Inspired by the writings of Katharine Sergeant Angell White, there’s a new series coming to the blog called The Greenhouse Diaries. A week-by-week account of growing flowers, food and ornamentals in a 4′ x 6′ greenhouse in New England, it’s a work-in-progress series that chronicles our adventures as we build the gardens of 1750 House and grow ingredients for our vintage recipe posts.
If you are unfamiliar with Katharine, she was a longtime editor of The New Yorker magazine, working there from its infancy to the mid-20th century. She was also the wife of E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and other fantastic works that delighted the imaginations of both kids and adults.
In the 1950s, when Katharine and E.B. left their New York City apartment to take up permanent residence in their vacation house in Maine, Katharine embarked on a writing career. After decades of working around some of the best literary talents of her generation including her own husband, you might suppose she would turn to writing things she was accustomed to reading at the magazine – fiction or poetry or short stories or perhaps some reminiscences about life in the publishing world that she had known so well for so long. Not so. Instead, Katharine was inspired by the thing that grew around her in Maine – her garden and all that it entailed. From planning and plotting to cultivating and researching, she fell in love with horticulture from all angles. On index cards, in diary pages, and in letters to friends, for two decades she enthusiastically documented her successes and failures, her insights and observations, the learned histories, and the passed-along advice relating to gardening as hobby, art, and food source.
Katharine’s expertise grew by trial and error, by curiosity, and by a passion that captured her attention year-round despite the cold winds that blew off the Atlantic, the snow that inevitably piled up in winter, and the wild, rugged landscape that made growing anything in Maine both a challenge and a reward. Her published pieces eventually led to a book of collected works on gardening compiled by E.B. after Katharine’s death in 1977. Lauded for her fresh perspective and interesting subject matters (like one essay that reviewed the writers of garden catalogs), she had a unique voice that resonated with other gardening enthusiasts around the country. Even E.B. was surprised at his wife’s candor and affection for her subject matter.
As you might recall from previous posts, we have big plans for the heirloom gardens that will envelop 1750 House just like they would have done one hundred, two hundred or almost three hundred years earlier. Having spent most of the spring, summer and fall building and establishing garden beds and planning out landscaping details for the front and back yards, we will be ready for Phase Two of our landscape design by next spring, which means putting the greenhouse to full use this winter. Just like Katharine approached gardening in Maine with continual curiosity and enthusiasm, I thought it would be fun to share our progress of winter gardening as it unfolds. Since we are new to gardening in New England and also new to greenhouse gardening in general, this weekly diary will be an adventure in unknown outcomes. Nature is rarely predictable. Surprises can be encountered at every turn. It’s my hope that by discussing both challenges and successes, this series will help attract and connect fellow greenhouse gardeners so that we can all learn together by sharing tips and techniques discovered along the way.
So let’s get going and growing. The Greenhouse Diaries await…
First and foremost, a formal introduction to our workspace.
Our greenhouse measures 4’x6′. It has a steel base, aluminum framing, a pea gravel floor, a door with a secure handle, an adjustable roof vent, and clear polycarbonate walls. Inside, there is room enough for two metal shelving units, a wooden stool, 33 pots of varying sizes, one galvanized bucket, two water jugs, a hand soap station, and a portable heater. Tucked in between all that, is a little extra space for standing and potting.
We assembled the greenhouse in the late spring in the sunniest spot in the backyard. During the warm months, it held trays of seed starts and some plants that preferred to be out of the direct path of slugs and cutworms. But once autumn came and the threat of the first frost hovered, we turned it into an experiment station. Curious to see what we could keep alive from the summer garden, we potted our most successful growers and crossed our fingers. So far so good. Everything but the oregano and one pot of marigolds have taken well to the location change.
The nasturtiums in particular really like their new spot. Blooming at a rate of three to four new flowers a day, they keep the greenhouse bright with color and the air sweetly scented like honeyed perfume.
Currently, the greenhouse is uninsulated, an issue that will need to be addressed as the daytime temperatures fall into the 20s and 30s. But for now, we have found success in creating a summer climate using a portable electric heater that was put into service as soon as the outdoor temperatures began to repeatedly fall below 50 degrees.
With just the help of the heater and the sun, the greenhouse right now averages temperatures that are 20-35 degrees above the outdoor temperature. Once we get our insulation plan in place, it should become even warmer. For now though, all the plants seem happy with this cozy climate.
I read once that a single geranium plant can live up to 50 years if properly cared for season by season. That’s my goal for the four pots that are overwintering now.
Accidently overlooked, two of the four geranium pots experienced the first frost in mid-November before they made it into the greenhouse. Wilted and weepy-looking, I cut off all the affected leaves and stalks and brought them into the greenhouse, hoping that the warmth might help them recover and encourage new growth. Yesterday, they started sprouting new leaves…
The other companions that make up this house full of green are…
- lemon tree
- collard greens
- bunny ear cactus
- brussels sprouts
The peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli are all sporting fruit these days. I’m not sure how long they will take to grow and ripen but if we could manage a small harvest in the dead of winter that would be exciting.
The winter crops that we are trying out this year – broccoli, arugula, collard greens and Brussels sprouts – hopefully, will reach maturity and harvest time by late February. We run the chance of running out of room if these guys get really big, but a full house is better than none at all, so we’ll take it one week at a time and see what happens.
In one of her essays, Katharine wrote.. “from December through March, there are for many of us three gardens – the garden outdoors, the garden of pots and bowls in the house, and the garden of the mind’s eye.” Gardening in a greenhouse in winter gives us the ability to experience all three – to create, to grow, and to dream during a time of year that the outside world reserves for dormancy and hibernation. Our small structure set in pea gravel with a portable heater and a steel base, aluminum framing, and metal shelves shelters big, colorful dreams – ones both realized and yet to be imagined. We can’t wait to see what blooms.
Cheers to Katharine for inspiring this new series, to the greenhouse for holding all our hopes and to nature for feeding our brains and our bellies.