Just like other gardeners, MUBG staff do a fall plant shuffle

A frost in late September had area gardeners — and Mizzou Botanic Garden (MUBG) staff — scrambling to move tropical and other houseplants indoors after summer months of refreshing natural light and (occasional) raindrops on their leaves.


Cannas, elephant ears, hibiscus, palms, crotons, copper leaf, bird of paradise` and other tender landscaping assets are photosynthesizing with a sigh of relief in a campus greenhouse after being dug and potted. According to Jenna Sommer, MUBG horticulture manager, many have been shuffled in and out of winter greenhouse asylum for several years.


“We move plants right after Homecoming, or — like this year — after we get a freeze, though this the first time that’s happened since I’ve been here. Some plants ended up with a little cold damage,” Sommer said. She believes most will rebound.


Colleen Thomas

Sommer’s horticulture crew members, Andy Williams and Colleen Thomas, are primarily responsible for maintaining the vast majority of the annual flower and container plantings on campus. Both worked on relocating plants into the greenhouse and this year, Thomas took over tending the plants during their winter repose after a colleague took another position.


“I volunteered to do it but it was a challenge to become the ‘flower girl’ for the first time,” Thomas said. “This place is all me. I take care of everything and if something happens, like bugs, it’s on me. It’s important to keep the greenhouse clean to minimize problems.”


Plants are hosed off when they are potted, and dead or damaged foliage is removed. If they show symptoms of common pests like spider mites or white fly, Thomas uses insecticidal soap or neem oil to treat them.


“We are trying to avoid using things that would cause problems [chemical exposure] for people coming into the greenhouse and others using adjacent rooms for research, as we do share the building,” Sommer said.


Plans for next year’s annual flower beds and container garden designs were completed in May and include some of the wintered-over specimens, which are not used in the same places in consecutive years.


“We don’t use everything in the greenhouse every year,” Sommer said. “And sometimes we might just decide to stick something we have on hand in an open space.”


Sommer added that the effort is very cost effective as mature large plants would be beyond her budget.


“Sometimes it’s easier to start over. We buy small plants and grow them up for a few years, or propagate plants to save money,” she said. “It took the birds of paradise plants three years to start blooming.”


If you’re wondering what you can put in those now-empty planters or garden open spaces, Sommer and Thomas are using small evergreens and ornamental kale. The latter, they said, can thrive into January barring a very hard frost.


“Small evergreens will live through the winter as long as they get enough moisture,” Sommer said. “You can pull them out in March and store them to use again later in the year.”

MUBG Greenhouse

MUBG horticulture crew member, Colleen Thomas, works parttime in a greenhouse in the winter months to care for MUBG tropical plants that will live again in the campus gardens in the upcoming growing season. The effort to move the plants in during the winter saves money and provides more mature — larger! — plants for garden designs. Plants are not used in the same place in consecutive years.