The final selection of writing in Katharine Sergeant Angell White’s Onward and Upward In The Garden is dated March 28th, 1970. “By March,” she writes, “for those of us that live in the Northeast, the summer seed and plant orders are in. From Washington north to the Canadian border and east to Maine, the tender seedlings and plants raised in hotbeds, cold frames or greenhouses now must wait for their final snowstorm before being put into the ground. The gardener has finished his midwinter reading of Christmas gift books and laid his plans for new enterprises for the coming summer. It is time for him and for me to get out of our armchairs and take stock.”
With our unusually cool spring and our last dip of mid-30-degree weather occurring just last week, Katharine’s 1970s Maine March was very much our 2023 Connecticut May. But as Katharine was eager to point out then, the time had finally come to spring forward into action. And now our time has finally come too. The job of filling the garden beds with our wintertime inspirations has arrived. Even though there are 53 years and two months between then and now, between Katharine’s Maine and my Connecticut, this is exactly the sentiment and excitement that propelled the gardens at 1750 House these past two weeks. The last of our seedlings (the basil and the okra) said goodbye to the protective shelter of the greenhouse and are now tucked in between clusters of 3-foot-tall brandywine tomatoes and fast-growing, shiny-skinned lemon jalapenos. For the first time in seven months, our growing station is empty. The 2022-2023 greenhouse diary entries are complete. Year one is officially in the ground.
We pretty much sailed through our first year of greenhouse gardening on the coattails of Mother Nature and a learn-as-you-go approach. In doing so, we found our way to specific techniques and procedures that helped us understand the greenhouse way of gardening over the course of our first New England winter. Much of the information we shared in previous posts is relevant specifically to our area, our climate, our specific type of greenhouse, but we also learned about a few universal tips and tools that would help any gardener no matter where you live or what you grow. In this post today, we are sharing information about six of those universal helpers. We couldn’t have gotten through two seasons without them, so if you are new to greenhouse gardening I hope they will help you too. Please note, none of these recommendations are sponsor supported. We have no connection to these companies and are not representing them for any financial incentive. We purchased all of these products at full retail price and wholeheartedly recommend them for the helpful time-tested benefit they provided.
The number one cause of any failed garden generally tends to be overwatering. It can lead to pests, disease, root rot, slow growth, fungus, lethargy and soggy soil. I know for certain because I experienced much of this first-hand last year. After fifteen years of Southern gardening in a region where the ground usually remains hot and dry throughout much of the summer and almost daily watering is required, I was used to that rhythm of attention. When we moved north I completely underestimated the naturally moist conditions of New England soil. Although we did have a beautiful and vibrant garden in 2022, some areas lacked a lush, reassuring strength and a robust demeanor. I came to learn, that was in part due to bland soil and in part due to too much coddling. As it turned out, I overwatered by bucketfuls practically every day last summer.
A new form of education began with the moisture meter in the Fall in the greenhouse. It really helped teach me the true amount of water that each plant actually needed as opposed to visually guessing the amount I thought it needed. This inexpensive water wizard (about $8 on Amazon) is hands-down one of the most important garden tools you could have, right up there with a shovel and a rake. By simply inserting the copper stem into any garden pot, it instantly tells you how much moisture is in the soil.
This information is especially great when it comes to caring for a variety of plants that have a variety of different watering needs, like the kind we were raising in the greenhouse. For example, succulents like dry soil with occasional watering. Parsley on the other hand likes moist soil with regular watering and black-eyed susan vines never, ever want to be on the dry side of the moisture meter. If the meter flops all the way over to the right – overwatering is most likely an issue. So helpful! Every day, throughout the fall and winter, I inserted the moisture meter into each pot in the greenhouse to make sure everything stayed appropriately hydrated. Now that we are on our way to summer, the moisture meter can be used to test the garden bed soil as well as indoor houseplants, so there’ll be no overwatering this year. I’m officially trained.
