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Adventures in the West

February 5, 2011

About a month ago, I moved into the Nettle Nest. Just about ten days in, I already had to leave again. My boss had surprised me at Christmas with a coupon for the Young Horticulturists’ winter seminar, which meant that for the first time in my life, I had to travel all on my own.

All right, I’ve travelled by myself, day-long train rides up to the Netherlands or to Germany, but those trips were always to stay some of the wonderful people I’d met online.* Now, when I emerged from the train somewhere in Vorarlberg, Austria’s westernmost state**, I was picked up by a complete stranger and taken up a mountain to an inn filled with more strangers, many of whom spoke that completely unintelligible dialect of Vorarlberg. (Seriously… how does standard German Wiese (meadow) turn into Hoschtat? Or Ei (egg) into Äüöli? I’m not even going to try to pronouce that – I’ve almost hurt myself just writing it!)

Luckily, all the customers I’ve had to deal with the last year have taught me to talk to strangers, and when I wasn’t forced to dance, or rather, stagger in erratic circles, or trying to fend off drinks I didn’t want (why can’t people believe I’m quite happy with my glass of watered coke?), the evening was quite fun. When I finally stumbled off to bed, or rather, to my sleeping bag in the dorm room of a mountain hut a few minutes from the inn, I was feeling much better about this whole crowd of no-longer-quite-strangers.

The view from the bus window

After crawling out of bed much too early the next morning, we were put on a bus (hairpin turns are so much more fun when you’re on the upper level of a double-decker bus!) and brought to an agriculture school close to the Swiss border (so close, in fact, that we passed within a few metres of a border checkpoint) to listen to lectures on perennials, herbs, balcony vegetables and ‘service providers in horticulture’.

The one on perennials, called something like ‘The Future of Perennial Use’, wasn’t too interesting. The nursery owner who gave the talk, Thomas Kopf, was mostly showing pictures of plants he thought deserved to be used more often. There were a few I hadn’t known, but nothing that blew my mind, and not much information worth writing down, either. Nor anything that will be too much use to me at work, since we only have a small assortment of perennials, nor personally, without a garden.

The one on herbs was the one I enjoyed most. If it’s edible, it’s almost guaranteed to interest me, and it’s more likely to be of use at work, too – I’ll definitely read through that again when we get the shipment of herbs in spring. It also had a good script, containing both pictures and information on the plants, live plants to look at, even being handed around so we could get a close look and a sniff, we got to drink herb-flavoured water (that’s something I might try myself… I usually hate those flavoured waters, but putting a few leaves of tasty herbs into a bottle of carbonated water is easy, cheap and tastes good.)

Gebhard and Raphael Kopf of Augarten Kopf nursery, and what I think was Angelica archangelica.

Balcony vegetables was another topic that interests me, but the lecture, given by Andreas Glathe, sales representative for Volmary, a company selling seeds and plug plants, didn’t offer much information that was useful to me. At the teeny-tiny village nursery, most people have gardens, and  we don’t have enough balcony gardeners among our customers to grow special varieties for them. So the part of the lecture that was about Volmary’s container vegetable assortment, and how to grow them, was no use to me.  And the generic care tips of large enough pot, plenty of water, plenty of fertilizer, well, I could tell customers that in my sleep.

Briefly, he also touched on the topic of heirloom varieties, claiming that Volmary’s varieties were at least equal in taste, superior in disease resistance, and that they offered a great range of tomato colours, shapes and sizes. But be that as it may – I’m sticking to my heirloom tomatoes. Volmary, or any other seed company, will never offer such a big range – I should have asked him if they offer any currant tomatoes. I’ll have them in three colours this year. And if they decide to discontinue one of these F1 varieties, anyone who’s grown to love that variety is screwed – saving seeds won’t be much use.

The last lecture, ‘service providers in horticulture’ was… um. It might have been interesting to nursery owners, but to a lowly little employee like me, all the marketing stuff – from how the company car should look to events like Open Days at the nursery – isn’t that much use, and the part on how to behave with customers was stuff that should go without saying – being polite, no gossiping with colleagues, blah blah blah.

The next day – which once again came much too early after a night of music, drinking (though I stubbornly stuck to my watered coke) and talking – we got back onto our bus, which first took us to a nursery, Gärtnerei Ludescher.

Nursery owner Stephan Ludescher, sitting down among the Cyclamens while he gave us a tour.

In a time when many nurseries buy plug plants rather than taking cuttings themselves, Ludescher is pleasantly oldfashioned – they propagate their own Pelargoniums:

During my apprenticeship, I've spent many days doing just that - filling a table full of pots with Pelargonium cuttings.

Though apparently, this is the last year they’ll do that.

They’re also propagating their own poinsettias, which puzzles me a bit – Euphorbia pulcherrima is a lot fussier to propagate than Pelargonium. Pelargonium, you just snap the stem, stick it in dirt, cover it with fleece, and they should root just fine. Poinsettias need to be cut with a sharp knife, dipped in warm water to stop the sap, dipped in rooting hormone, and kept at high temperatures and high humidity until they root.

Poinsettia stock plants

They breed their own primrose varieties, too, and they’ve still got cold frames – though that last thing definitely doesn’t fall under pleasantly oldfashioned – cold frames are a pain in the ass. Opening and closing those cursedly heavy windows is definitely no fun. And these are actual glass, which is even heavier than the multiwall plastic sheets I’m used to wrestling.

