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.

The Colonial Kitchen Garden Then and Now

The gardens of Historic Williamsburg Virginia.

Time, nostalgia, and then necessity. In that order. Those were the key factors that determined how gardens in America were grown in the mid-1700s. By that point, the pilgrims had long landed, settlers were four generations into life in the New World, and creating an independent society was on everyone’s minds.

An 18th century painting of New Milford, CT.

Despite the idea of pastoral food plots, of self-sufficiency, of larders full of carefully tended, joyfully grown vegetables, the reality, surprisingly was that many working-class 18th-century families did not have time to waste cultivating the land into mounds of gorgeous gardens.

Even though garden pests were much fewer in those days than they are today, gardening was still a risky endeavor in the mid-18th century. One bug or one beetle or one dry spell could wipe out an entire season or two of manual labor. Time lost during a century when almost everything was handmade and hand-touched could result in cataclysmic results not only for individuals but also for families, communities, and even the burgeoning nation.

In the centuries before Miracle-Gro and sprinkler systems and lawn mowers, before electric clippers and garden hoses, soil amendments, and genetically modified seeds that were practically guaranteed to grow, gardening was a risky business. And not all were willing to gamble. Since the colonial mindset valued efficiencies and effectiveness, one’s time was much better spent building a building, or a family, or the constitution instead of raising food gardens that may or may not result in something edible. And that really wasn’t the point of gardening back then anyway.

Painting by Edward Hicks titled the Home of David Twining, 1787

The mid-18th century diet, most accurately studied by researchers at Colonial Williamsburg, was almost entirely made up of animal proteins. Surprisingly, just 10% of the foods they consumed came from vegetables. When colonists abandoned the idea of growing their own food because of time, space, or temerity, they turned to local farms to purchase what little plant roughage they consumed.

The vegetable gardens at Moniticello.
Photo of the gardens at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Billy Hathorn

Those farms, with the ability, the space, the manpower, and the elite lifestyle to afford a garden in all its splendors and failures were generally ones of upper-class wealth. For this affluent sector, gardening was a matter of refinement and intellectual interest. They could absorb the costs of failed planting endeavors or reap the financial rewards of a fruitful season either way. They also had access to education for leisurely study and experimentation, something not often afforded to the working class.

One of the best examples of early American gardening on a large-scale level is Thomas Jefferson’s Virginian home, Monticello. With an avid interest in horticulture, 5,000 acres to play with and a net worth equal to $284 million dollars today, Jefferson was able to explore the world of gardening from all angles. He made copious amounts of notes and drawings regarding what, where, why and how his gardens were growing…

While it’s fascinating to go through Thomas Jefferson’s notes in order to understand his thought process, methodology, and relationship to innovations we take for granted today, one of the facts that I found most fascinating while researching colonial gardens is not something that can be linked to a specific concept or a system or even a person. It’s much more individualistic. What I learned is that stylistically, all gardens in America from the very beginning were driven by and inspired by nostalgia. And many people’s nostalgia at that.

Painting of forget-me-nots with goblet by Leon Bonvin, 1863

As new settlers immigrated from other countries and other continents throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought with them memories of their parent’s garden, their grandparent’s garden, and perhaps even their own garden that they left behind. A desire to replicate this specific sense of familiarity meant that gardens were not created in America but in fact, recreated, from replicas of what these settlers once knew before in their home countries. Memories of ancestral orchards, ancient hedgerows, favorite flowers, fruiting vines, and heritage foods all acted as springboards for the first wave of garden preferences when it came to shapes, designs, content, color palettes, and layouts for gardeners in the New World. Those longings for other familiar places and spaces were what founded the very ideas of what a garden should and could look like here in America.

Since maintaining a garden was both a status symbol and a sign of wealth, gardens of the 18th century came in two basic styles… cottage gardens and farm gardens. Cottage gardens were small patches of land grown specifically for vegetables, herbs, and flowers with a purpose. Ornamental flowers were not often grown in these petite patches as they were considered frivolous time wasters.

Farm gardens, on the other hand, were the ones cultivated on bigger stretches of land adorned with numerous outbuildings, an ample number of workers, and dedicated areas for kitchen work, pleasure gardening, dairy operations, and large-scale croplands. Organized, efficient, and tidy, farm gardens leaned towards formal decorative designs inspired by European gardening techniques and aesthetics. Most often they were dotted with topiary tree, ornamental flowers, exotic plants, manicured bushes, and lined with brick or crushed sea shell pathways. Attractive garden structures in all shapes and sizes added the finishing touch to ensure picturesque vantage points. Even in the new days of the New World, history bloomed in the garden from other centuries, other places, other pasts. And from those two garden styles forward we never really varied in what we decided constituted an American garden.

The colonial garden that is beginning to emerge in the front and back yard of our 1750s-era house is one of both history and purpose. In an effort to be as self-sustainable as possible we are growing fruit, vegetables, and herbs for cooking, and flowers for fun. While we are not following the formality of hedged colonial gardens, but instead opting for a more cottage garden approach, I am intent on only growing heirloom varieties for an old-fashioned aesthetic and a pretty dose of historic storytelling from the ground up. Here are a few ways we are incorporating history from three centuries into the garden of our 272-year old house…

Heirloom Seeds

With the exception of one newly invented pepper plant developed by the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, and two flats of marigolds and nasturtiums purchased from our local nursery, in this year’s garden, we are growing everything from seed, using only heirloom varietals of fruit, flowers, and vegetables.