This recommendation may seem a little kooky, but if you want to keep pests away from your greenhouse over winter you have to get close to the plants and inspect them regularly to make sure they are not harboring minute critters. These magnifying glasses are actually made for watch repairers, but they are really great for garden work too. I’m legally blind in my left eye, so getting any help up close for my good eye is always appreciated and these glasses offer lots of opportunities to look at things from all directions. Both of the lenses move up and down and side to side independently, allowing you to get inside the middle of a plant where many pests tend to hide. Each lens has its own LED light that operates independently too so you can really see what you are looking at no matter the time of day or night. Different magnifying lenses with different strengths adjust the field of vision and are easily interchangeable.
As you may recall from previous posts, in the winter we had a pretty significant outbreak of spider mites and aphids in the greenhouse, both of which are difficult to see with the naked eye. I would never have never been aware of these critters before irreparable damage set in, without the assistance of the glasses. Despite their very technical appearance, there’s a magical upside to these guys too. When you put them on you become an explorer of a micro-universe. Plants look so cool up close. Bugs too for that matter.
In lieu of the spider mite and aphids outbreak, this Bon-Neem spray, although on the more expensive side ($17 a bottle) is effective in quickly broadcasting a lethal dose of all-natural organic neem oil. Since spider mites adore hot dry air, they breed like crazy. The adults won’t survive Neem spray but the eggs are unaffected by it so it took six applications (three bottles total) over the course of a month to make a significant dent in our mite and aphid population. It didn’t eradicate them completely – our next recommendation piggybacked on this spray to get the job done – but the oil acts like a protective coating against future pest invasions, so it’s definitely worth it.
Please note, if you decide to use this spray, it has a strong odor. I found it best to get all greenhouse tasks done for the day first before spraying it on the affected plants. Once everything was drenched, the greenhouse was closed up, and left, undisturbed, for 24 hours, so the Neem oil could do its work. After that amount of time, the odor dissipates completely and the greenhouse is on its way to becoming pest-free.
Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol
Isopropyl alcohol is a much less expensive ($4.50 for 32oz) but yet very effective method when it comes to getting rid of spider mites and aphids. It’s more tedious than Neem spray since you have to wipe down the entire leaf of each plant (front and back) but it’s instantly effective and definitely worth the time if you want to make 100% sure that the treatment is reaching the problem areas. Like the Neem spray, this won’t kill spider mite eggs, so you need to reapply it again 3-4 days later, but that second dose is a good opportunity to investigate each plant to make sure the first application worked.
I found that a soaked cotton ball was ideal to use on the larger leafed plants like the peppers and basil, while cotton swabs, with the plastic connector (as opposed to the cardboard ones) were better for smaller more densely foliaged plants. The swabs easily bend in half and get around thick stems, delicate flower petals and hard-to-reach spots. Also, if you choose to go this route in your pest management plan, make sure you stick within the 70-90% percent isopropyl range. Anything above 90% will harm the plant.
Although I have tried watering cans, hoses and sprayers of all shapes and sizes, nothing beats a creamer when it comes to working in small spaces with fragile seedlings. This vintage 1960s restaurant ware creamer had a cracked handle that had been carefully repaired at some point in its long life. Aesthetically, it might not be destined anymore for the coffee table but it is wonderfully useful in the greenhouse. Holding about a half cup of water, its narrow spout provides a perfectly slow, steady and gentle steam of water, ideal for fragile, newly emerged seedlings. You can drip-drop water on plantings or dump the whole container at once, but the beauty of using a creamer over a traditional garden hose or a bulkier watering can is the finite control you have over the amount of water you are pouring. Plus the slim size makes a handy temporary vase for bud clippings as you prune flowering plants.
At the beginning of autumn, I filled a 10-gallon steel bucket with a bag of organic potting soil and added a few worms from the garden. I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea or not for the worms, but I wanted to have extra garden soil on hand, for repotting and replenishing throughout the cold months, and I thought the worms might help in their ability to enrich the soil through their castings. As it turns out, warmed by the heater and given a weekly light watering, the worms settled into life in the bucket and made a happy home there. As I scooped trowelfuls worth of soil into potted plants periodically throughout the season, worm eggs wound up randomly and unknowingly in several pots and seed-starting trays. Come early spring, I spotted some baby worms wriggling around with the snapdragon and foxglove seedlings. Did the worms help fertilize the soil in a significant way? I’m not sure, but in the least, they probably helped aerate it. Now fully planted along the edge of the woods, the foxgloves are growing with unrestrained zeal these days. Perhaps the worms helped give them a nutritious head start.
