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Noelridge Greenhouse volunteers help Cedar Rapids bloom throughout the year

One of there greenhouses containing varied houseplants is seen at the Noelridge Park greenhouses in Cedar Rapids on Mond
One of there greenhouses containing varied houseplants is seen at the Noelridge Park greenhouses in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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It may be January outside, but inside Cedar Rapids’ Noelridge Greenhouse feels like a cocoon to Cindy Garlock. Her favorite spot is the conservatory with its permanent collection of large, lush tropical plants.

“It’s warm and humid, and there’s the smell of soil,” Garlock said. “It’s a whole different sensory experience from being outside in the cold, the wind and the snow.”

Run by the city of Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, the greenhouse is in Noelridge Park, just south of the Collins Road and Council Street NE intersection.

Garlock became a volunteer with the Friends of Noelridge more than 10 years ago and now serves as its board president.

“The work (volunteers) do at the greenhouse is huge,” she said. “We provide the plants for every city property in town.”

More than likely, if you see plants or flowers in a public space in Cedar Rapids, they came from the Noelridge greenhouse, Garlock said. The plants and flowers are found in city parks, near the Eastern Iowa Airport and the McGrath Amphitheatre, outside the city’s fire stations and the big flowerpots throughout downtown Cedar Rapids.

ADMIRING NATURE, INSIDE

Noelridge Park is a verdant 100-acre site with numerous flowerbeds, a large pond, walking trail and plenty of open, grassy areas. Although the park’s exterior features draw tens of thousands of visitors a year, the interior of the greenhouse also is a big hit.

The building has two main areas, the working greenhouse where thousands of annuals and perennials are propagated each spring and a smaller botanical garden that includes tropical plants and a cactus garden.

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In a regular year, thousands of visitors tour the greenhouse during the annual Easter and Mother’s Day showcases. It’s also open to visitors on weekdays year-round, though it’s now closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions. Everyone hopes those restrictions will soon ease and people will be able to walk under a banana tree or admire the cactus collection in 2021.

Garlock loves the greenhouse most in early May when the enclosed space, full of plants, is awash in a sea of color.

“Mother’s Day is the best. That’s when the greenhouses are at their capacity. You look at all the work that went into that and all those beautiful plants,” Garlock said. “To me, it’s just amazing.”

VOLUNTEERS DIG IN

In an average year, the Friends of Noelridge volunteers donate up to 2,000 hours of their time, though COVID-19 limited the number of hours in 2020.

The group has 75 to 80 regular volunteers under normal circumstances — many are retirees — plus others who help on a more occasional basis, Garlock said.

Volunteers are matched to a task based on their skills, and everyone is welcome to help. Some volunteers are master gardeners who know a lot, and other volunteers, admittedly, know very little about gardening, Garlock said.

Before becoming a greenhouse volunteer, Garlock had the typical gardening experience: a vegetable garden and some flowers in pots. But Garlock has a leg up on many volunteers: she taught biology in the Cedar Rapids schools for 33 years and now serves on the school board.

Most of the volunteer activity at Noelridge Greenhouse happens during the winter and early spring. Each garden season begins in January.

“It’s labor-intensive,” Garlock said, adding volunteers are always needed.

As president of the Friends of Noelridge board, Garlock works with the greenhouse horticulture staff to determine how volunteers can help and then works with the group’s volunteer coordinator to get the message out.

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“We’ve got a good group,” Garlock said. “If the call goes out that we need workers this week, they show up.”

City employees take over most of the gardening duties each May. Two full-time staffers work year-round along with a team of seasonal workers who plant, water and tend the gardens and planters throughout Cedar Rapids.

Every fall, volunteers return to take cuttings out of the gardens to propagate for the next year. Between October and January, the greenhouse staff maintains equipment and figures out what needs to be ordered for the following year’s plantings.

PLETHORA OF PLANTS

When she first started to volunteer, Garlock said she was amazed by the sheer volume and variety of plants that get their start at the Noelridge Greenhouse each year.

“We estimate every season we send out about 55,000 plants,” she said.

It all begins in January when volunteers get busy dividing and repotting plants.

“If you can name it, we’ve probably propagated it,” Garlock said.

Among her favorites are the many types of coleus, a hardy plant that flourishes in sun or shade. Certain varieties sell out quickly at the annual spring plant sale, including many varieties you may not see at the average garden center, Garlock said.

She hears many positive comments from the public about the greenhouse and the city plantings. It makes her feel proud of her community, she said.

“It’s really special to go downtown to the amphitheater and know I grew some of those plants. They are truly put there by the community,” Garlock said. “I think that’s the most amazing thing that this is such a community effort.”

FRIENDS OF NOELRIDGE

What: Friends of Noelridge Park, Greenhouse, and Botanic Center

To donate or volunteer: Go to friendsofnoelridge.com or facebook.com/friendsofnoelridge; write Friends of Noelridge, Noelridge Greenhouse, 4900 Council St. NE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52402; or call (319) 286-5762

Duties: Help in the Noelridge Greenhouse, lead tours and assist at public events. Other recent projects have included a Free Little Library book exchange and installation of a Children’s Garden; Monarch Zone research; and design and installation of a hosta garden.

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