The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #2: Surprise and Circulation

The chronicling of the greenhouse is underway. If you are new to the blog this week, catch up with our new gardening series in Entry #1 here. For everyone else who is all caught up let’s carry on to week two of news from the growing greenhouse.

It’s only been seven days since our last post but already there is much to discuss on both the good and bad fronts. First off, we’ll start with the food portion since that was a big reason to build a greenhouse to begin with.

We harvested our first bowl of arugula last Sunday and ever since, it and the nasturtiums have been adorning our plates all week long. Here, they were a part of last Sunday’s brunch of eggs cooked in foccacia bread pockets…

The tomatoes ripened! In just one week they went from a zesty shade of green apple to sunny golden orange. We were curious to see if these indoor growers would taste the same as the ones we enjoyed in the garden all summer, and much to our delight I’m happy to say they tasted equivalent. Which means they tasted fantastic. Sweet, soft yet slightly firm, and just as juicy as their summer counterparts, these two beauties ended the week on a sweet note.

Grown from seed purchased from our favorite seed company (A true review! They are not a blog sponsor.) these tomatoes were determined to grow regardless. Producing fruit the size of large marbles, we grew eight plants of the Sun Gold Cherry varietal this summer. Some reached monster heights of over 10′ feet tall and they produced a couple of big handfuls every other day from August-October. The branch grown in the greenhouse was from a stem cutting. It was our first experiment to see if the cutting would root in water, which it did, and then immediately it went to flower. A little bit of hand-pollinating with a paintbrush, and two weeks later these two tomatoes started forming. They grew so quickly, we never even had a chance to plant the cutting in actual soil. These are just growing and flowering in a jar of water. Isn’t nature amazing?

Next in the ripening department is the Numex Lemon Jalapeno pepper. Because of the timing last spring of when we moved to 1750 House, we started our seeds and our garden beds pretty late in the season. The pepper plants didn’t have a full chance to grow, bloom and then produce mature peppers before the cold autumn weather settled in, so we pulled the three strongest from the ground and potted them for the greenhouse.

This summer, we had a big struggle with slugs in the garden beds so you can see the leaves are quite chewed through, but the plants continued to flower and persevere regardless. In the greenhouse, they look a little raggedy, but they are still growing so we are encouraged. Unintentionally, we may have stunted them a bit when we moved them to the greenhouse during their early post-flower days as they are now producing smaller fruit. But nevertheless, one pepper so far has turned yellow, which means in theory, it is ready for picking even though it’s just a little pip of a pepper. I’m going to leave it on the plant for a few more days to see if it grows any bigger – otherwise, we’ll pull it and see how it tastes.

Our last vegetable of the week that’s really taken off is the broccoli. It sits closest to the door, which is the coldest part of the greenhouse and since broccoli prefers cooler weather, this seems like an ideal location. From last week to this week, the floret has grown taller and wider by about an inch in both directions and has a new companion shoot growing up next to it. Like the peppers, the broccoli also suffered through slug season, but for every leaf that the slugs ate, a new leaf grew in its place. All summer I loved the broccoli’s optimism. In the face of slug defeats, it was the ever-present cheerleader that kept encouraging us to keep going.

On the flower front, the highlight of the week was Liz Lemon. For long-time readers of the blog, you’ll remember Liz from her indoor orchard stories. The last time we checked in with her on the blog was in November of 2020, when she was a Southerner living in the city and looked like this…

A little while after that photo was taken, she showered us in lemons (three!)…

But things took a bleak turn when we moved north. The indoor orchard, cultivated over six years of Southern city living, had many casualties. Avi the Avocado (age 6), Grace the Grapefruit (age 4). Jools the Date Palm (age 2). By the time, we loaded up the truck and moved a thousand miles away from the southern sun, we were down to two plants – Liz Lemon and Pappy the Papaya. Neither were thrilled at leaving the heat and humidity of the South. To put it lightly, Liz especially was NOT a fan of the new 20-degree weather, or the weekly snowfalls or the five months spent in a cottage on a lake in wintertime Pennsylvania. She lost every single leaf but three and was down to two twigs – just a skeleton of a body.

