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Harrington: Greenhouse Sitting

So many December days are dark and grey. Even at 10 a.m., we often need headlights to be visible through the relentless cloud cover.

Absent a plane ticket to Aruba, what's a Vermonter to do?

Well, here's an idea: greenhouse sitting. Even though we've all of winter to get through before seasonal greenhouses offer spring plants, Vermont has indoor gardens that welcome visitors year-round.

On a recent grey morning, I scored one of the prime spots at the Gardeners’ Supply greenhouse/café in Williston. My table was right next to the waterfall and stone-edged pool, and I was surrounded by tropical plants in bloom. A friendly striped succulent in a big pot brushed my left shoulder.

Dozens of orchids - with their spikes of purple and gold, or flat, moon-like disks of lavender – were going crazy to my right. Precious light filtered down from the clear, arched roof. To complete the illusion that I was somewhere else, I even sipped a fresh-squeezed lemonade.

“A lot of folks come by just to sit here in the winter,” says Mary Thom, manager of the Gardeners Supply store. “It's good for the soul.”

I agree.

Parents bring their kids to see the fish in the pool, Thom says. I often meet my brother, Ron, here for lunch. Others come for meetings.

Thom says that, nationally, garden centers with cafes “do better.” People enjoy the combination of plants and a place to unwind. Winter hours for this greenhouse/café are the same as the store: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. , with food served until 4 p.m.

Another bright oasis on these dark days is the greenhouse on the University of Vermont campus. Researchers and classes use it for their studies – but several areas are open to the public, weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Its climate-controlled rooms hold about 500 species. “It’s whatever professors need in botany classes,” says manager, David Heleba. “Mostly tropicals.”

A tall lipstick tree with burr-like fruit and feathery rose-tinted flowers reaches for the ceiling. A group of dwarf citrus trees evokes a sunny Mediterranean hillside. Green textured fruits dangle from their branches: limes, kumquats, improved Meyer lemons, and a single navel orange.

In another room, unobtrusive ferns provide background for a startling bromeliad – with pink-and-gold, paddle-shaped flowers jutting out, and attached purple triads.

Classical music and the splash of two fountains add to the zen-like effect. A few benches and folding chairs are scattered around for visitors.

Other year-round Vermont greenhouses might also welcome visitors to settle in for a while.

I discovered greenhouse sitting as an antidote to winter at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington , D.C. when I lived there. This glassed-in paradise was my frequent refuge from November through March – with its fountains and paths that led from tropical to desert environments – and cozy benches in interesting spots.

Learning more about plants is great. Breathing in the fresh oxygen that they're releasing from photosynthesis is energizing – and helps ward off any incipient colds.

This winter, I’ll head often to a greenhouse – with a good book, or to just relax and breathe.

The late Elaine Keen Harrington of Middlesex was a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Vermont. A former editor for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, she also owned a fiber arts business.
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