Welcome to the Garden Savvy Interview Series, where we sit down with notable gardeners to discuss their technique and best practices in the garden. Today I had the privilege of speaking with the King of Hellebores, Barry Glick!
The King of Hellebores
John Ehrling: Thank you for sitting down with us Barry, can you please introduce who you are, what you do, and tell us your plant hardiness zone?
Barry Glick: Okay, well I’m pretty much a zone five. Even though the map says zone six, the plants can’t read the map. Sometimes I try to push it. When we have a good snow cover, I can push this zone. Typically we’ll go down to zero or 10 below, which according to the map is zone six. But we get these brutal Northwest winds at 45 miles an hour and it brings the wind-chill down below zero. Like I said, if we have a good snow cover, we’re good, and it’s the best mulch you can get.
John Ehrling: When did your gardening story begin?
Barry Glick: My botanical story goes back to when I was five years old. On Sunday afternoon, my father brought home a six pack of tomatoes, a six pack of carnations and radish seeds. And on my little postage size stamp strip of land behind our families house in Northeast Philadelphia, I grew those seeds. It blew me away as a five year old kid, the thought of being able to grow my own food. I thought to myself, oh my goodness, when I become an adult I’ll never have to go to the grocery store. So of course that was a bit naive. So I saved the seeds and planted them the next year. They weren’t quite as robust since the radishes I was growing were an F1-hybrid. But they were certainly interesting, delicious and very edible. And that’s what put me into seed geek mode. And ever since then I’ve been trading seeds with botanic gardens all over the world.
Barry Glick: I trade with close to 800 botanical gardens each year. I’ve traded plants with people who live in amazing places. And I had to be very careful because I’ve unleashed some very aggressive plants on my own farm and gardens here because those are plants from another part of the world. Like multiflora rose is not a problem in Japan where it’s native because it’s evolved there and it’s evolved with nature’s checks and balances. Same thing with the emerald ash borers, they’re destroying all the ash trees in our forest. This is an insect that evolved in Asia and the species of ash trees in Asia aren’t affected by it because the dying and sickly old ash trees in Asia put out a certain pheromone that attracts these emerald ash borers. Sorry I tend to go off on tangents, but I think this information is important to share.
John Ehrling: Not a problem, all this information is very fascinating. You started gardening at the young age of 5, have you had any formal training?
Barry Glick: No, no, and it’s interesting because I grew up in the 60’s in Philadelphia and I used to cut high school and hitchhike to Longwood Gardens and make friends with all the people that work there. They kind of took me under their wings and gave me cuttings, which they weren’t supposed to do, but they recognized my passion for plants and horticulture and they were very generous.
Barry Glick: And in 1972, when I decided I wanted to get into this full time and make a living at it, I bought a 60 acre piece of mountain top in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, which is a botanical paradise. The native flora of West Virginia, is chronicled in the last revised version of the 1972 flora of West Virginia, which is 1,089 pages. It’s thicker than the New York City phone book. It details over 2,500 native species of plants that grow here. So I’ve spent the last 47 years exploring, finding interesting new plants, figuring out the propagation pathways because I grow so many plants that are not in commercial cultivation and never will be. I mean, my goal has been to find plants that, you’ll never see at Walmart or Lowe’s or Home Depot. These are plants that are truly for the people that are deeply involved in horticulture and want to grow something unusual, but easy to grow.
John Ehrling: Are there any general gardening tips you can offer to novice gardeners? Any tips on plant propagation? Also, tell us about your propagation workshops!
Barry Glick: The essence of gardening all boils down to if you know the particular habitat, light, moisture, exposure to the sun, soil, texture, and Ph. That’s more than half of the story right there, and you can replicate anything that mother nature created.
Barry Glick: My friend Tony Havens says “I don’t consider a plant ungrowable until I’ve killed it three times.” So I got to go along with that; and Propagation is my passion. It’s the coolest area of horticulture for me. Being able to save seeds or pollinate a plant and then collect the seeds and get them to germinate. Some seeds required gibberellin so they need to be germinating in natural soil instead of a bagged perennial mix or something like that. All the different areas of propagation are exciting. I’m a seed freak, so I love growing things from seed and it’s the easiest way to trade plants with somebody.
Barry Glick: In 1995, I developed a hands on propagation workshop and gave it at the Millersville native plant conference in Millersville, Pennsylvania, which is an amazing conference. Over 400 people attend every year. It’s the first week of June. It offers 30 or 40 different workshops, classes, field trips, seminars and social events. And the workshop was an immediate sellout. So they brought me back the next year. And again, it was waitlisted for people cause I can’t have more than 36 people. We do the workshop in a lab and every table has a microscope and a sink. And we really do everything from soup to nuts.
