The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #5: Seed Starting, The Blushing Bell Pepper and What We Learned from a Veggie Burger

Valentine’s Day is still two weeks away, but in the greenhouse love and joy and lessons are in abundance these days. From the deep red petals of the geraniums to the blushing bell pepper to a big bowl of an aphrodisiac growing on the second-tier shelf, it seems like every plant is offering up a bit of romance and wisdom in one way or another. Is this what the winter harvest season looks like? Or does this mean spring might be coming early? I don’t know. Since it’s our first year, we can only take note and appreciate what’s happening right now in the greenhouse at this end-of-January date. Let’s look…

The sun gold cherry tomato branch produced another foursome…

The nasturtiums and geranium flowers are stretching their leaves and spreading so much cheer both in color and scent…

Nasturtiums
Geraniums

Growing like gangbusters, the chives and the collard greens, are each overflowing from their containers…

The arugula and the parsley are keeping pace with our daily kitchen needs by enthusiastically providing continuous greens for every meal…

Greenhouse-grown arugula and parsley

One of our favorite recipes we tried this week was this new veggie burger from Jenny Rosenstrach’s cookbook The Weekday Vegetarians. We modified it a bit by adding a fried egg on top and stuffing the buns with our own greenhouse-grown arugula and parsley but otherwise followed the recipe exactly.

These burgers don’t require any baking in the oven – just stovetop cooking (or hot plate, in our case) in a cast-iron pan, so it’s an especially great recipe for under-construction cooking, small space meal-making, or college dorm food. Soft and light, as opposed to many veggie burger recipes that can sometimes tend to become dry and dense, Jenny’s recipe has the consistency of crab cakes and a delicate flavor combination of mushrooms, brown rice and pinto beans. Jenny suggested sliced avocado and a spicy mayo mixture for a topper, but because of our greenhouse abundance, we substituted those two with our own version of similar flavors and textures via the creamy egg and peppery parsley and arugula. It was delicious.

Nowadays, arugula is such a common salad staple that it’s easy to forget that it was once considered a gourmet green and talked about in haughty tones. Although British and Italian immigrants are credited with bringing it to America in the 19th century, it wasn’t really until the 1980s, that it started making a more regular appearance in American cookbooks.

Paula Peck was one of the very few who mentioned it in her 1960s-era book, The Art of Good Cooking, grouping it together with “very expensive” bibb lettuce and James Beard, our favorite gourmand, described it with a sense of reverent curiosity in his 1970s American Cookery book. But none of our favorite 20th-century chefs featured it as an ingredient to create a meal around until many decades later.

Not the case across the pond though. There was nothing new about it in England, Europe and the Mediterranean. There, arugula has been enjoyed for centuries. Legend states that in Roman times it was considered an aphrodisiac and was even banned from some gardens for its love potion properties. So if you wanted to make a romantic Valentine’s dinner for your sweetheart this year, consider a big bowl of arugula along with your shellfish.

Santaka pepper

Back to the spicy atmosphere in the greenhouse, the Santaka Pepper – although pretty small in stature at just 8 inches – is getting ready to flower (above) and Liz Lemon is growing a baby (below)…

Liz Lemon’s baby lemon!

The loveliest surprise of all this week though was the bell pepper. If you have been following along with previous entries from The Greenhouse Diaries, you’ll recall that this was a mystery bell pepper plant that was either a California Wonder, producing peppers that would ripen to a deep red color, or it was the Orange Sun variety, which would turn, as it names suggests, to a warm shade of orange once mature. For weeks, we’ve been waiting to see which color it would turn.

Finally, last Wednesday, the pepper started to change. With great excitement, I’m so pleased to share for certainty now, both the color and the type of plant we’ve been growing all these months here in the greenhouse. The first blush gave it all away…

Wednesday

Orange Sun! Each day it gets brighter and brighter…

Thursday

Yesterday morning

If bell pepper had a theme song, it would be this one…

Through wind and rain, snow and sleet, sun and clouds, the greenhouse experienced all the different types of weather possible in these past 14 days. Outside it was a rollercoaster of highs and lows, but inside the temperature held steady between 70-80 degrees, the most even stretch of well-regulated temperature all winter so far. Thanks to our trusty heater, that cozy warmth is now making it possible to start our next endeavor…

Seed starting! After late sowing in the garden in 2022, this year the plan is to get a head start so that by the time the last frost date passes in our area (typically mid-to-late April), they’ll be a collection of hearty transplants ready to make their way out to the garden beds.

