Unlike most of us, Jim Sutton knew at an early age what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. His mother had started her Longwood Gardens career working as a docent in the duPont house that had been the center of the estate when the family was alive. She graduated to being a garden guide while taking ornamental horticulture classes at Penn State University.
“I was about 10 when I began to accompany her to some of those classes,” Sutton says.
And that’s where his love of floral landscapes was nurtured. “I knew I wanted to do something with plants,” adds Sutton. “I [got] a degree from Penn State in ornamental horticulture.” [pullquote]Sutton’s desire to inspire the home gardener informs each year’s garden designs.[/pullquote]
Sutton explains that ornamental horticulture is the study of plants used for their beauty, rather than for food, commercial or ecological purposes. Upon graduation, he served in the Peace Corps in Honduras, working in agriculture and soil conservation.
Sutton returned and began work at Longwood Gardens in 1994, and was there for 10 years in various capacities before going on to be a private gardener on a local estate. While working there, he did floral design for big fundraising events hosted by nonprofits like Home of the Sparrow and People’s Light. He also did weddings and large private parties.
Lured back to Longwood in 2007, Sutton is now responsible for all of its special horticultural displays—and he is careful to explain the differences between a display designer and a floral designer. Sutton plans the garden bulbs in the spring, the annuals and perennials in the summer and fall beds, and all the various displays that take place in the greenhouses. He emphasizes that he has a really strong team.
For the upcoming Orchid Extravaganza, there are 18 different team leaders. Each has a lot of input into the design and execution of the plans. “They sometimes know best what will work and what won’t in a specific display that they’ve been responsible for—more so than I do.”
Sutton says that orchids have always been one of Longwood’s core collections. They have on hand anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 of them, and this is the 12th year Longwood has put on the special orchid display in winter. For that, they purchase orchids from growers all over the United States, many of whom import tissue cultures from countries around the world and grow them into full-size plants.
The orchids Longwood acquires for its show are “already spiking,” which means they’re not only full-size plants but have developed a floral spike loaded with buds. This year’s event will feature 4,000 orchids of every size, color and description. Sutton says his best estimate of the varieties is around 500, because he selects on the basis of color, form and “sometimes longevity of the bloom because some need to last the entire display without being refreshed.”
“For the display this year, these are the most orchids we’ve ever bought,” Sutton continues, going on to explain that after the show, the growers are offered the option to buy back whatever plants they might want.
After that, the remainder is sold to the Longwood gift shop, where visitors can purchase them to take home. When he describes all of the plans for this year, it makes a post-orchid-show visit to the gift shop almost mandatory.
“There will be a curtain of Phalaenopsis orchids as part of the show,” Sutton says, adding that we can also expect “superbaskets” of orchids above the fern floor.
Visitors will walk into the conservatory under an arch of white orchids. Other plans include a tropical clearing and orchids in the fern passageway. There are 18 customized parts to this show, each led by a member of the Longwood team.
Even with all that people power, the show does pose problems, despite orchid blooms being among the most long lasting of all flowers. Orchid plants are also among the least demanding of anything cultivated for display. “We do have to refresh the displays, so we have purchased extras, which we also have to keep in excellent shape so they can go into the displays as needed,” Sutton points out.
Sutton mentions both Vandas (known for their beautiful blue colors) and Catteylas (those orchids your grandmother wore as a corsage) as ones that most often will need renewal in the middle of the show.
Orchid Extravaganza at Longwood Gardens opens this year on Saturday, Jan. 23, and closes on Sunday, March 27. The orchids from the show will go on sale to the public March 30-April 2, so mark your calendar.