Taking root: Base greenhouse spreads natural wealth

by Kimberly Wright
Air University Public Affairs

12/10/2010 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Al  -- Maxwell Air Force Base horticulturist Jane McCarthy recently gave away free trees to a steady crowd. The trees are only a part of a bountiful harvest of plants that spring to life at the base greenhouse.

All kinds of plants are given away at the "free" tables every day the greenhouse is open. Ms. McCarthy estimated that thousands of plants are given away a year, with anywhere from two to 200 plants given away on any day, depending on the foot traffic.

The crowd of tree lovers taking part in the tree giveaway not only received something that will benefit themselves and future generations; they also gained the benefit of Ms. McCarthy's freely given expertise as she advised them on how trees should be planted - a wide hole, rather than a deep one - and the merits of the various types of deciduous, outdoor trees up for adoption.

Charles Cotterell, a retired civil service employee, took part in the tree giveaway, selecting an oak and a maple. He learned to love the base greenhouse back when he lived on base, picking up a few plants during his stay. He appreciated being able to select two free trees.

"I was surprised they had such a selection," he said.

The base greenhouse nurtures hundreds of different kinds of plants. Through plant recycling and donations, Ms. McCarthy said the greenhouse is able to give away plants and beautify the base inside and out, with plants in containers and flowers in designated grassy areas.

They recycle a lot of plant material -- for instance, from areas that are about to be used in a building expansion. She also accepts cuttings from donors, and divides stock plants. People are welcome to exchange as well as donate, and Ms. McCarthy will reciprocate with plant cuttings from the greenhouse.

Some donated plants have taken root on the grounds of the base itself. The ornamental grasses seen at the gates and locations such as building 804 "all came from two plants from my yard 10 years ago," she said. "It saves the base money" while adding to the beauty of the grounds, she said.

"My goal is to get as many trees planted on this base as I can. ... We recycle a lot of trees, replant a lot of trees and this year, we'll replant more," she said. "We grow trees from acorns. The more that can be cultivated, the more can be used on base or given away."

The variety of trees offered to the public included river birch, redbud, green ash, and an assortment of oaks, including sawtooth, chestnut, white, red and oaks of "indiscernible parentage. ... I'm in the habit of picking up acorns as I go," Ms. McCarthy said.

All sorts of items are recycled as containers for plants, and she welcomes donations of recycled pots for containers as well. On the grounds of the base greenhouse, two recycled bathtubs have been repurposed for water gardens, and an old-fashioned metal school desk now serves as a bed for succulents. Even an old basketball serves as a container for plants.

"I can put a plant in just about anything," she noted. "If I can avoid something going into a landfill, I'm a happy camper."

Greenhouse 1, the hot and dry greenhouse, is stocked with succulents, cacti and begonias.

Ms. McCarthy said that Greenhouse 1 is a "great greenhouse for kids because it has the most weird-looking plants." Among the weird plants on tap is the hobbit jade, a succulent plant bearing what appear to be suckers.

Greenhouse 2, with an on-demand mist system, is where plant propagation takes place. Cuttings stay here until they develop roots, then they are moved to one of the other greenhouses.

Greenhouse 3, the tropical greenhouse, is the warmest, brightest and newest of the greenhouses, and contains countless tropical plants, including three flowering Birds of Paradise. Several pineapples, sprung from planted pineapple fruits, grow here as well.

Ms. McCarthy relished the onset of the cold weather, as most of the cold-sensitive plants are already inside greenhouses.

"I look forward to it getting cold because it knocks pests back," she said.

The base greenhouse's vegetable garden has also made the transition to winter vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, garlic and onion, all grown from seeds. Winter is the best time of year for these vegetables, and even the South's version of extreme cold doesn't hinder these vegetables too much.

"We can grow things year-round down here," she said, and the vegetables are donated to the Faith Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization that assists the homeless.

Federal inmates assist her throughout the greenhouse facility, doing "everything from plant propagation to maintenance," she said. In exchange, they learn skills they may never have otherwise encountered.