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Waterford - Despite the lingering winter chill and overcast skies, the spirit of spring filled the greenhouse at Harkness Memorial State Park last week.
"All of these are our babies," said Gladys Stadnick of Niantic, as she inserted another heliotrope cutting into the soil in one of the cells in a large propagation tray. "We'll let them rest for two weeks, then transplant them to larger pots when they get a root system."
Stadnick and seven other Friends of Harkness volunteers were enlivened not just by a gardener's fondness for interacting with dirt or the promise of warmer days ahead after this long, harsh winter. Their spirits also were raised by the space where they engaged in their labor of love.
Seventeen years after the group decided to start raising money to restore the historic greenhouse, a signature building on the former estate of Edward and Mary Harkness, the volunteers are finally using it to carry out their mission of helping to keep the gardens at the park in full bloom.
When they began in 1997, the 104-year-old greenhouse was a rusted, windowless frame with weeds growing between the exposed concrete floors.
"We raised more than $700,000, bit by bit by bit, not with big donors," said Eileen Grant of Madison, co-chairwoman of the group's Horticultural Committee and a member of its board of directors. "We thought this was a place where we could have the most volunteer participation. It would be a gathering spot that the community could support."
By last fall, the $1 million restoration of the main part of the greenhouse was complete, with half the funds coming from the Friends group and the other half from the state, including funds it raises from rentals of the Harkness mansion, Eolia, for weddings. The group plans to use its remaining funds toward the next phase, which will rebuild the portion that houses a fish pond and the state's oldest grape arbors. For now though, the 15,000-square-foot central greenhouse feels like a palace compared to the spot they had been using.
"I can't get over how much brighter it is in here," said Jane Connors of Waterford, reaching for another cutting. "I always felt like we were working in a burrow. And we're very excited that there's a bathroom in here."
Each year starting in late February, the volunteers would gather on Wednesday mornings to start cuttings in preparation for their annual May plant sale, one of the group's main fundraisers. The tall, lollipop-shaped heliotrope shrubs unique to the estate provided the mother stock for the 200 to 250 pots of the delicate purple flowers with a soft baby-powder scent sold each year at the event. The group raises another 1,200 of the perennials, native to Peru, that are planted each spring in the Harkness gardens and the Hill-Stead Museum and gardens in Farmington.
"This is Mrs. Harkness' strain," said Stadnick, who's been a Friends volunteer for 17 years. "We've been keeping it going on the estate since the 1930s. You can't buy it anywhere else."
Before the restored greenhouse opened, the volunteers worked in a small, cramped area in the estate's carriage house, where the gift shop is located.
"The benches were very low and nothing was comfortable," Grant said.
Connors chimed in: "That created some aching backs."
The space was often cold and was too small to accommodate more than three or four volunteers at a time, Grant said. Some of the eight who turned up Wednesday would have had to be turned away.
"It's crazy when you're telling volunteers they can't come," Grant said.
With the restored greenhouse, park staff and the Friends volunteers will be able to raise all the annuals and perennials planted in the gardens each spring, rather than having to purchase plants from a local grower. Sweet peas and strawflowers are already sprouting in flats at one corner of the greenhouse. There are also plans to use the greenhouse for educational programs for the public, as well as to raise camellias and other exotic flowers of the types Mary Harkness used to decorate Eolia, Grant said.
The Wednesday-mornings-in-the-greenhouse routine will continue through sometime in April, when the volunteers will head outside to start clearing away the remnants of last year's growth and preparing the beds. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, they'll work alongside the small park staff to weed and maintain the gardens, one of the main draws for the quarter-million visitors to Harkness each year. There are about 700 members of the Friends group, about 100 to 150 of whom are active volunteers who help at the plant sale, in the gift shop, and as docents in the mansion. The core crew of volunteer gardeners numbers about a dozen, Grant said, so reinforcements are always welcome. The group focuses on the main gardens surrounding the mansion, but hasn't been able to do much upkeep on an outer rock garden and other areas.
"By necessity, we've had to let some of the gardens go," she said.
For Connors, the rewards of volunteering with the Friends group go beyond the satisfaction of seeing the gardens in bloom, watching families enjoy the beauty and newlyweds pose for photos among the flowers. She's also made good friends among the Friends, and feels as though she's contributing to making the quality of life a little sweeter for everyone who visits the park.
"This is a place I came to love over the years," she said. "I remember bringing my son here in his pram - I won't say how many years ago. I'd stroll the walkways and find some peace and calm. I look at this as my way of giving back."
For information about volunteering with Friends of Harkness, call Gladys Stadnick at (860) 739-8780.