Gardening can be a tricky balancing act between what mother nature offers and what you desire. In the greenhouse, you not only create a biodome of possibility but also a unique environment controlled by instinct, device and determination. These recommendations combined with our winterization wrap and our little workhorse of a heater were methods that worked well for us and in turn, I hope they work well for you too. They really jumpstarted our summer garden the moment the seasons changed this year. Three weeks into May, we already have flowers on our tomatoes, beans on our climbing great northerns, baby fruit on the cucamelons, and two handfuls of spicy and sweet peppers.
The lettuces are now the size of full heads with tightly packed leaves and crisp texture. The herbs are flourishing. The collard greens are sporting leaves as big as turkey platters. Yesterday morning we harvested our first batch of rapini, just as the zucchini seeds poked their heads out of the ground. None of this spring vigor would have been possible without the help of the greenhouse and the joy all this seed-starting and plant-tending brought over the winter months. Thanks to the greenhouse I think we are well on our way to one delicious summer.
The only things that struggled in their transition between greenhouse and garden were three Mexican sunflower plants and one okra plant. They didn’t like that surprise dip into 30-degree temperatures. Interesting to note, those are both Southern heat-loving plants and perhaps the most vulnerable things we are growing in our cooler New England climate. As we learned in the history of American gardens post, nostalgia has played a big factor in how we have laid out our U.S. gardens and with what since the days of the pilgrims. Last year, I was excited to grow two of my most favorite Southern plants here in New England based solely on great memories, but maybe this area is not the most appropriate place for them. Next year I might grow them, only in the greenhouse, where they can be bathed in heat and light from seed to bloom. Little lessons and ideas sprout each day around here.
Once so full of plants, it was pretty odd to see the greenhouse return to its empty shell state. It’s been over nine months since it has been this devoid of greenery and although it still is just 4’x6′ in size, it now feels as big and as cavernous as a palace sans plants. To add a little cheer over the summer, I brought the succulents back to the shelves, and am considering adding some shade-loving plants that would enjoy the dappled light and summer leaf coverage overhead. Over the course of these warm months, while the greenhouse rests, we’ll give it a bath inside and out, build additional shelving to maximize space, and add a fresh layer of pea gravel to the floor so that it will be all ready to greet Autumn and a new set of gardening goals.
In November 1975 at their farmhouse in Maine, Katharine’s husband, E.B. White, gave her a small greenhouse and a potting shed to commemorate their 46th wedding anniversary. Knowing the magical distraction a greenhouse could offer his wife as she bravely battled ill health, he was certain it was the most pleasurable gift he could ever give her. A year and a half later, Katharine passed away at the age of 84. She didn’t get a chance to enjoy her greenhouse for very long, but a gardener’s joy comes daily, in the moment-to-moment observations of tiny details and subtle nuances. A lift of a leaf. A burst of bloom. The sight of sun as it shoots a seedling sky-high. Katharine’s greenhouse may have offered her just eighteen months of comfort, but oh what bliss those day-to-day noticings must have provided. Should we all be so lucky. To know nature so intimately that it becomes an offering, a salve, a focus. To know it as something so reliable it becomes a resting place, an arresting place, despite all of our earthly distresses.
This series was so fun and the greenhouse so encouraging over the winter months that we have plans to add a second, larger, more permanent greenhouse to our landscape which hopefully will be completed by next winter. Until then, I hope all you gardeners stay with us all summer long as we cook up a bevy of vintage recipes, highlight forgotten kitchen stories from history, and share updates from the 1750 House renovation project. For all you collectors out there, if you haven’t already, sign up for our weekly newsletter to see what new old heirlooms make their way to the shop this summer. And finally, if you are new to the blog, the first entry in this Greenhouse Diaries series began in December 2022. Begin at the beginning with that first entry here.
Cheers to our fellow greenhouse comrades who shared stories with us along the way of this six-month journey… to Katharine Sergeant Angell White, who inspired this series in the first place… and to our little joy of a greenhouse. We can’t wait to watch all these plants grow up over the summer and to see what the greenhouse might inspire next.