Meet the Grower

Libbie Glembocki, Bluebird Greenhouse

The clock indicated it was almost noon and it was time for my lunch date with Libbie at a downtown restaurant for this interview. Logans Trading Post is a downtown Raleigh garden center that is very unique for a garden center. Located in a former AMTRAK train station they have innovatively made use of the former train platforms complete with baggage carts and other railroad memorabilia to display a wide variety of plants. Don't get too close to the edge of the platform however because the tracks are still live. The occasional freight train still rumbles through adding the atmospheric touch that reminds you of where you really are. At times the colorful displays of plants for sale will make you forget where you are and the train is necessary to put it all in perspective. As part of the conversion, Logans has converted the train stations' former snack bar into a restaurant that spills out into the greenhouses that were retro fitted onto the ends of this former AMTRAK passenger facility. The transformation is wonderful allowing me to fully appreciate my surroundings while waiting for Libbie to make her downtown deliveries. As the busy proprietor of Bluebird Greenhouses, Libbie usually spends the mornings in the greenhouse planting violets, watering plants and answering the phone in a busy whirlwind of activity assisted by some of the finest part time help on the planet. The afternoon finds her around town making plant deliveries to various wholesale customers.
When Libbie arrived we took a table near the 4 inch herb displays and chatted while waiting for our Crab Sandwiches to be prepared.
Libbie traces her first gardening experience to the third grade when she planted a pumpkin seed that grew into a large Halloween pumpkin. Next door to her families home in suburban Rocky River, Ohio was a lady the neighborhood knew as "Grandma Broggin". Grandma Broggin used to sow her vegetable seeds in flats in the basement under lights. Little Libbie developed a fascination of putting seeds in the soil and literally watching them grow in environmentally friendly conditions. She didn't have florescent lights under which to grow things in third grade but Libbie wasn't discouraged. When the Ohio weather became warm enough in the spring Libbie attempted to grow gourds in her families's backyard. She ended up growing gourds that were over 18 inches long and sunflowers that towered over her 9 year old head. Her green thumb was alive and well even at this early age.

"Give me a seed and I can grow it"

Libbie on Mansfield University Campus, October 2002

The fascination with growing things continued through her college years. At Mansfield University in Mansfield, PA Libbie's dorm room had plants everywhere - light loving plants on the window sills and plants that need less light in the interior of the tiny room. Earning a Bachelors degree in Elementary Education, Libbie set off into the working world as a First Grade teacher in nearby Owego, NY where she continued her love of plants. One day her plant endeavors took a fortuitous turn. While shopping a discount store in Owego she came across a bargain table of plants that needed desperate rescuing. They were practically dead "Ballet Violets" hybridized by the late Ernie Fischer of Fishers Greenhouses. (alas, Fischers Greenhouse is no longer in business)

As violet aficionado's well know, there are two "best times" to purchase discount store plants. One is when the plants first arrive at the store and thus have not had a chance for the store help to kill them off. The second opportunity is after they have suffered the abuse and neglect of the store and have made their way to the last chance table. Sometimes the pricing can be pennies on the dollar and if you have the skill and patience you can be well rewarded. Libbie's collection started in earnest with light stands in her basement and practically every Ballet violet the discount store was discarding over the next several years.

Once the violet addiction begins the only cure is to seek out more violets. The afflicted require Violets with wider ranges of colors, wider ranges of foliage colorations and wider varieties of growth habits. On a summer vacation trip to Sturbridge MA in 1973 her fate was sealed and this compulsive need was fed.

Sturbridge Village is a tourist spot where people go to watch other people dressed up in pioneer clothes doing mildly interesting things such as dipping string into wax to make candles. After a few minutes of this activity Libbie noticed a little ad in one of the many tourist booklets available on shelves, counters and racks everywhere. That ad was for Buehls Greenhouse just over the border in nearby Connecticut. Buehls consisted of a series of old fashioned glass greenhouses attached to the side of a Connecticut farmhouse. Inside, the greenhouses were bulging with African Violets. There were violets growing on benches holding sand several inches deep. Other Violets were growing under lights which were attached to the underside of these sand benches. Overhead there were more lights and suspended shelves with violets. In one greenhouse, not open to the public, there was a motor driven Ferris wheel with trays of violets constantly in motion. The trays would dip down below bench level then rise on the Ferris wheel ride to be exposed to the muted sunlight coming through the shaded glass. They would then ride back down again below bench level to repeat the cycle. Buehls is truly a unique experience, an experience that forever was indelibly impressed into Libbie's head.

A few years after that Buehls experience a move to North Carolina had her growing violets under lights in the family room. A move to a new house in North Carolina made room for even more violets on an enclosed back porch. The back porch was actually a disguised greenhouse since the porch ceiling contained 10 skylights and the porch walls consisted of 8 sliding glass patio doors. The violet collection grew and grew - this time violets from the former Granger greenhouses in Ohio would arrive by the case and quickly filled all available space on the back porch greenhouse.

The African Violet hobby took another turn with the purchase of some land 4 miles from her home and the purchase of two gutter connected steel greenhouses from XS Smith in 1983. These houses, each 21 x 150 feet were soon filled to capacity. Two more greenhouses were added the following year bringing the total of violets under production up to 50,000 plants. This was no longer a hobby. The African Violets have become like the Southern Kudzu vine. A native of China, Kudzu was introduced to the US as a crop to feed cattle. The vines grow 2 to 3 feet per day and have roots that develop in the ground to depths of over 30 feet. Because of this they are immune to drought and just about everything else and as a result have taken over large areas of the Southeastern US. Like the Kudzu, African Violets have completely taken over Bluebird.

The development of the World Wide Web in the nineties allowed Libbie to offer a nice variety of large plants to a wider audience. In the pre-web days there was limited mail order of violets but in those days the best way to get African Violets was at a local violet show or regional convention.

In June of 1997 hybridizer John Brownlie of ACA's violets registered AVSA number 8623, "ACA's Libbie" in honor of Libbie Glembocki!

Surrounded by violets in Bluebird Greenhouse

Libbie has kicked the website up yet another notch with a secure web site and shopping cart. Now ordering your favorite violet, Orchid or companion plant should be as easy as ordering a book at Amazon,com. Libbie said that over the course of the next few years the web site will grow to encompass more plants available for sale online as well as more articles and features about growing violets, gesneriads and Orchids.

We can look forward to a blooming future with the dedication and attention of people like Libbie.