Plant sale brings diversity to Grand Lake flower beds |

Plant sale brings diversity to Grand Lake flower beds

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi News/ Grand County, Colo.
Tonya Bina/Sky-Hi NewsPam Coonrod was honored Saturday by the town of Grand Lake for her 21 years of volunteer work, single-handedly growing thousands of plants in contribution to the "Flowering of Grand Lake."

They come out of the woodwork each spring to load up their cars with flats of “papaver nudicaule,” “viola tricolor” and “viola wittrockiana,” even “malva moschata.”

This scientific nomenclature is scribbled on tiny plastic stakes to tell people what kind of young plants they are about to purchase, and it’s not until sitting in front of the computer or opening up the latest edition of “The Flower Gardener’s Bible” do they discover that Iceland poppies, pansies and musk mallow will grace their flower beds this year.

“I figure they can take it home and they might end up with a really happy surprise,” said Pam Coonrod, the official Green Thumb who orchestrates this botanical bazaar every year, held in the Grand Lake Community House.

Coonrod is fully aware those who purchase her plants may be bringing home something they’ve never considered before – most likely because they have no idea what it is – the plant disguised by its genus name.

It’s Coonrod who not only grows every single plant inside her 700 square-foot rental home, but keeps track of each one, assigning each its proper scientific name for fear it could get confused with another species.

“The common names are sometimes really confusing,” Coonrod said. “A lot of times common names vary depending on what part of the country you live in.”

Like every year, people gathered outside the community house on May 15, hoping for a good position in line to snatch up as many of Coonrod’s young plants as they could.

Once inside, they bound from species to species as they carried cardboard flats, piling on perennials.

At 35 cents a plant, how could they go wrong?

It has been Coonrod’s intention all along: “If you give them a plant for almost nothing, then they may do something more adventurous,” she said.

After all, she continued, the “Flowering of Grand Lake’s” mission has always been to promote plant diversity.

“If you charge a lot of money for a plant, people only take home the ones they have heard of,” she said.

For the first time in 15 years, Coonrod did raise her prices this year.

Plants used to be 25 cents each.

For 2010, in her 21st year of volunteering for this quasi-function of the Town of Grand Lake, Coonrod produced 170 flats of plants, equating to a few thousand individual plants to be sold for a few hours in a single day.

“When I first started, it was just a few hundred plants,” she said.

Coonrod spent about 1,000 volunteer hours planting seeds and caring for them until the spring sale – enough hours to nearly quantify a full-time job.

The sale supports individual’s volunteer upkeep of lamppost gardens in town, as well as gives area residents access to affordable plants.

“It’s just my volunteer job,” she said. “There’s enough volunteer jobs in Grand Lake for everybody, and this is just mine.”

The proceeds from the sale are used to cover Coonrod’s electricity costs associated with plant-growing, and to add some equipment to the operation, which presently is comprised of two plant lights, a greenhouse and an unused bedroom used for plant storage in her home.

From this year’s sale, she plans to add cold frames to give perennials left outside a boost in growth.

She starts the planting in January and February, keeping track of plant species in what she calls her “sowing log.”

Coonrod then starts transplanting in March and April, she said, and when plants start to crowd space in her house, she transfers them outside to the greenhouse. For others stored outside during the day, she transfers them back indoors to protect them from the night air.

“I’m moving things around constantly,” she said.

A gradual exposure to the elements makes her plants hearty. By opening up the sides of her greenhouse, Coonrod makes sure even those plants gain tolerance to wind. Many are “hardened off,” or have adapted to Grand Lake’s early-spring temperatures by the time the Gardener’s Exchange comes around.

Coonrod’s plants often do better than plants that have never left a greenhouse.

Not all of Coonrod’s plants sold in this year’s garden exchange. She brought home 44 flats, she said.

Those plants she will “winter over,” or care for them until next year; or, some will be planted at the Grand Lake Golf Course where for 14 years Coonrod has worked seasonally caring for flower beds.

A Minnesota native who moved to Grand Lake in 1976 for the “climate,” Coonrod doesn’t drive, preferring instead to ride her trusty Specialized bicycle with the “nice suspension.”

“I love my bike,” she said.

She has never owned a car, never even had a driver’s license.

“When I learned to drive at 15, it scared me to death,” she said. “I just felt like somebody was going to die.”

For longer journeys, she gets around hitching rides and relying on friends.

And when it comes time to pack up the thousands of plants for the garden exchange, Bernie McGinn of Grand Lake’s road and bridge department and other reliable volunteers help load the flowers onto the town’s flatbed truck.

Coonrod originally started gardening when one of her former landlords in Grand Lake brought her a shovel and a little paper bag of half-empty vegetable-seed packets.

“He told me, ‘I think you should make a vegetable garden over there.’ That kind of started me off… I did it,” she said.

That first garden proved successful, with a harvest of peas, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and beets. “I’ve been gardening ever since,” she said.

Coonrod has since learned everything she knows about gardening – even all of those lengthy scientific plant names – simply from reading books, then trial and error.

“Grand Lake didn’t have a tradition of gardening simply because I think people were afraid to try. People just thought it was too cold here, but it’s not,” she said.

“I think gardening is good for people that live in a fairly transient area. It grounds us (no pun intended). It makes us feel at home wherever we are.”

– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail

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