Barry Glick: From seed sowing, pollination, collecting seed, sowing to tissue culture and everything in between. And everybody goes home with a whole tray of plants, books, and all kinds of great stuff. So for four years in a row, it was a sellout, was the first workshop to fill up and be wait listed. And I gave it a couple more times since then and I’m doing it again this year. I’ve also given it for different garden clubs and Master Gardener groups all over the country.
Barry Glick: You know, the greatest fun for me is having an audience and getting to do a little stand up but impart some great information. I have several PowerPoint lectures that I do. The first native plant one that I did was the woodland wonders from the wild and I digitized all my slides and I’m still doing that lecture and I’ve got two follow-up lectures. In part two and part three and I show the plants habitat and how easy it is to grow. My one hour lectures have sometimes gone almost three hours and nobody’s even gotten up to use the restroom. I like to hold an audience, take questions and answers during my talk and then hang out with the audience after the lecture. A lot of times it’ll be in a master gardeners conference and I like it when I am the only speaker for the morning and don’t have to be sandwiched in-between other speakers and have a strict time limit to adhere to.
John Ehrling: So while you’re teaching these classes, have you ever learned something new? They usually say that when a teacher is presenting information to students, sometimes they figure things out for themselves while teaching or someone asks you a question about something that you’ve never known before.
Barry Glick: Absolutely. And anybody who thinks they know it all is an idiot, because nobody does. And I’ve had people come to me very humbly and say, “Oh, I hate to bother you.” This may be a stupid question. I say, “no, there are no stupid questions.” I continually find new information from people in the audience or people that I talked to on the phone or people that come to visit my gardens. And I’ve had gardeners, from virtually every country in the world come to this mountain top to see some of the 10,000 different plants that we grow here.
John Ehrling: Branching off from that topic, so you seem to have a lot of nicknames like The King of Hellebores, Glicksterus Maximus and the Cyber Plant Man. Where did you come up with all those?
Barry Glick: Well, if you can’t interject humor into gardening, then you’re not a serious gardener and there are a plethora of characters involved in the gardening world. Just amazing people. The Glicksterus Maximus was given to me by a very famous man. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Mike Dirr. Mike is the leading authority on woody plants. He wrote the woody plants manual about 35 years ago. He’s a retired professor from the University of Georgia and he’s great buddies with Allan Armitage. Allan Armitage is the leading authority on annual and perennial plant material. So the two of them travel around the country lecturing, and it was Mike that ended up handing me the moniker Glicksterus maximus.
Barry Glick: I’m as passionate about hellebores as I am, about native plants, and I have six acres of what people call lenten roses (hellebores) that I discovered accidentally about 35 years ago. There was a cult of people in the United States that had connections in England that started bringing lenten roses over here. All of a sudden Martha Stewart got hold of them and put them on the cover of her magazine, and the rest is history. The King of Hellebores turned out to be kind of like a promotional joke. One year I bought a king costume on a Halloween website, and had my friend Jay take a picture of me on the hillside with thousands of hellebores behind me and people went nuts. So when I give a lecture on Hellebores, it’s always promoted as come see The King of hellebores!
Barry Glick: Cyber Plant Man started back in 95’ when there was no graphics on the internet. It was just black and white bulletin boards. Everybody had dial up and it costed a fortune to get online. I hooked up with a woman in Illinois who had a website called garden gate and it was really the first website on the Internet. And then other people started putting up little garden websites and I started doing a blog on one of them and then was nicknamed the cyber plant man. So it kind of stuck.
John Ehrling: I noticed that you offer a tremendous amount of hybridized hellebores. And after hearing all your nicknames I feel like I want to start calling you the mad plant scientist too. When did you start experimenting with hybrids and do you also offer a DIY guide available for newbies that want to learn from you?
Barry Glick: Well, it all started with a very interesting character and horticulturalist named Don Jacobs, who had a place called Eco Gardens in Decatur, Georgia. He had all kinds of amazing plants he sold for three bucks each and he had a little printed catalog, five and a half by eight and a half, probably about 30 pages of plants, so I started sending them $300 a month, and every month I’d receive a hundred different plants. Then one time I went outside in the middle of the winter and it was just a few inches of snow on the ground and I saw a flower and it look like it was sitting on the snow. I thought I was hallucinating and I went over and I brushed the snow away. It had one of Don Jacobs, Eco Gardens, yellow tags on it, and it said lenten rose.
Barry Glick: I said, wow, what in the world is this? And of course getting a hundred plants a month for almost a year. I didn’t know most of them. I was just learning. It was before the Internet and I spent a fortune on books. So I called him up. I said, wow, I got a flower on a plant and now in the middle of the Winter. And he said, “oh, it must be a hellebore.” I said, “well, it says lenten rose.” He says, “yeah.” I said, “well, tell me about it.” And he told me all about it and I said, “I need more.” So he sent me a hundred of them that he had raised from seed and then started turning me on to some people in England and people in Germany and people in Belgium. And I started getting seeds from people all over the world and coming up with all these amazing varieties. We’re talking about over the span of three to five years because it takes three to five years to see what the results of your crosses are.
