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A bit of earth Winter is a lot warmer at north-side Wichita Greenhouse

  • Published Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, at 4:42 p.m.

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We may be back in the arms of winter – just one week out from daylight saving time – but a hive of garden activity is buzzing in north Wichita, creating its own heat.

It’s a fortunate neighborhood that has its own greenhouse. Such is the case on Arkansas just south of 37th Street. There, Neal Bakker, who grew up working in the tulip fields of his native Holland, runs Wichita Greenhouse.

Bakker doesn’t advertise, except by a portable sign out front of his nondescript lot, so it’s mainly neighbors who come in each spring and summer for their tomato and pepper plants and hanging baskets. Geraniums and coleus are already showing their color on greenhouse shelves. But the first to be out the door will be onions and potatoes, just a couple of weeks or so away, in mid-March.

Bakker moved to the United States and Wichita in 1961 to work for John Borst at the then-Livingston Rose Garden & Nursery, and then went to work for Kmart’s garden center in 1967. He bought the greenhouse on North Arkansas soon after, growing a supplemental supply of plants for Kmart originally, and eventually his own full stock. He retired from Kmart 15 years ago and is 77 now, threatening to close the greenhouse but not sure what he’d do if he did.

Sometimes Bakker thinks he likes plants too much. The business side can suffer. His family has had to sacrifice. But his plants are happy. He doesn’t water or fertilize on a schedule or with automation; he lets the variegated Swedish ivy and the Mona Lavender plectranthus and the strawberries tell him when they need it.

“I’m a little outdated and old-fashioned,” he said.

Master gardener Peggy Griffith, who has her own personal-gardening business, is a friend of Bakker’s and stops in often to help sow seeds and do other tasks, chomping at the bit to get back in the garden.

She and Bakker have potted up cannas for the first time this year. Griffith says she’s left the same cannas in her backyard the past five years and they’ve come back up each spring; after this winter, we all agree, it may be a different story.

Bakker tries new plant material occasionally but for the most part provides the old reliables for his customers: Jetstar tomatoes, for example, always sell, while people never could get their minds around the hanging-basket tomatoes he offered recently.

Some old standards don’t sell like they used to: solid-color Swedish ivy, for example, and asparagus fern.

But that doesn’t mean Wichita Greenhouse doesn’t have unusual stuff: Griffith points to pickle plant, donkey tails, pregnant onion, string of pearls.

A favorite of Bakker’s customers is a hanging basket combining purslane and ice plant. The combo loves hot weather, and when the purslane flowers are closed in the evening, the ice plant is open, so there’s always color.

Bakker knows human nature as well as plant nature, and knows that he can sell a certain combination of plants in a hanging basket that wouldn’t fetch near as much in a standard container.

He is happy to advise customers about what they should plant in a particular spot, and he doesn’t like to sell something he’s not sure of. For example, someone gave him the seeds of a perennial curly kale to try, and he’s grown them into plants, giving little pots away to customers and asking them to report back on how it fares.

Griffith also sees him giving out plants to children; he says he’s sowing future customers.

“It’s like a big family,” Bakker says.

Before I ducked out of the greenhouse and back into the cold, I smiled at Bakker’s cozy 55-gallon wood-burning barrel stove. Atop the hot cylinder sat Bakker’s coffee cup, keeping warm, and a stainless-steel watering can, the icy cold water inside warming up so as not to shock tender tomato seedlings.

Bakker knows that one warm day soon he’ll have to cool off some customers who are hot to grow before it’s time. It’s just our nature.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

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