When we finally found the 1750 House in spring and became official New Englanders, I thought a summer spent in the warm air and sunny backyard garden would be Liz’s cureall. But nothing happened there either. All around her pots of daisies bloomed, the okra headed skyward, the tomatoes blushed rosy red and gold. Even Pappy flourished and became so content with New England life that he sported his first flower in August…

But Liz was not following suit. Out of ideas as to how to fix her, a repot and a move to the greenhouse seemed like the final attempt at revival. There, for more than two months, she just sat there on the shelf with nothing changing. And then this week, magic happened. At long last, Liz has come around. She sprouted five new leaves and two sets of flower buds. Just like that. Practically overnight.

Like an early Christmas gift, I was so excited, I took her inside for a portrait. Holiday magic comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes around here. And it is never what I think it might be. Two years ago, we had holiday magic in the form of a lost cookie recipe found thanks to Ken and Cindy. Last year, it was a bevy of snowstorms one right after the other. This year, our holiday magic comes with lemons.

The other happy campers these days are the geraniums, which are growing more and more leaves each day. Here’s the growth spurt from last week to this week…

But for all this growth and joy and magic of this second week in December, there has been a challenge to contend with in the greenhouse too. The sage came down with it first. And then the tarragon. Powdery mildew.

This can happen when there is not enough air circulation in the greenhouse. Along with winterizing the greenhouse, I also should be adding a small fan just to move the air around. When the daytime temperatures are warm enough (above 60 degrees) of which we, surprisingly, have had a few recently, the heater can be shut off and the greenhouse window vent opened, and that usually allows for adequate air circulation.

But now it’s too chilly to open the vent. Ideally, I’m trying to keep the daytime temps in the greenhouse between 70-75 degrees and the nightime temperature between 55-65. There are only three settings on the heater 1, 2 & 3 with 3 being the warmest. Depending on the daytime temperatures outside and the amount of sun on each particular day, there is usually a bit of fiddling around with the heat settings once or twice a day to keep things balanced. The warmer it gets in the greenhouse, the higher the humidity gets which then welcomes pesky problems like powdery mildew, scale bugs and funguses. Just like life in the outside world, life in the greenhouse is a continuous adjustment of care and considerations. I treated the sage and tarragon with an organic garden-friendly fungicide, so hopefully, that will clear things up. More on that next week.

Today there is a possibility of 2-4 inches of snow. Although we have had two nights of flurries already this month, the storm tonight will be our first accumulation of the season. Like sending a baby out into the world for the first time, I’m anxious and excited to see how the greenhouse will manage when enshrouded in a snow blanket. Will it remain warm and cozy and fragrant with the scent of honeyed perfume all season long or will it be too delicate of a creature to stand up to a strong New England winter?

Katharine with her husband E.B White and one of their furry friends.

I looked to the garden writer, Katharine White who inspired this series, for advice. She lived in Maine and was used to snow and winter and caring for flowers and plants in the off-season. “Outdoors, nature is apt to take over and save you from many a stupidity, but indoors you are strictly on your own,” wrote Katharine. It was not exactly the reassurance I was looking for.

When you move into a new (old) house in a new state with a new agriculture zone, there’s a lot of waiting and seeing and observing and guessing all buoyed by optimism. Next year at this time, we’ll know a lot more about the capabilities of the greenhouse in cold weather. But for now, here’s to hoping that the wild and willful nature present inside the greenhouse at the moment will suffice enough to save us from any serious stupidities of our own doing, at least in this first snowstorm. More on that, next week.

In the meantime, cheers to the Christmas magic of Liz Lemon, to the nasturtiums who look like little kids lined up at the window waiting on the first flurries, and to our first impending snowstorm. Hope your week brings some unexpected joys this week too.