After the tour at Ludescher’s, we braved some more narrow mountain streets in our bus to be brought to an alpine dairy, where we were shown how cheese is made and I forgot to take pictures, were fed Kässpätzle for lunch, then carted back down to another nursery, Gärtnerei Angeloff.

Alexander Angeloff showing a picture of how his nursery used to look... I've forgotten how many years ago.

Alexander was a familiar face – as chairman of Vorarlberg’s Young Horticulturists, of course he also was at the winter seminar. And his nursery was my favourite of those we visited. Purely because it had a nice houseplant greenhouse, of course.

I was much too busy staring at this gorgeous 2 metre Araucaria heterophylla to hear much of what Alexander had to tell about his nursery. Too bad I had neither a way to transport it (though the stares of other passengers would almost have been worth the hassle of taking it on the train), nor the money, nor a high enough room. And it was quite cheap, too - apparently, they really want to get rid of it!

You don't see Phalaenopsis with all buds still closed for sale often - or at all.


Peeking into the production greenhouses

There was also two florists doing some sort of demonstration, in a room where it was too dark to take decent pictures, and anyway I personally am interested in plants for the plants’ sake, and not for elaborately decorated containers, though at least they didn’t got the ‘neon colours, sparkle and ka-boom!’ route.

I'd introduce them by name like everyone else, but I've forgotten them. 😦 Sorry, girls!

The last place we visited, Gartenpark Geringer, was the least interesting to me. Probably because it was a garden centre rather than a nursery. I can visit garden centres any time I want, although I have to admit this was the first independent one I’ve been to – I’m only familiar with the Bellaflora and Dehner chain stores. Still, too much non-plant stuff, too few plants (there were a few neat houseplants, but nothing I could take with me, and it was too dark to take pictures by then. I tried, but they look impossible). The theme gardens that are open to visitors every day, regardless of whether the store is open, are a nice idea, but again, it was too dark to get a good look, and from what I saw, there wasn’t anything I’d want in my own garden. A Hundertwasser garden? A Renaissance garden? No thanks.

Mr Geringer and some of the young horticulturists in the Renaissance Garden

It was another long night… dinner at a restaurant, where I stuffed myself so badly I could hardly move any more (what else was I supposed to do, when they kept putting more yummy food in front of me?), a talk about the upcoming CEJH (Communautée Européenne des Jeunes de l`Horticulture, European Community of Young Horticulturists) congress in Luxembourg, then we got goofy with rubber flowers:

That's Elizabeth from the school nursery at Langenlois horticulture school, Maria and Josiane from the CEJH, and Christian, who's some important horticultural person, but I've forgotten why exactly. 😉

I was so ready to stumble off to my sleeping bag when we got back to our inn, but couldn’t yet, because we were still waiting for a talk about the next winter seminar. And it was worth the wait – the group from Carinthia (another Austrian state), who will be hosting the next seminar, had all dressed up to parody one of the few TV shows I know***, and to act out some scenes of Carinthian legend, in the course  of which I was nearly eaten by a lindworm.

Crappy picture, but the best I could do in a dark room. No idea who the girl on the left was (Saint Hemma of Gurk?), then there's the lindworm, the Emperor's assistant Seyffenstein, Emperor Robert Heinrich I. (or should he be II., since he's not the 'real' one?), the gnome thingy that created Lake Wörthersee, and some other guy I can't remember. Might have been the one who killed the lindworm.

And after that, I just wasn’t tired any more. 2 AM, I wasn’t tired. 3 AM, I still wasn’t tired. Sitting in the bar, talking, drinking my coke and water. 4 AM, still not tired, the bar emptying around us. 5 AM, still not tired, still sitting with the hard core of ten or so people, because going to bed would mean admitting the seminar – and the fun – was over. 6 AM, still not tired, but the innkeeper was, so he refused to sell any more drinks, and we finally had to drift off to bed.

kinda crappy picture of where I slept

And after just two hours, I had to get up again, pack, find I was too tired to eat breakfast, get down the mountain and onto the train… and a few hours later those mountains I’d just passed through were once again only a faint line on the horizon…

Across the valley from the inn, and also apparently across the Swiss border. I heard someone say it's called 'Hoher Kasten' ('High Cupboard'), but don't take my word for it.


* I know, I know… that’s exactly the sort of thing you’re always told not to do – you’re supposed to meet online acquaintances in a safe, public place, not spend the weekend at their house – but they’ve been some of the best weekends of my life, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to be hosting one of these gatherings here at the Nettle Nest in two weeks!

** I expect to people from such huge countries as the US, it might be amusing that a country as tiny as Austria is again divided into nine states. Heck, I find it funny myself!

*** Wir sind Kaiser (We Are Emperor), in which Austria has been turned back into a monarchy. I might have found it funnier and less puzzling if I had any idea who these celebrities having audiences with ‘Emperor’ Robert Heinrich I. were.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ginny Burton permalink
    February 7, 2011 02:07

    When you say to cover the pelargonium cuttings “in fleece” what exactly do you mean? What sort of fleece?

    Beautiful pictures, by the way. Sounds like you had a blast.

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