Excited to get to work on what is perhaps the most optimistic of gardening pursuits, the first set of seed trays were filled with flowers… snapdragons, Mexican sunflowers and foxglove. Four days in and the Mexican sunflowers have already started popping up. Another joy!

Mexican sunflower seedlings

The first time I ever grew Mexican sunflowers from seed was in 2012. I fell in love with their delicate, velvety soft stalks and their bright tangerine-colored petals. Blooming extensively throughout the season, they were a haven for bees and butterflies. That first year I was living in Georgia and they filled out into a 6′ foot by 5′ foot tall bush in a flash. That combination of heat, humidity, and full sun was a winning ticket. I haven’t had enough gardening space to try Mexican sunflowers again until this year, so I’m not sure if they will grow as large and as lush here in New England, but it will be an exciting experiment. This is how they turned out that first year (fingers crossed that we’ll get similar results and similar visitors)…

From the garden in 2012

Right on track, the snapdragons and the foxglove started sprouting yesterday. As biennials, we started some in the garden last year too, along with hollyhocks, but they didn’t grow very much. It’s my first attempt growing all three from seed, so we’ll see what happens this year. Between these greenhouse seedlings and those planted in the garden last year, we’ll have two sets hopefully coming up more productively this year.

Next up on the seed starting list for this coming week are a new batch of peppers and herbs, salad greens, hollyhocks, milkweed, and pincushion flowers, which will get us set up through the month of February before more seeds get started in March. By that stage, we’ll be rounding the corner towards Spring and our one-year anniversary at 1750 House. We aren’t as far along in our renovations as we thought we’d be, but I learned a valuable lesson this week from the veggie burgers.

At one point in Jenny’s instructions, when it comes to the step about forming the actual veggie burger patties, she writes “they will probably look mushy and unappetizing, but press on.” I love that she was so candid with this insight. And I love that she uses the encouraging words “press on.” As we continue to get to know the greenhouse, the 1750 House and the landscape in which they both lay, it is such a good reminder that all worthwhile endeavors require a healthy dose of blind faith and pressing on. Without that, we’d never make it to the flowering and flourishing days. I can’t wait to see what this spring holds in terms of a kitchen and a kitchen garden. We may be in the middle of the mushy parts now, but something deliciously wonderful awaits.

Cheers to love that sprouts, to the sun’s coming out party in the greenhouse, and to Jenny for sharing recipes and reminders.

Mexican sunflower seedling

{The Greenhouse Diaries is an ongoing series. if you are new to the blog, catch up here with Week #1Week #2, Week #3 and Week #4 here}

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}

The Greenhouse Diaries Entry #3: Snow and Bell Peppers

current outside temperature: 33 degrees, greenhouse temp: 61.2 degrees

Last week, we left off with two cliffhangers… an impending snowstorm and an outbreak of powdery mildew. Did the greenhouse stay warm during our first storm? Have the sage and the tarragon recovered? Let’s see…

The total accumulation last Sunday night was 2.5″ inches. The greenhouse didn’t blow away or collapse (a victory!) and nothing was frost covered inside. We didn’t get the haybales purchased and placed before the storm for two reasons… 1) we wanted to see how the greenhouse would do on its own and 2) perhaps there might be a better alternative.

In theory, haybales placed around the outside base of the greenhouse act as insulation. They cover any vulnerable seams or crevices from drafts as well as act like a barrier against cold winter winds. Our greenhouse was never meant to be air-tight in its design. There are tiny exposed airways around some connector pieces and screws, which is good for ventilation. I hesitated about the bale method of winterization because there are about a dozen plants in our greenhouse that draw light from the bottom sidewalls and the hay bales once placed around the base would block their access to light from that direction. Of course, that would probably only encourage the plants to grow taller, to reach for the light above the bales and towards the roof but the idea of covering up this beautifully airy space with something heavy and dense didn’t seem quite right. In honor of light, we chose to wait and see.

