The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #4: Lessons in Highs and Lows, Triumphs and Tragedies

You might not suspect that a lot could occur in a greenhouse over a two-week period, but this time off for the Christmas break equaled quite a bit of unexpected change in our little house of wonder.

We had some pretty dramatic outdoor weather over the holiday with the lowest of lows being 6 degrees one night and the highest of highs being 58 during the day just this past Wednesday. It was a wide swing of weather for certain, but it provided a good fourteen days of observation to draw some enlightening information.

Frozen ground, ice streams and patchy snow covered our landscape during Christmas week.

First off, the few nights of single-digit weather created a bit of havoc. It also shed some new light on an ongoing topic. Do you remember the haybale conversation from The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #3?

Well as it turns out, first-hand experience is an excellent advisor. I can see now how the haybales would have been helpful through the cold snap. Like everybody across the country during Christmas week, we experienced the freezing polar vortex temperatures with daily highs between 9-19 degrees and nightly lows between 6-12 degrees. The indoor temperatures in the greenhouse on these coldest nights, with the heater going full blast, hovered in the high 30s and low 40s, which was pretty good considering the chilly weather. The coldest area of the greenhouse was the pea gravel floor which is where the broccoli, marigolds, aloe, mint, thyme, tarragon, basil, rosemary and geranium pots sit.

Although the sun came out on most of these single-digit days, one night in particular the wind picked up and grabbed hold of a small section of the plastic covering the door frame. It was a strong enough wind to open up a small gap between the plastic and the poly carb door, so that cold air could seep in through the greenhouses’s most vulnerable area. That night the windchill forced the outdoor temperature to sway between 0 and 1 degree. Inside, the greenhouse the temperature fell to 34 degrees – the danger zone. Some problems arose.

While there was never actually any frost inside the greenhouse, there were signs of distress on the leaves of the zinnias, broccoli, mint, thyme, geraniums, aloe, basil, marigolds and tarragon. Withered plants one shelf up from the pea gravel included the tomato, the Santaka pepper seedlings, the rabbit ear cactus, the pincushion flowers, and most unfortunate of all, Liz Lemon, who had made such great strides just the week before. Everything else located the next shelf up (about 2 1/2 feet off the ground) and higher was completely unaffected. Thankfully, heat rises.

The unhappy tomato.

Had the haybales been placed around the outside of the greenhouse, they might have added just enough insulation to protect the plants sitting at ground level. The other thing we could have done was just to put all the ground plants up higher in the air so they would be protected by the rising warmth from the heater. So two lessons were learned…

  1. Add haybales around the exterior during extreme weather dips or…
  2. Move the plants up higher in the greenhouse to capture the rising warmth.

Luckily, the extreme weather only lasted for a few days.

The trickiest part of greenhouse management so far, is that there is so much conflicting information online and so much variation between agricultural zones and particular weather situations each year that there seems to be no definitive right or wrong way to care for your own greenhouse. Except by watching and waiting and recording how your greenhouse acts in your particular environment. What is expert advice on one site is a disaster on another and vice versa. It’s never my intention to “sacrifice ” a plant but this time spent learning is proving to be really valuable in understanding not only how things grow, but also what things grow in a New England greenhouse in the middle of the winter.

In continuation of our year of waiting and watching, the withered plants were left alone to see if they might perk back up again as the weather warmed throughout the week. The severely affected plants on the floor level received a trim, removing all damaged leaves in hopes that they might heal themselves.

On the good news front, most of the plants bounced right back including the withery, weepy, unhappy tomato branch clipping who is now getting ready to offer up more cherry sized tomatoes…

But on the bad news side, three never recovered. We lost the basil, the zinnias and the marigolds, all plants that really crave that warm summer sun. As discouraging as it was to see these carefully tended plants go, not all was completely lost on them. Their stems and stalks were added to the leaf mold piles (another garden experiment started last fall) and will contribute to the joy and beauty of the garden come spring, just in a slightly different, more composted way now.

Layered leaf mold stacks – our soil amendment plan for the spring garden beds.

It was a good reminder that nothing lasts forever and that there is an ideal season for everything. Sometimes one just isn’t meant to meet the other. The great thing about nature though in times like this, is that it wastes no time moping. With the lost plants now removed from the greenhouse, there was more room for what was growing well to spread out in their vacant spots. As if to add some cheer to the atmosphere, everything that could send out a bloom between Christmas and New Year’s Day did…

Clockwise top to bottom: geranium, broccoli, nasturtium, lemon.

The broccoli infact was so quick to flower, it burst into bloom before I had a chance to harvest it for dinner one night. Exploding into a pom-pom of butter yellow flowers, it became a feast for the eyes instead of the belly. That’s fine by me. Broccoli produces one of the most beautiful, delicate flowers of all the garden vegetables, so it is a joy either way. The nice thing about broccoli also, is that its leaves are edible. We might not have enjoyed the spears but the leaves are next on the menu if the broccoli doesn’t send out any new shoots.

Broccoli leaves!

Also on the harvest list is the bell pepper. Currently, it’s measuring in at just under 4″ inches in length – close to mature size that makes it ready for picking soon. This pepper comes with an added dose of mystery included too. Last summer, we grew two varieties of bell peppers in the garden. Adored by slugs, bunnies and maybe a vole or two, the pepper beds were constantly being reseeded and defended all summer.

Out of time, but not yet fully grown, just before the fall frost I transplanted three of the strongest plants to see if they would continue growing in the greenhouse. Two of the three were hot pepper plants of the jalapeno and chile variety and then the third plant was a bell pepper. I thought I had transplanted an heirloom variety called California Wonder, which if not picked when green will ripen to a deep red shade. But based on its shape right now, it could be the other pepper plant we experimented with – Orange Sun – which will as its name suggests, turn a vibrant orange when ready for harvest. In both cases, the longer the pepper sits on the vine the sweeter it gets. So a surprise is in store as we wait to see what color it turns out to be…

The other green delight that really took off on a growing adventure these past two weeks was the parsley. With no extra help or amendments, it’s doubled in height since the last diary entry. The only way I can really rationalize this growth spurt is to say that we had a little help from the gods. The ancient Greeks believed that parsley was a sign of death and rebirth.

In mythology, it gets caught up in stories surrounding the baby, Archemorus, and the parsley that grew from his blood after he was killed. Later, the Romans believed that Persophone ( the Goddess of Spring, the Underworld, and of Vegetation) was in charge of guiding souls to their final resting place in the underworld. Parsley throughout Roman times adorned gravesites and funerary objects as a gift to Persephone so that she would take good care of those that perished.

Between the demise of the marigolds, zinnias, and basil and the growth of the parsley, the flowers, the bell pepper, and the broccoli, I can’t help but think that Archemorus and Persephone were at work, guiding the greenhouse through these past two weeks of dramatic winter weather. From death springs life. And parsley too.

Bottom right: Parsley full of joy!

Cheers to weather and what it teaches us, to plants that persevere in the face of difficulty, to Persophene and Archemorus, and to this brand new year full of possibilities. Hope your 2023 is off to a beautiful start!

{The Greenhouse Diaries is an ongoing series. if you are new to the blog, catch up here with Week #1, Week #2, and Week #3 here}

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