own front steps at number 227 are a little overgrown.

The whitewashed cottage forms the cornerstone of eight acres of sloping land that once belonged to Othniel Marsh, a philanthropist whose estate was bestowed to the Forestry School in 1899. Some time in the last century, a biology professor and his wife converted their home on the property into an apiary. Scores of beehives filled the ground floor. When the couple left, the bees were moved out, and Garinger moved in.  Remnants of its former residents remain—just beyond the chainlink fence overgrown with berries and jewelweed, visitors are still greeted by an ominous sign: “Beware of Bees First Floor.”

The work at Marsh Botanic Gardens, 150 feet from Dave’s front steps, involves growing plants for genetic research, filling orders from a flock of Yale labs, and providing a playground for ecology classes seeking hands-on experience. Garinger, the horticulturalist, and Eric Larson, the general manager, split the daily work. Between the two of them, the micro- and macro- fauna are in good hands. Four greenhouses, affectionately named 1, 2, 3, and 4, split off from a cracked concrete driveway. Here, something is always blooming or being dug up. Thankfully, there’s still enough time for side projects: overgrown pebbles are scattered along the path between the two largest greenhouses, where Eric and Dave are designing a sitting garden lined with an overhead trellis for growing grapes. They are determined to coax the grapevine to adulthood. “In the summer the leaves will shade us,” Eric explains, “and in the winter they’ll fall down and we’ll get some nice sunlight.”

In addition to shade, these plants will provide a valuable scientific resource. Currently, rows of high-tech corn are incubating in and around Greenhouse 4. “We grow the newfangled types of mutant corn the professors keep breeding,” Garinger says.  The shrunken corn husks, each one a tenth the size of a normal ear, are swaddled in white socks to prevent cross-pollination. They look like midget vegetables to us because they’re engineered to echo the pre-Neolithic ancestors of corn, an eye-opening display for the students of agriculture who visit the Gardens.  The local wildlife enjoy them as well.  “The butterflies down at the biology lab like to eat corn seedlings,” Garinger shares, “but now I’ve got them hooked on collard greens.”

Greenhouse 1 is a rebellious museum.  A world-wide assortment of flora intended to educate visiting students fills the room. Whole continents are presented in miniature. Three thousand species of plants are clustered by climate, but there’s no regard for nationality: a Malayan Coconut Palm rubs branches with an Australian Wollami Pine. The coffee and chocolate trees are both sprouting beans this year, and the Trovita sweet oranges have ripened into their namesake color. A portion of each day is set aside for detangling the cucumber shoots that like to crawl up the windows. “It’s a jungle,” Garinger tells me. “I feel like I’m always weeding or clipping.” He looks at the mossy tree fern and moans, “This thing has gotten huge! I need to trim it back.”

Garinger keeps a window display of hothouse orchids, but most of them are missing their signature blooms. “They’re easily kept alive, but it’s so hard to get them to flower,” he mourns. Off in a corner, the carnivorous plants keep to themselves. Sundews lure in flies with their tentacles, while butterwarts stick out their dewy tongues. Venus flytraps snap their eyes shut at the stroke of a single finger.

But Garinger’s heart lies in drier places. Although he’s not too fond of the bees his predecessors kept in his home, he’s keen on another kind of prickly pet: his collection of shrunken cacti. All of them live across the road in Greenhouse 2, part of the educational collection that doubles as Garinger’s hobby house. His favorite cacti are the living stones of Africa, whose flat bumps form a natural pavement, and the night-blooming cirrus, whose flowers are pollinated by wild bats. Somewhere in here is a resident snake that Garinger rarely sees. Lately it’s taken to changing its clothes in public: a dried shell of a snakeskin lies coiled by a cluster of prickly pears.

“I started this about twenty years ago, and some are as old as I’ve been here,” Garinger tells me with a smile. He points to a noto cactus that could be taken for a menacing spiked cucumber. The most dangerous cacti have the smallest weapons. Glockids, tiny little spines that dig into your skin, won’t let go after they get a hold of you. Once, when he was giving a tour to a group of second graders, a boy got his hands full of them, and Garinger could think of no home remedy. “I told the teacher, ‘One of your kids has cactus spines all over him! I don’t know what to do,’” he says. “I tell the kids, ‘Don’t touch the cacti,’ and they never listen. They go around rubbing this and that; they put their weight on everything.”

Besides the four greenhouses, Garinger also maintains a classroom for the Yale ecology classes that come in to study plants. Professors choose specimens in advance, and Garinger lifts each plant from its greenhouse to form a rotating exhibit. Today there is a young cinnamon tree and a papaya plant, but tomorrow they might be replaced by a pair of elephant ears and a sago palm.

After the tour, Larson joins us, and the two men show me the three surviving beehives in Garinger’s backyard. These bees are the grandchildren of the original ones that used to live indoors, and their honey is now in demand on the local market. Today, they’re as busy as could be expected. “They love the goldenrod this time of year. They’re really working it!” he marvels. But then he looks a little troubled. “I think they’ve noticed us,” he says. “I see them gathering in a clump to try and protect the queen. It looks like they’re getting ready to swarm.”

We hurry back to the gardeners’ office, and during their afternoon tea break I ask Garinger and Larson of their plans for the Marsh Botanic Gardens. Using Yale funding, they hope to raise the glass roofs and turn the low-ceilinged greenhouses into a full-blown conservatory, where they could plant tropical trees and let them grow to their full adult height. “We need a taller structure!” Larson announces. “Right now, the coffee and chocolate trees can only grow to be dwarfs.” Garinger nods in agreement. I ask them if they think all these wishes will bear fruit, and Larson gives me a sagely look. “It’s like throwing grass seed out there: some of it comes up, and some of it doesn’t.”

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