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For more than 40 years, pair have tended a love for flowers in The Little Greenhouse

Towson Times
For more than 40 years, pair have tended a love for flowers in The Little Greenhouse

A wooden sign on Harford Road that reads "Orchids/Rare Plants" is the only visual confirmation that a first-time visitor to The Little Greenhouse is in the right place.

Beyond a copse of white pines and down a gentle slope from a small parking lot, two large structures come into view. Once inside the 36-by-90-foot greenhouse, which is open to the public, a fantastical panorama unfolds.

Orchids that smell like cocoa powder, watermelon and lemon-scented furniture polish abound, along with more traditional floral scents. Staghorn ferns that mimic mounted antlers cause their share of double-takes, as do moth orchids cascading seductively from their pots.

Want an orchid that's nearly black, or one so tiny that four blooms could fit on the tip of a pencil eraser? No problem. Bromeliads, ferns, begonias — if you can name it, it's there.

This is an especially busy time of year for Carney greenhouse co-owners Thomas McBride and Gary Krause, who oversee a space teeming with 30,000 plants that's been 42 years in the making.

They are preparing to sell a wide variety of their living wares on the second weekend of the Maryland Home & Garden Show, which will take place March 10 through March 12 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, in Timonium. They also take part in the annual Garden Festival, to be held May 6 at Ladew Topiary Gardens, in Monkton.

But despite the extra work, the partners in business and life continue to tirelessly share growing tips and plant trivia with all comers, as usual.

Laura Sobelman, a member of the Maryland Orchid Society, to which McBride and Krause belong, said a "transfer of enthusiasm" occurs when the owners interact with their customers.

"Tom and Gary go out of their way to teach other people, whether they're novices or expert growers," she said. "It's a magical place."

McBride said he was smitten with what seemed to be an alternate botanical universe the first time he entered the greenhouse in 1973 and, though he's now 65, he still experiences the same sense of wonder.

"The whole place just took my breath away. It was like walking into a tropical paradise," he recalled. "I was young and impressionable, and I'd never seen anything like it."

Though their work is physically demanding, the pair have no plans to retire.

"We'll probably keep working till we drop," Krause, 63, predicted. "Our mutual love of orchids is what has kept us together all these years."

Technology certainly hasn't been the keystone to the duo's success.

The Baltimore natives don't have a website and mostly eschew email. While customers frequently post positive reviews on a social media page — one that a neighbor convinced them to let him set up — it's infrequently tended.

This is partly because the pair are self-professed workaholics who do everything themselves, which leaves them little down time.

Mostly, though, they like playing matchmaker in their greenhouse.

"We do our best to describe what it takes to have a happy plant," McBride said about dispensing free advice — for the plant's sake as well as the buyer's.

"People who are bitten by the bug become repeat customers," he said, "and then they tell other people about us."

Genesis of a business

McBride was a clothing store manager and Krause a TV repairman when serendipity sneaked up on them and changed their lives forever.

After visiting what was formerly called The Little African Violet Greenhouse at a friend's suggestion in 1973, the then-20-somethings soon became regular patrons. When the greenhouse's owner announced a year later that she would shutter her business, the pair embarked on self-described "panic-buying spree."

"We figured we had to buy everything we could before it was gone," McBride explained. "Then we went out to buy a book to learn how to take care of it all."

As their burgeoning collection topped 100 plants — which they set by large windows and under grow lights in their apartments — their next step became obvious. They decided to buy the business and make their hobby pay for itself, which they did on March 9, 1975.

Their current inventory mainly includes plants priced from $5 to $50, though McBride paid $1,200 for a rare lady's slipper and sold a division of it recently for $350.

Since there are 30,000 known species of orchids in nature and more than 100,000 registered hybrids, collecting them continues to be an addiction for the pair and, luckily, for their most loyal customers.

Stiles Colwill, an interior designer in Greenspring Valley, paid his first visit to the greenhouse over a decade ago and has purchased orchids for events he has held at the Baltimore Museum of Art as well as for personal enjoyment.

"Tom and Gary taught me how to take care of the plants properly," he said, adding that the owners are the main reason he has amassed 10 dozen orchids and owns a greenhouse. "Orchids are an addiction."

Interest in growing orchids and rare plants "ebbs and flows," which creates a roller coaster ride of sorts for nursery owners, the partners pointed out.

McBride said a surge in sales occurred after publication of "The Orchid Thief," a popular 1998 non-fiction book that spawned a film called "Adaptation," starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage.

"The book is an easy, fun read and it made everyone think they wanted to grow orchids," he said.

Not long afterward, the hobbyist market floundered in the aftermath of 9/11, causing the number of Florida growers to drop precipitously for a while, Krause said.

"When well-heeled buyers switched from buying cut flowers to buying planted arrangements [to trim their own expense], that got us through a lean period," he said. "The market's just been coming back in the last two years and seems to be building."

What the future holds

The partners have noticed a trend over the last six months that has given them renewed hope about the future of the industry they love: More and more 20-somethings are showing up at the greenhouse, they say.

Damien Gonzalez, a Navy veteran and firearms instructor in Middle River, was already tending a bonsai — a Japanese art form that involves patiently pruning a dwarf ornamental tree — when he and his girlfriend Erika visited The Little Greenhouse last year to get advice on a dying orchid.

Gonzalez, 27, was caught off-guard at the size and breadth of the greenhouse's inventory.

"I was awestruck by the number of plants and their extremely high quality," he said.

What appeals to Gonzalez most about growing orchids is the same risk-reward tradeoff he experiences with bonsai, which he describes as "a calming hobby."

"For me, it's primarily the challenge," he said.

McBride said turning the greenhouse business over to a young couple someday would be a dream come true after all the time and energy he and Krause have invested in it.

"We've been chased forever by developers who want to build homes on our land," he said.

"This has never been about money," McBride said, motioning around the greenhouse. "But if we ever find we can't keep this business on the cutting edge, we'll give it up."

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