Joanne Royaltey: A Gardener Grows in Brooklyn
Most people add rooms to their homes to accommodate family. EMG Joanne Royaltey extended her house to accommodate plants. A sunroom to be exact. Where else was she going to put her 11-foot-tall (Musa) banana palm?
In the winter, the sunroom’s southern exposure fuels an “explosion of plants,” said Joanne, who brings most of her outdoor container plants inside during the winter. “It’s a jungle,” she said. “We’ve had to re-arrange furniture to accommodate plants.” This year, there wasn’t room for the Christmas tree.
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Joanne recalled, “We didn’t have any plants in the house, and we were forbidden to step foot on what we called ‘The Big Grass,’ a fenced in acre that we could see from our apartment window.” She didn’t have any connection to growing things until she was in her early 20s with two young daughters and a small backyard. She credits her former father-in-law with introducing her to gardening. One day, he decided to frame out a section of ground for a garden. “I remember thinking it was bizarre,” said Joanne, “but it turned out to be fun.” Like magic, she watched bean seeds burst into plants and by the time she harvested her first tomatoes and other edibles, she was hooked. She found the tactile sensation of tending to plants most pleasing. “I absorbed energy from the plants,” she said. “I guess I got what some people call ‘gardener’s glow.’”
When her family moved to semi-rural Winchester in 1977, Joanne became more comfortable and successful with gardening outside and decided to move beyond the basic house plants. “I wanted to prolong the gardening season, so I started bringing the outdoors in,” she said. After years of experience, learning by trial and error, Joanne has become so accustomed to her interior green space that she feels the energy drain from the house when she moves most of the plants back outside in the spring.
After a long career in healthcare, cancer education and fundraising, Joanne looked forward to retirement and taking her gardening hobby to the next level. A member of the NSV EMG Class of 2020, Joanne said the program is helping to keep her connected to the community she calls home.
In general, geraniums and begonias are her favorites. “They are so easy to grow both outside and inside and provide much needed color to the gloomy winter months,” she said. This year she is trying her luck with eucalyptus, which is still thriving in a protected area of her outdoor garden. But it’s her Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata) that holds a special place in her heart. It once belonged to Joanne’s daughter, who lost a five-year battle with cancer. Part of the family for 21 years, the dragon tree makes her smile. “Whenever I see it, I think of Joanne,” she said. “She inspired me in so many ways.” Plants, she believes, are a reminder that we all can live our best lives with the right support and care. Caring for plants has had a profound effect on her own health and well-being, said Joanne, “especially in the winter,” she added. “And even more this year due to the pandemic. Inside and out, plants release oxygen, increase humidity levels and clean the air.
Her advice to people who want more house plants: “Don’t get too stressed out about it,” she said. “With the right care, most plants will thrive inside.” She also advocates tending to the plants a little bit every day, meticulously removing debris. She avoids bug infestations by sanitizing plants and the pots before bringing plants indoors.
What became of the banana tree, the centerpiece of her sunroom? After 10 years, the plant sprouted big purplish globes for the first time. Banana flowers. They grew larger and larger, eventually producing 3-inch bananas this summer. Unfortunately, the bananas are the tree’s swan song. Once the tree produces fruit, it dies. But that’s not the end of the story. Before dying back, the corm of the parent plant produces suckers, baby plants, to take its place. “Plants are givers,” said Joanne. “They give me hope.”
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