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Growing opportunity

Oak Crest man spearheads effort to restore greenhouse back to its glory

Created date

January 29th, 2015
man standing in a greenhouse


Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Gene Miller is the latter. 

A retired landscape architect for the state of Maryland, Gene spent his career designing park and ride facilities, highway rest stops, and roadside landscaping projects. So when he discovered the greenhouse at Oak Crest was in need of a little TLC, he didn’t hesitate to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

“I had always wanted to get involved at the greenhouse; I just never got around to it,” says Gene. “Then one day I was on my morning walk, and I decided to stop in. It was clear it needed refurbishment.”

For more than a decade, Crest resident Margaret Bartolini, an avid gardener, kept the 55- by 24-foot greenhouse in good working order. But since Margaret’s passing in January 2013, the greenhouse had largely gone untouched until last March when Gene set out to restore the structure in Margaret’s memory.  

“I had no experience in greenhouse operations, and I never really worked with houseplants or flowers,” says Gene. “So I asked a friend of mine who taught greenhouse management for his advice. His suggestion: lead by example.” 

Dirty work

Without hesitation, Gene jumped right in and began organizing the plants in the greenhouse—disposing of the dead ones and trimming the others. He then painted the worktables, and with help from the volunteers in the Oak Crest woodshop, he designed a new numbering system for the work benches out of wood blocks. 

“I set up a bulletin board with different categories as a means of communication where people can post notes and a sign-in sheet so we know who is coming and going,” says Gene. “We also instituted a few basic rules. First, all plants must be labeled. Two, no diseased plants. And lastly, everyone is responsible for the care of their own plants.” 

Upon witnessing Gene’s efforts, the Oak Crest grounds department followed suit.

“They replaced a blower fan that regulates the temperature, painted the walls, power-washed the greenhouse—it was amazing to see the transformation,” says Gene. 

“We look forward to assisting in any way we can, including providing water, gardening soil, containers, and any other tools needed,” says Oak Crest Grounds Supervisor Frank Lina.

Gene has also reached out to fellow gardeners at Oak Crest to encourage them to get involved. 

“I organized a meeting to gauge resident interest in the greenhouse,” says Gene. “Some people expressed an interest in plant propagation, others in overwintering patio and balcony plants, and some in transplanting seedlings and growing tomatoes during the winter months. We also discussed raising flowers for floral centerpieces for events at Oak Crest, arrangements for chapel services, hanging baskets for patios—the possibilities are endless!”

Gene plans on raising white turtlehead flowers from seeds he received from his granddaughter. 

“Last summer, one of my granddaughters volunteered at the Estuary Center in Harford County on a flower planting project to attract butterflies,” says Gene. “The checkerspot butterfly, which is Maryland’s state insect, needs the white turtlehead flower in order to survive. I even bought a three-tier grow lamp for my apartment to see if I can get the seeds big enough before I transfer them to the greenhouse.”

Room to grow

In addition to the greenhouse, Oak Crest features eighty 10- by 10-foot gardens, and six 7- by 7-foot raised planter beds, allowing plenty of room for planting everything from strawberries to roses. Like the greenhouse, the beds are free and available on a first come, first served basis. 

Lina says it’s great to see residents enjoying gardening year-round again. 

“Since Mr. Miller has generated a renewed interest, the greenhouse has come back to life,” says Lina. 

But Gene is modest about his role in the transformation. 

“It’s an amazing thing that’s happening, and I’m very optimistic,” says Gene. “But I don’t feel like I’ve done that much other than bringing it to everyone’s attention and getting people motivated to enjoy this wonderful amenity.”

The greenhouse is now a regular stop on Gene’s daily morning walk. 

“I just drop by to see if anything needs my attention,” he says. “Right now, there are lots of flowers blooming, and it’s just a pleasant place to be.”