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Love Me, Love My Plants

Before celebrating their marriage thirty-seven times, Terry Winter of Yankton, a teacher at Yankton High School, took plants to Cheryl, a student at Yankton College. We are standing at the front entrance of their home in late summer when he relays this story.

“I bought these two plants in a florist shop. He motions to the four-decade old, tall potted plants before us. I took them up to her dorm and said--It’s too bleak. You need plants. At that time she wasn’t much of a plant person. She put them on top of her radiator. One day I said, they’re not going to make it. I took them back and moved them when I moved. I don’t know if they’re pretty any more, but I’d feel bad if they froze.”

On Winters’ wide front steps by their front door is an archway of clustered plants that complement house foundation plantings. He has scores of container plants, some of them tropicals such as the banana tree.

“I like the luxurious look of their leaves. I’ve been working with tropicals for many years. Bromeliads last as long as geraniums in a growing season-three to four months-and you get lush colors, leaves, and texture.” Some tropical containers are positioned under a large mock orange shrub canopy. “They like filtered light.”

More Plants Than Space

 Winter is limited by lack of space to overwinter large tropicals at home. “A couple of these go to Yankton Middle School by the library in the fall, and others go up to the high school,” he said. Winter has retired from teaching at Yankton High School (YHS) after thirty-nine years and his wife is also a local retired teacher. By now he knows a lot of school personnel.

He refers to a tall tropical called Monsteraria, a kind of philodendron. “I used to have six types of philodendrons. In winter I’d take them up to the high school; that big stairwell has a lot of light. I’ve been slowly giving them away now. One is in the county government building. One’s in the Wells Fargo Bank.  Dr. Lars and Liz Aanning took two home to the big windows of their lake view home.

“I’ve run through a lot of friends who’ve helped me move plants. [Two are 10 feet tall in 24-inch pots.] Someday I’m afraid that I won’t be able to lift them anymore,” he said. “Some of these could stand to be in bigger pots, but I have to consider the practical matter of moving them. You can’t let plants take over your life.”

Plants As Connections

While plants are one of his many links with his wife and friends, Winter also involves plants in a positive neighborly gesture. He lives next door to Assembly of God’s halfway house called “Stephan’s House.” “They’ve respected our privacy, but the guys next door aren’t interested in gardening.”

Winter said the area from their concrete driveway to Winter’s property line along their front yards had been untended. “The space announces our yard. I dug it all up and planted salvia. It helps our yard and they seem to like it. I chose salvia because it grows fast with minimal care.”

A flowerbed boundary of bold purple and red salvia in full sun now joins the two properties. “I mulched heavily, at least three or four inches, and have had no weed or moisture problem. With this summer’s rains, I haven’t had to water,” he said. Reclaimed brick edge the salvia and other beds in the yard.

From the salvia flowerbed back to his front porch, the lawn is shaded with tended mature trees. He said that his two-story house, built in 1906, has elements of Four Square and Late Victorian architecture that influence his style with plants. “This is the ‘old house overgrown look,’” he laughed. “Still, I’m careful to deadhead, trim dead leaves, and be aggressive if there are insects. You’ve got to do some work.”

Banana plants in large containers arch over his front door entrance and several potted plants are clustered down the cement steps. Foliage is not symmetrical on either side, but balanced. “Banana plants don’t handle wind well,” he said. Black coleus and King Tut Egyptian grass are nearby.

Bromeliads are one of his tropical favorites. “These have been bright orange all summer,” he said. “The parent plant dies back and little pups take over. We have a bromeliad that teachers gave Cheryl when her father passed away.  It’s bloomed for seven years.”

Asked if Winter is sentimental about plants, he said, “You do remember them. In another life, I’ll come back with a greenhouse. This wandering Jew plant gets taken in every fall. Cheryl had it when she was in college. And, here are two iron plants, or peace lilies.  They don’t need much light in the house, and they’re impossible to kill.”

Granite sculpture has a prominent spot near their front entrance. “This birdbath is from Scott Luken for my birthday years ago,” he said. Comedy/tragedy masks are chiseled into the surface of the birdbath.  “I directed high school plays for many years, and he brought this over. I just love it.”

Winter used to grow roses. “One fall, I took twenty or thirty students to Minneapolis to enjoy the city’s various fine theatres.  Unfortunately, we found out there would be a snowstorm, but since all arrangements had already been made, we elected to go ahead of the storm on the Friday after Thanksgiving. On return, it started to snow near Albert Lea. We all limped into Sioux Falls where we were snowed in for three days with all these kids and no money in a Holiday Inn. That’s when my hair started turning grey.”

Life continued when he returned home. “I had not covered my roses yet. I had intended to do that over Thanksgiving, but it got away from me. They were buried in snow, and I lost every one. I just didn’t try them again.”

Parkston Roots

Winter’s dad owned a small greenhouse in Parkston and his mother still lives there. “He was not a big gardener,” but he loved caring for his lawn. “My mom is a gardener. For Memorial Day, Dad would put a spike in the center, petunias around and add dusty miller and call it good. That’s the way I started planting for him. As I got older, I stole away every good idea I saw. Every spring, I still buy container magazines just to read about what’s new.”

Winters’ backyard apple tree provides one of their family traditions. “Every other year [when the tree bears greatest] my mother, sister, wife, and I have an assembly line to make a hundred pies and freeze them.”    

He has mentioned his sister before as he discusses plants. “My wife says Debbie and I have a sickness. Cheryl even put it on Facebook. Brandt’s Greenhouse had a sale. Debbie and I went there when we didn’t need any plants. Cheryl said it was like being with two addicts-they just can’t pass up a plant sale or a nice pot.”

“I don’t know how Debbie or I got excited about plants because we come at it from different directions,” Winter said. “Debbie learned gardening in Colorado, and I loved the bowls of pansies and sweet peas and other mountain flowers she had there. Now with Debbie in the same town, we’d never say it, but maybe there’s a bit of competition going on. I think the Danforth House yard has never looked as good as it does now since she and Jay started working on it.”

Given Winter’s skill with plants, he is asked if his career as a high school play director and creativity with plants are linked. “I thought I was a pretty good play director, but that was because I worked the kids hard. I have a reasonable eye for color, but my sister may have more. As a teacher and director, you have to be critical and I’m not afraid to throw out what doesn’t work. I’m willing to take risks with color. I get pleasure out of trying different plants. I may have some artistic sensibility, but you don’t need that to garden. But, you can’t plant and walk away. Your garden will give you a great garden if you watch the garden.”

“I love being outside,” he said. “As a teacher, I was inside nine months a year. Gardening allows me to be active and pretend I’m contributing. Cheryl hadn’t done much gardening before we were married, but she gardens now in her own right. We both like to be innovative. Failures like my efforts with geraniums force me to try other plants that have proved fun and given our yard a look that others don’t have. I don’t want my garden to look like everybody else’s.”

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