A few years ago, the employees at the mail distribution center in Wallingford, Conn., told David Garinger that they refused to deliver a package he had ordered.
Many would agree that the refusal was completely justified. The parcel contained a sample of the notoriously smelly durian fruit that Garinger, the University’s curator of greenhouse plant collections, had ordered for a laboratory class taught in the greenhouses. Despite warnings that the fruit in the package was likely rotten, Garinger got into his car and made the 25 minute drive to Wallingford to pick up the durian.
But the post office workers were wrong. Though their smell was hard to distinguish from that of sewage, when Garinger and a number of students sat down to eat them, the durians tasted like pudding, Garinger said.
“It just smelled so bad that they refused to put it in their trucks,” Garinger said. “But [the fruits] definitely weren’t rotten.”
Garinger has worked in the Marsh Botanic Gardens greenhouses on Science Hill for almost 30 years. When he arrived in September 1982 soon after graduating with a degree in horticulture from Pennsylvania State University, Garinger said he was a “gopher,” working on menial tasks throughout the greenhouses. But now, after over a decade of changes in management and a series of expansions that nearly doubled the size of the greenhouses, Garinger singlehandedly cares for many of the indoor plant diversity collections available at Yale.
Garinger, who grows all of the plants used for lab classes, lives in a house beside the greenhouses. Frequently working in the greenhouses at night and on weekends, he cares for the thousands of plants housed within the glass walls. But Garinger is not alone as he works after hours: He is accompanied by the greenhouses’ resident cat Eli.
Chris Bolick, another horticulturist at the greenhouses, said Garinger brings a rare passion for the plant collections at the greenhouse.
“He lives on the grounds so the home-work distinction is a little blurred for him,” Bolick said. “He brings a level of engagement well beyond a nine-to-five mindset.”
When Garinger first came to the greenhouses, he and his manager cared for the entirety of the plants alone. Since the expansions to the facilities, the greenhouse staff has grown, but Garinger still tends to all of the plants used for Yale courses, a collection that spans a majority of three full greenhouses.
“In all of his years here, these greenhouses are kind of an extension of himself,” Bolick said.
‘A HIDDEN ARTIST’
Garinger was exposed to plants from an early age.
When he was growing up, his father worked at a grocery store and frequently brought plants home. But it was not until fourth grade, when Garinger had to work on a project that involved planting seeds and putting them on a windowsill, that he truly became curious about plants, he said.
“It was just watching them grow that caught my interest,” Garinger said.
Since then, Garinger said he has always known that he wanted to go into horticulture. Now, almost 30 years later, Garinger has created or expanded many of the plant collections available at Yale’s greenhouses.
He is in charge of an extensive array of desert plants in one of the greenhouses, a collection he began soon after arriving. He said he has grown fascinated with these plants, and described caring for them as a hobby. The collection is especially difficult to manage, given that desert plants often have individual needs that may be hard to tend to, he said.
“He has such a diversity of plants that need a diversity of attention,” Wendy Clement, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor who teaches the course “Plant Diversity and Evolution,” said. “But the diversity really is fantastic.”
And in addition to managing the plants he supplies to classes, Garinger still finds time to nurture every plant that comes his way.
Last summer, Garinger came across a rare desert plant from Somalia on eBay to add to his collection. When the plant bloomed this fall, he said some members of the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society who visited the greenhouses were surprised that Garinger was able to grow the exotic plant in an urban greenhouse.
“He had to give the plant individualized attention,” Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society President Matthew Opel said. “I’m really not sure how he can personally manage everything.”
Indeed, most greenhouses employ a larger staff of people to provide plants to classes. At Dartmouth, for example, the Murdough Greenhouse’s website says that three people work in a single greenhouse.
But Eric Larson, the greenhouse’s manager, said that Garinger’s “plantsmanship” allows the operation to run smoothly.
“My job is to ask him what he needs and get out of the way,” Larson said, adding that despite the amount of work he has to do, Garinger still manages to display the plants in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
In particular, Garinger’s desert collection is largely growing in beds rather than pots — an arrangement Garinger said is significantly more difficult to manage, as it is harder to give the plants individual attention. Still, he said he feels the plants look more beautiful when displayed in beds.
“I’ve always been, I think, a hidden artist,” Garinger said. “But I’ve never been able to draw.”
HORTICULTURIST OR TEACHER?
Still, Garinger’s job entails a strict weekly schedule to accommodate the needs of the lab course that meets in the greenhouse.
Students in the “Plant Diversity and Evolution” lab this Tuesday studied one of Garinger’s plants — the Cornus florida, otherwise known as the Appalachian Spring, a tree with four-petaled white flowers. Several weeks prior, Garinger had to bring the tree into the warmth of the greenhouse to ensure it would bloom on time to be studied by students.
Clement said Garinger has artificially timed the flowering of numerous plants studied in her course. While she said there are plenty of gardening reference texts to help time the flowering of trees, too many other factors influence the bloom for these to be completely effective, she said.
“There’s certainly a knack to timing the flowering of the plants, and he definitely has that ability,” she said. “A lot of it I would attribute to 30 years of experience, but he still really has a knack for it.”
Part of the trick, Garinger said, is to bring multiple samples of the plant studied into the greenhouses at different times to make sure that at least one blooms on time.
Though Garinger said his job is very time-consuming and sometimes stressful, he said seeing students enjoy the lab makes all the work and stress he endures in his job “melt away.”
And students who take labs at the Marsh Botanic Gardens said his enthusiasm for the plants is evident even in their limited interaction with him.
“He’s always super jolly about his plants,” Jaime Sunwoo ’14 said. “Even though we don’t talk to him a lot, he’s a huge presence.”
The Marsh Botanic Gardens were founded in 1899.