Air Time: Talking Tillandsia with Sam Rader of Valley Nursery

by Jun 11, 2019

Since becoming a “Modern Air Head,” it seemed I should learn a thing or two about Tillandsia – the tiny beauties for which I’ve designed special planters. Tillandsia as it turns out, are having a moment. What I do know; they’re crazy cute and don’t need no dirt so don’t let their Pinterest-perfect-prettiness fool you! They’re tough, no-nonsense, drought tolerant plants. If like me, you consider yourself a serial house-plant-killer or perhaps just a, “slightly inattentive” indoor gardener – air plants are for us! Now that I have about ten varieties at home, I wanted to know more.

Anyone can get online and Google air plants. But nay, in my search for information, I yearned to connect with a human being – preferably, someone with dirt under their fingernails, a deeply lined, sun and wind-worn face and if they happen to smell of fertilizer – cool!

And there, as if I’d ordered him up from Central Casting, was Sam Rader in “The Answer Shack” at Valley Nursery. I’m not certain that he in fact, had dirt under his nails – Sam seemed pretty tidy overall. He didn’t smell of anything as unpleasant as fresh fertilizer but all the same, there he was, bespectacled and beaming among the botany books, binders, posters, products and informational handouts – a kindly, mild-mannered, gentleman with a passion for plants and trees, tillandsia and (thank goodness) teaching!

The Answer Shack is a charming yellow (with white trim) shed offering a hundred square feet of inspiration, ideas and commonsense garden talk. Professional, certified horticulturists like Sam, sit behind it’s Formica topped desk every day of the week and it’s standing room only on bustling spring and summer weekends.

Sam Rader has worked at Valley Nursery for over two decades and when I walked in with my questions about Tillandsia, his eyes lit up like it was his first day on the job. Right off the bat, he told me Tillandsia bloom spectacularly when fertilized regularly (granted, it may take two to three years!). He swiftly spun 180 degrees in his swivel chair to face the computer screen and jumped online to show me the dazzling spectrum of showy, tropical blooms. Oh, joy!


My little ones haven’t bloomed yet, but I’ve only had air plants for a hot minute and now I have #goals! Sam assured me that with a low nitrogen, high phosphorous, high potassium fertilizer (6-30-30), they will bloom. “Mix a tiny bit of the fertilizer in water and mist, don’t soak!” Sam prefers misting Tillandsia vs soaking so that the crown does not stay wet and rot the plant. The blooms will last 4-6 weeks and then, they die. Die? And just like that, as I was reaching a fever pitch, imagining my dazzling bloomers, my shoulders visibly slump. I want them to bloom but I don’t want them to die.

Please, say it ain’t so Sam! Not to worry he says, before they cross over, Tillandsia send out “daughter” plants at their base which eventually product beautiful blooms of their own. Sam’s favorite air plant? Xerographica, “the big ones!” He also likes Tillandsia Bulbosa because, “they’re kinda neat and look like fish if you hang them sideways and put those little “googlie” eyes on them.”

Among the many fascinating & fun facts I learned from Sam is that you can attach air plants to just about anything with a dab of glue – he recommends using “Liquid Nails” and warns against using a hot glue gun which will burn the plant tissue. Apply the glue to the base of one of the leaves (it won’t hurt the plant) and then attach to a magnate, shell, or piece of driftwood.

After talking Tillandsia for fifteen minutes or so, I turned my questions to Sam. It was obvious he had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, shrubs and trees of all kinds. What made Sam bloom?

Well, before Sam became interested in all that grows on the ground, he spent time in the Navy on water. No – not on or even near water, Sam corrected – behind a desk. He hated it. After leaving the Navy, Sam wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do but he was certain it wouldn’t involve sitting behind a desk. Much to his wife’s chagrin, after a long bout of doing nothing, Sam began mowing lawns for $4.50 an hour.

Eventually, the gentleman Sam worked for mowing lawns, suggested he take horticultural classes at South Seattle Community College and so he did. As part of the coursework, Sam interviewed people in the industry and went to Valley Nursery to interview Brad (the owner). This interview was his first contact with Valley. Then, Sam explains, “I got on at a job” at a nursery down in Bremerton for 8 years until they closed. And because he lived in Poulsbo, he eventually took a job with Brad. Sam proudly states, “Next month I’ll start my 24th year. I only work a couple days a week, but it isn’t work if you like what you’re doing – it’s fun. I enjoy being here, I like coming here.”

Sam says most of the questions he gets in The Answer Shack, are the same as they were 30 years ago. He explains, it was Brads idea to have an answer shack where people could come and get guidance on plant diagnosis, chemicals to use, what not to use, landscape design, sources for work, just about any kind of information. Sam laughs and says he even gets directional questions like “How do I get to Squim from here” but “it’s fun and that’s what makes it a good place to work.”

“The Answer Shack is a madhouse during spring and summer; between walk-ins, the phone, the radio (employees talk to one another via radio), it’s hard take time with anyone,” says Sam. But the store policy from Brad is clear, “when that phone rings the person in front has priority because they got out of bed, got dressed and took the time to come in.”

Sam says you can tell it’s a good place because of the longevity of the people who work there. I can tell it’s a good place because it’s where Sam works.

by | Jun 11, 2019