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Photographs this page by mark steelman

ing machine drum found new life as an overhead light fixture. He took Star News newspaper plates, used once and no longer needed, and reshaped them into plant containers. He was recycling long before recycling became cool. When the Cape Fear Garden Club began to feature Plantation Gardens as part of the Azalea Festival tour, often at night when the effect of the overhead lighting along the woodland paths could be enjoyed, the gardens became known to the general public. Gradually, over the years, hundreds of people got involved with their care and upkeep. Not surprisingly, the trail often led back to George. As it happened, two of the greenhouses on his property were sizable affairs, big enough to hold twenty people standing along two sides of one long central workbench who might want to learn how to propagate things — or, in the case of the greenhouse closest to the house, a two-room affair that could hold rows of folding chairs where people could comfortably listen to speakers talk about candelabra cactus or the care and feeding of staghorn ferns. George managed to make those scenarios come true through a slow, unstoppable process of networking and collaborating. Before Cape Fear Community College (then known as Cape Fear Technical Institute) developed a formal horticultural program, they offered courses to the public at the Ross greenhouses. Instructors from NC State, master gardeners, local experts on everything from landscaping to sand casting, bonsai to hydroponics, air-layering to flower arranging taught classes at the Metts Avenue location beginning in 1974 and continuing on until 1981 with, all told, some 1,200 people attending. It was often George who located and persuaded the experts to come and teach. Even if you didn’t attend a CFTI class, you might stop by Plantation Gardens for the annual plant sale, an event which began with an idea George had for raising enough money for a small neighborhood party and getting rid of excess plants at the same time. Eventually the plant sale gathered enough momentum to take on a life of its own, attracting hundreds of members of the general public and becoming a Wilmington institution. All of this activity — the intensive propagating, the weekly CFTI classes, the public plant sales and the frequent garden tours depended in large part on George’s ability to convince people to come work for free. Willing volunteers joined with court-assigned community service workers to clear out vines and weeds, rake and mow, repot, clean, scrub and propagate. Just about any day of the week, during the heyday of the gardens, someone would be there helping out. At lunchtime, he would call everyone into the big greenhouse and serve them ham biscuits with pickles, sweet tea and vanilla wafer cookies. If you happened to be there in the evening you could hear him call the raccoons out of hiding and watch as almost two dozen of them climbed onto the multi-level platforms he’d built and scarf down their dinners. There was always something going on at 2318 Metts. Much of the volunteer labor that kept Plantation Gardens and the plant sales going was supplied by members of the Hobby Greenhouse Club, another of George’s spiritual offspring. The club’s founders were students who’d taken the CFTI greenhouse course. They met at the Ross greenhouse until the time of his death. The club now meets at the New Hanover County Arboretum and sponsors scholarships for CFCC and Brunswick Community College students and runs the annual plant sale. In memory of the man who did so much to bring the Wilmington plant community together, they raised money to build and maintain the arboretum’s George Ross Memorial Greenhouse. George’s ultimate dream was to have Plantation Gardens and the nearby property dedicated as a public garden, but that never came to pass. Instead, he left a legacy for the hundreds of people whose lives he touched by giving them a place where they could learn something new, share the joy of building things together, meet people of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds they would never otherwise meet, form new friendships, eat ham biscuits and maybe even take home a few potted plants. He was the kind of unusual person who, though self-effacing and never wanting to be the center of attention, nevertheless left an indelible impression on just about everyone who ever knew him. b Barbara Sullivan is the author of Garden Perennials for the Coastal South. Her downtown Wilmington garden has been featured on the PBS show Garden Smart. The Art & Soul of Wilmington

Vendor Martha Compton

The Hobby Greenhouse annual plant sale

Vendor David Rahimi

Vendor Duane Truscott May 2015 •

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May Salt 2015  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

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