Okra, brandywine tomatoes and bush beans growing up and out!

We were a bit late in seed starting since we didn’t move into our house until April, but so far we have tomatoes, zucchini, peas, beans, carrots, herbs, okra and lettuce growing up in the garden. As of today, the showiest plantings so far are the nasturtiums from the local nursery…

Nasturtiums made a regular appearance in American colonial gardens too by way of seeds carried from England and Holland. Prized then and still now, they were eaten like salad greens… leaves stalks, flowers, and all thanks to their sweet but peppery taste. If you like arugula mixed in with your lettuce, you’ll like nasturtiums too. They also happen to be fantastic pest repellants for squash bugs, aphids, beetles and our daily invader – the pesky slug.

Raised Beds

Colonial gardens in the 18th century were laid out in symmetrical grid styles using raised beds and walkways of crushed seashells in between. Based on the layout of our yard, the lush tree canopy, and the pattern of the sun throughout the day, we also are doing raised beds but not in the same traditional colonial grid format since we have fewer pockets of consistent, direct sunlight throughout the day. Instead, we have built one long raised garden bed that measures 25′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet (width) x 2.5″ feet (height) in the front yard using rocks gathered from around the property. The rockery aesthetic matches the stone walkway and steps of the front porch.

Newly built and just before we filled it in with all the dirt and compost materials.
Flowers, seedlings and seeds get planted this week, but this is a little sneak peek as to where more nasturiums will be headed.
The tree canopy changes color throughout the day and makes the prettiest shadows in the yard. Two sugar maples live in the front yard. We cant wait to tap this fall for our own maple syrup.

In the backyard, just off the porch, we built a smaller raised bed out of wood that measures 10′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet by 3′ feet (height). Instead of using just plain untreated boards, my husband experimented wth the Yakisugi method and charred the wood with a propane torch. Yakisugi is an ancient Japanese art form that naturally preserves the wood and gives it a pretty, dark walnut-hued finish.

To add a little softness to the rectangular shape, we built another curved rock wall garden bed on one end where the okra, zinnias, coreopsis, Brussels sprouts, and marigolds are happily growing away.

Rock walls have been a part of the natural historic landscape of New England since the 1800s, and were used as land dividers and fencing following the split rail style fencing that was popular during colonial days. In Connecticut in the 1700s, most of the landscape was covered in trees so everything in that century was made out of wood since it was the most abundant building material. We haven’t yet decided on what kind of fencing we will add to the front yard. It’s a big decision with many possibilities ranging between a picket fence, a rock wall, a split rail fence, or a series of decorative shrubs and grasses.

The greenhouse is only six weeks old but already it’s got quite the little personality.

The Greenhouse

The first greenhouses were built in Europe and the UK in the 1600s, so they’ve been an important garden feature for quite some time. Our greenhouse was found locally on craigslist, just a couple of weeks after we moved in. Still in its original box, it just needed one day of assembly and then it was ready to start growing things.

First day!

So far we are off to a good start. This has been the birthplace of our tomatoes, basil, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cilantro, parsley, dill, lettuces, French marigolds, and okra.

It’s also the permanent new home of our three-year-old Southern papaya tree, Pappy, who did not love our move to the Northeast as much as we did and responded to the 9-degree temperatures experienced during our temporary stay in Pennsylvania this past winter by promptly losing all his leaves. Every day from November to April, no matter how much coddling I gave him, Pappy threatened to shrivel up and call it quits. Luckily, the warmth of the greenhouse has him happy once again and back on the road to recovery.

Pappy! Two new leaves grown, a million more to go!

It’s our plan to keep the greenhouse in constant use all year long. With the help of a heater and some neighboring cold frames, I look forward to growing kale, chard, cabbages, and other cool-weather vegetables there this winter.

Rain Barrel

To complete the start of our self-sufficiency model we added a colonial-style rainwater collection barrel to the side of the garage. So far we’ve pumped an entire barrel full of water into the garden as well as accidentally grown a vat of sulfur-smelling bacteria. As it turns out, there’s an art (and a science!) to storing rainwater in a barrel, and there is still so much for us to learn. In an upcoming post, I’ll share the system my husband custom-built to pump the water from the barrel to the garden, which I hope might be helpful for anyone else learning the ropes of the rain barrel watering system.

Future plans for the garden include bee boxes, landscaped garden beds, lighting, and a fire pit, but for now, this is the start of our new yet old colonial-inspired garden. More photos will come as the garden grows up!

In the meantime, while the kitchen is under renovation and we wait for the vegetables to flower and fruit, the grill has been a beehive of action and adventure as we discover and explore some vintage recipes meant for the barbecue days of summer. One of my favorites so far is this grilled potato recipe from 1955. Coming next to the blog, this recipe will add an extra delicious dose of fancy food to your summer soirees. Can’t wait to share it!

Cheers to summer foods, sentimental gardening, and horticultural history! Hope this season is your most beautiful one yet.