The Greenhouse Diaries: Entry #1

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.

Katharine Sergeant Angell White (1892-1977)

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.

Katharine and E.B.’s home in Brooklin, Maine. Image courtesy of maineaneducation.org

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.

Katharine’s book of collected garden writing published in 1977.

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…

  • lavender
  • tarragon
  • mint
  • parsley
  • rosemary
  • broccoli
  • basil
  • succulents
  • sage
  • tomato
  • peppers
  • thyme
  • arugula
  • zinnia
  • pincushions
  • lemon tree
  • collard greens
  • chives
  • aloe
  • bunny ear cactus
  • brussels sprouts
Lavender

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.

Lemon jalapenos
Cherry tomatoes
Broccoli

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.

Arugula

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.

Fernbank in Autumn: A Trip to the Rose Garden

A magical visit to the rose garden at Fernbank.
A magical visit to the rose garden at Fernbank.

The award-winning writer and gardener Sydney Eddison once said that gardens were a form of autobiography. How true! You pick your favorite plants and flowers, you prune and pluck or you let it go and grow, you decide neatly clipped and ordered or wild and whimsical, you choose colors, height, dimensions, you choose careful maintenance or natural ease. Essentially you write a love story with your landscape.

Ms. Jeannie was thinking about all this the other day when she finally (after many months of waylaid attempts) managed to visit the rose garden at Fernbank,  Atlanta’s natural history museum.

Blooms aflutter in all directions.
Blooms aflutter in all directions.

What a gorgeous marvel this site was! Named in honor of Robert L. Staton, a local gardening enthusiast,  Robert built this story of a garden in the 1980s to not only explore his own passion of cultivating an incredible flower but also to provide an educational tool for rose enthusiasts around the world. Autobiography is right, dear readers!

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The Fernbank rose garden is one of only three gardens in the United States that serves as a testing ground for rose varietals in accordance with the American Rose Society, which makes it an intriguing platform for experts and novice hobbyists as well as a place of beauty for the community.

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Laid out on two sides of a big lawn joined by a paved walkway, over 1,300 rose bushes live in long raised beds, bordered by bricks and grass alleyways.  Being that it is now mid-October, Ms Jeannie didn’t know what she was in for in the bloom department. She thought she might be missing the season entirely, but was so happy to be proven wrong. At every turn there was something lovely to look at…

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Roses came in a rainbow of colors and caught the light in all sorts of dramatic ways…

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Such a visual feast for the eyes!  Stately buildings belonging to the museum and a view of the neighbor’s house next-door were tucked into the landscape and lent a fairy tale magic to the whole setting.

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Even Indie, Ms. Jeannie’s travel companion, was overwhelmed with the spectacle of it all.  Not only was this her first walk-around trip in Atlanta but it was also an exercise on how to behave in a city environment.  She was a good little pup through it all despite the enticing distractions (so many squirrels!) and the fast moving cars.  But it also was a trip not without its perils…

Dog down. Thorn in the paw!
Thorn in the paw!

Oh poor thing! Some quick attention and one freshly dug hole later…

(Oops! Sorry Fernbank!)
(Oops! Sorry Fernbank!)

and she was back on the trail again.

Rumor has it that many a marriage proposal has occurred in the garden, and Ms. Jeannie can definitely understand why.  Clearly Robert Staton was a romantic on a mission.  The garden seduces you at every chance.  From varietal signs…

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to traditional symbolism…

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petals pull at your heart from all directions.

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And now Ms. Jeannie is so thoroughly inspired to start her own assorted rose garden she can barely stop daydreaming about it all. More to come on that front soon!

In the meantime, in honor of such a magical place Ms. Jeannie is having a little sale just for her blog readers on anything floral (including all things photographed with flowers!) in her Etsy shop. Stop by and have a look here. Use coupon code FLOWERSFORALL to receive a 25% off discount.