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}

Dinner and a Date: Grecian Style!

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This week, Ms. Jeannie is taking you on a little dinner date! From the look of things above you may think that her adventures have taken her abroad on an exotic travel vacation steeped in ancient history. If you guessed the destination to be time-traveled Greece, then you are correct! Sort of.

While the view looks like this…

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and the menu looks like this…

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Ms. Jeannie is excited to inform you that she has never actually left the U.S.. In fact she never left her city. That’s right dear readers, Ms. Jeannie is visiting Greece while never leaving Nashville. Let’s see how…

During other day explorations of her new city, Ms. Jeannie delightfully happened upon the United States’ only full scale replica of the Parthenon that famous historic ruin in Greece that was built in the 430’s B.C.  In case you need an art history refresher, this is what the original looks like …

The original Parthenon as it stands in Greece among all its ruined glory.
The original Parthenon as it stands in Greece among all its ruined glory.

And this is the American version…

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Standing elegantly (and so massively) in the city limits of Nashville’s Centennial Park, this American Parthenon is incredible in size, scope and detail.

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While it is not quite as old as the original (this one dates to 1897) it is a true work of art from all angles with the stories of Greek heroes and gods running all around the facade…

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Built in 1897 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the state becoming part of the union, Nashville’s Parthenon was built by Southern architect and Civil War veteran William Crawford Smith for a special event exposition that included several other copies of ancient ruins.

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This original photograph of the Nashville Parthenon was taken in 1909. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With no intention of making a permanent structure, the Parthenon was built as a whimsical folly, fully expecting to be dismantled shortly after the celebrations ceased. But as an instant favorite among locals and visitors the Parthenon became a part of the permanent Nashville landscape in the 1920’s when it was completely rebuilt in more solid form. What was once the original wood and plaster model became much more weather resistant concrete. Now it is hard to imagine anything getting in its way.

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There is nothing petite, frail or breakable about this beauty. It is difficult to get a sense of size or scale from photographs but this father and son pictured below hint at the sheer size of both the steps and the columns…

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As the sun travels across the sky, the colors, shapes and shadows morph from sand shades to cinnamon to sweet potato to gold. And then the night sky darkens. The spotlights come on. And the Parthenon lights up in the most spectacular of ways…

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It is no wonder that the park stays open until 11:00pm. With wide sweeping lawns, a small meandering lake complete with floating geese and ducks and plenty of shade trees, the Parthenon makes an ideal romantic backdrop for a late summer/early fall picnic. Ms. Jeannie spotted lots of hand holders among all those columns!

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In celebration of the beauty and timeless appeal of the Greek culture Ms. Jeannie is including a recipe here for a Mediterranean meal that works great for brunch, lunch or dinner. Or perhaps that romantic picnic in the park! Pulling a traditional Greek recipe from a 2010 cookbook, Greek Revival by Patricia Moore-Pastides, Ms. Jeannie put her own spin on a classic recipe that could be served in a number of situations – hot out of the oven at home, room temperature straight from the picnic basket or cold out of the fridge for instant next day left-over gratification.

While the recipe is classified technically as a tart, it is more on the fluffy side like a crust-less quiche then a dense whole ingredient tart. Traditionally it is served as side dish but it can be easily adjusted serving size wise to accommodate hungrier appetites. Serve it with some toasted crusty bread drizzled with olive oil and garlic, or a simple side salad and a glass of a wine or honey smothered fresh fruit and you have some magical combinations of savory flavor pairings that could take you from morning to night.

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Sweet Potato, Zucchini and Feta Tart

1.5 tablespoons olive oil

1 large sweet potato

2 medium zucchini

8 oz. feta cheese

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon pesto (you can make your own or buy a small jar already prepared)

2 eggs

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons flour

1/4  teaspoon pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 375.
  2. Oil the bottom of a 9 x 11 inch baking dish. Grate the sweet potato and zucchini on the large hole section of a traditional box grater – this  should yield about 3 cups of each.  Toss both vegetables in a large bowl together…

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3. Spread in the bottom of the prepared baking dish.

4. In a medium size bowl mix the feta and pesto and then sprinkle over the sweet potato and zucchini mixture.

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5. In a blender mix together the eggs, milk, flour and pepper. Pour over the the top of the cheese/vegetable mixture and bake in the oven for 1 hour or until well set and golden brown on top.

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The original Parthenon was built in Greece as a temple to honor Athena – the goddess of reason, intelligence, inspiration, art and literature. The American Parthenon was built to honor and represent the intelligent and cultured community of Nashville.. And this blog post was designed to honor you, dear dedicated readers of this blog for so many years now. Food and history go hand-in-hand, Ms. Jeannie sends a big cheers your way for encouraging and supporting both!

For more Greek recipes please visit this previous post here.