Kelly Sweeney’s Main Street flowers show her love for the Little City

VERGENNES – When Kelly Sweeney moved to Vergennes in 1979, there weren’t a lot of young people — and there weren’t flowers on Main Street. 
In fact, she says, businesses struggled to stay open in the historic downtown. 
“Now there are dads pushing strollers up and down Main Street and kids in every café. It’s incredible,” says Sweeney. 
There are also flowers, lots of flowers.
For the past 12 years, Sweeney has designed, planted and cared for more than 43 planters in the historic downtown corridor. She also designs and maintains the 18 planters on the Otter Creek Bridge. For Sweeney, arranging the flowers is about community pride. 
“I’ll be out watering and visitors will stop and say to me, ‘there are so many flowers in Vergennes,’” she said. “What a great advertisement for our town, that we’re known as a place with flowers.” 
Sweeney volunteers her time. The materials are purchased and secured by the Vergennes Partnership through donations from local residents and businesses. This year’s arrangements were funded by donations from 20 organizations, and cost $1,235.
Sweeney studied horticulture and greenhouse management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. When she graduated, she had trouble getting a job as anything more than a laborer at a greenhouse. “There weren’t a lot of women doing this kind of work,” she recalled. After years of working summers in greenhouses and winters as a ski racing coach at Bolton Valley and Stowe, she went into business for herself as Kelly Sweeney Landscaping.
After several years of working for herself and growing her own plants, she landed her dream job, as groundskeeper for the Basin Harbor Club. She oversaw the expansion and redesign of the Club’s gardens throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. “That was during a real boom for annuals. It was a fun time. There was a real push for more exotic plants that wouldn’t survive the winter, but would flower throughout the summer,” Sweeney reflected. 
Sweeney, who was experienced at growing her own plants from seed, installed two greenhouses at the Basin Harbor Club. “It was a dream! For a long time, we were putting in 20,000 annuals every year and growing all of our plant materials onsite. I was working 80, 90 hours a week, and I was so happy.” The greenhouses allowed them to feature plants they otherwise couldn’t find in Vermont. 
She also helped found Flower Days, a festival at Basin Harbor that celebrated plants with vendor exhibits, flower competitions and garden tours. The event grew each year that it ran and eventually drew more than 1,000 people to Addison County annually. Under her leadership, the gardens earned national recognition.  
When she sets out to design a garden, Sweeney first picks her color palette. “With annuals, it’s very intuitive,” she said. Once she has her color scheme, she considers depth and texture. “A good bed has rich texture. It can’t be too fine. You need foliage and plants of varying heights.” Once she has an aesthetic in mind, she picks her plants according to the aspect and degree of sunlight the bed will receive. 
Sweeney said that designing pots is entirely different. “I like to work outward from the center of the container. I tend to put something tall in the middle, followed by a mid-range plant, with something draping on the outside.” 
For her planters, she selects plants that can withstand exposure to passing trucks and traffic. She also likes to pick annuals that don’t need to have their heads removed to continue to produce flowers over the course of the summer. “These days I am all about foliage. Don’t be afraid of a little green.” 
Sweeney said that she lines her hanging planters first with a layer of sphagnum moss, then with a layer of plastic to help them hold water. She then fills them with Vermont Compost Company potting soil, mixed with a little compost to keep the soil light. Then she plants her starts and lets them establish themselves in the greenhouse for two weeks prior to being hung on bridges and storefronts. “That’s their boot camp. I try to toughen them up so they withstand wind and heat.” 
Sweeney said that overwatering is a common mistake people make with planters. “If you’re unsure, it’s better to be a little too dry than too wet,” she advised. Her favorite plant to cultivate? “Lavatera, a member of the hibiscus family. It doesn’t transplant well and is hard to grow from a start, but I love the pearlescent white, pink and dark pink petals. It is just beautiful as a cut flower.” 
Today, Sweeney cares for flowers in front of many of Vergennes’ downtown businesses, including those in the Ryan Block and Sheer Cuts. They provide the planters, and she stewards them. As we walked down Main Street, she pointed out new gardens and floral arrangements that have popped up this summer. 
“I think every city should have flowers on Main Street! To me, it puts love into our town. It says we care about our city and what it looks like. I think it’s a sign of life.”

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