Barry Glick: People would come visit me and see them all and say, “wow, these are really cool, tell me about them.” And even visitors that I had during the Winter would come and see them in bloom. And you know, I hate to skip ahead and say the rest is history but it pretty much is. I put two kids through college on lenten roses. Native plants and lenten roses are my passion. One of the major considerations growing hellebores here for me was the deer population. I live in a town of 18 people. The deer out number us two to one and a herd of 35 deer comes through every night and they’d eat the paint off your barn if you let them. I’ve given up on hostas and day lilies of course, except a few species.
Barry Glick: I spend a lot of money on deer fencing and they have never taken a single bite out of one of the hellebore plants on six acres. I’ve have several hundred thousand mature plants and we work with the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers whose members are all over the world and they are growing hellebore’s. It’s a really amazing organization. My friend Bob Woolen, Woolen Gardens, is one of the founders and they grow cut flowers domestically and other really unusual plants. And they do some of them do their own arrangements. Some of them supply florists hellebores. Lenten roses have become incredibly popular for late Winter weddings, being able to have domestically grown cut flowers for late Winter weddings.
John Ehrling: That’s an incredible story. Shifting away from flowers, do you grow your own vegetables?
Barry Glick: I moved here to be a hippie in 1972 and the first year that I was here, besides building my own house, I canned 150 quarts of tomatoes and filled the 20 cubic foot freezer with corn, peas, beans and ate my own food all winter. Of course I didn’t sleep much either because I was constantly doing something. I realized I wanted to prove to myself that I could live off the land, not completely, because I liked being on the grid and having electricity. Several friends of mine still to this day live off the grid and I had an incredible vegetable garden for years and years. And then this business with lenten roses really took off and I didn’t have time to have vegetable garden. So about 10 years ago I got back into it, bought a new tiller and actually yesterday just planted my first of three rows of red potatoes. So if it wasn’t raining, I would have gotten all three rows in the ground. But yes, to answer your question, and it’s interesting because I traded the guy that owns Baker Creek heirloom seeds, some hellebores for some of their unusual seeds because I wanted to collect my own seeds. But if you grow 10 of their heirloom variety tomatoes and plant them less than 50 feet apart, you’re going to end up with hybrids. So I kind’ve gave up on that and I’m just like everybody else, buying seed packs every year.
John Ehrling: What’s in your vegetable garden? Do you still have to go to the grocery store often or do you feel like you could still live off the land?
Barry Glick: Well, I could live off the land if I wanted, but being an organic vegan, I, you know, I’m not growing strawberries and blackberries and blueberries. Not In the quantities that I can consume. So yeah, I still go to the grocery store, but of course starting in Mid-Spring to late Winter I don’t have to buy any salads or a root vegetables like carrots and things like that. I bury my garden in about six inches of hay and it suppresses any seeds that are going to germinate in the hay and I’ve been eating potatoes and carrots all Winter. I just noticed about three weeks ago when we started preparing the garden for the Spring that I have four kale plants. They survived a brutal Winter and I was eating fresh kale in February and March.
John Ehrling: You seem to have learned so much during your journey, is there anything that you wish that you knew way back in the past when you first started gardening?
Barry Glick: As human beings, we always have great hindsight and I try not to let myself fall into that trap of, “Oh man, I wish I knew this, back then.” It’s nonproductive to have those kinds of thoughts. I hope as I age that I can retain all this information and not forget anything. There all these little tricks that we’ve learned in all these sources that we’ve accumulated that if you have a question about a particular vegetable plant or flower, you can just call this or that person. So, you know, keep all your records backed up on paper in case your hard drive crashes or in case your brain crashes. You need to constantly de-fragment your brain, like you do to your hard drive and just chill and let everything seep in.
John Ehrling: That’s a great quote. I like that idea of de-fragmenting your brain. That’s really clever. You mentioned that you work about 90 hours plus each week. What do you do to relax when you aren’t out in the garden?
Barry Glick: Turner Classic Movies. That’s the answer!
John Ehrling: I see, so you like a lot of the older traditional films?
Barry Glick: I love the twenties, thirties, forties, silent films. My favorite genre is film noire and crime murder movies. But you know my favorite movie is Grand Hotel with the Barrymore brothers, Wallace Beery, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford in 1932.
John Ehrling: To wrap everything up, where can I have the readers find you so they can follow you and learn more?
Barry Glick: Sunfarm.com I’m really good about answering emails and sending people the information they request. I wake up in the morning between five and six, log on and start answering emails ‘til my crew gets here at eight. And then I’m in and out of the office like every 10 or 15 minutes. I’ll go up on the mountain, then check what people are doing up there and go into the greenhouses and come back to the office have a cup of tea, and answer emails.
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