So the snow came and the greenhouse experienced it sans haybales and everything was fine, except for the temperature. The coldest the greenhouse has ever been, even with the heater going at level 3 (the maximum setting) was that night. 43 degrees. Not cold enough for frost to appear but more than twenty degrees away from ideal interior temperatures. This first snowfall was such a good test. We definitely needed to protect it more.

My husband came up with the great idea of a plastic sheet covering the door frame from the peak all the way down to the base. The plastic at the roof was held down with two leftover 2 x 6 pieces of lumber, one on each side of the peak with the board ends resting in the gutters to help hold it all in place. Three treated 4x4s weighted down the plastic at the base. Essentially, he made a makeshift curtain panel for the front door that looked like this…

By covering the greenhouse in this way, it eliminated the draft that comes in around the door while still allowing lots of light to come through. Once this new plastic panel was added, the interior temp went right back up to 65 degrees within an hour. Success!

Until the next night.

Wind got a hold of the plastic and carried the curtain across the yard at some point in the middle of the night. The internal greenhouse temp plummeted straight back down to the low 40s.

Not entirely deterred, my husband set out for a second attempt. This time he stapled the plastic to the treated wood at the base, nailed two shorter boards together to form a wooden peak for the top that mimicked the pitch of the roofline, and then stapled the top end of the plastic to the wooden frame…

And that turned out to make all the difference. For the rest of the week, the plastic has stayed in place and the greenhouse is warm and draft free. To gain entry, we just take the wooden peak down and set the treated wood off to the side and then put it all back in place once we’re done inside. So simple.

Temperatures fluctuations and winter weather aside, luckily the greenhouse plants didn’t seem to be affected by all these up-and-down changes. The sage and tarragon were still flocked with powdery mildew so they got a second spray of the organic fungicide. The tarragon responded to this extra care and attention by slowly unraveling its first flower…

The marigolds have been thinning themselves out one by one since they arrived in the greenhouse, so they got repotted to a smaller container. If I had to peg any of the summer flowers that I thought would do best in the greenhouse it was the marigolds. They were such hardy growers in the garden from spring to fall, so I was surprised to see them losing leaves, drying out and getting long and leggy in the greenhouse. Hopefully, this new home will encourage them to fill out more around the middle.

On the growth spurt front, the geranium leaves tripled in size…

the broccoli grew by another inch…

the spicy Santaka pepper seedlings put out a whole new layer of leaves…

and our lone bell pepper seems to grow bigger by the minute…

Between seeing the greenhouse outlined in snow early in the week and then hearing the tinkling of raindrops on the roof at the end of the week, I can understand now why Philip Johnson built and loved his Glass House so much.

The Glass House in New Canaan, CT designed by Philip Johnson in 1945 and built in 1949.

While working on that and the neighboring Brick House, Philip mentioned being overtaken by waves of emotion for certain details during the design process. He was talking about archways and vantage points and shapes that felt like hugs, but I loved that he used the word overtaken to describe his attraction to the space and his ideas in it. That’s exactly what it feels like to stand in the greenhouse. To be overtaken by nature, by light, by warmth, by possibility, by protection. It’s no wonder plants thrive in such an environment.

Ivy-Leaf Geranium

As we work through renovations on the 1750 House during these fall and winter months, oftentimes the greenhouse is the warmest, quietest, calmest place to be. The polycarbonate walls muffle man-made sounds from the environment but oddly amplify the sounds of surrounding nature like birds singing in the trees or leaves whirling around on the ground. The bright light, even when the sky is cloudy and threatening with rain or snow, illuminates all the details on every leaf, on every petal. Possessed of an ever-evolving scent similar to warm tea the whole space changes aromatically day by day depending on what’s in bloom. And the heater – that warm little hug of a heater wraps everything up like a cozy sweater on the coldest of days. I used to think The Glass House was such a vulnerable piece of art, exposed, and unsettling in its lack of privacy. But now I see that what Philip created there was a love letter to the senses. This greenhouse is much the same. Plastic curtain panels and all.