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}

Announcing the Butterflies: One, Two and Three

They’ve arrived, they’ve arrived!

The butterflies, dear readers, are born! Here’s their first photo shoot. Each butterfly emerged on a different day so Ms. Jeannie named them appropriately.

Meet Wednesday – the first butterfly…

Brand-new!
Brand-new!

Wednesday was the one, if you recall, who chose to cocoon underneath the flower petals of the gerber daisy. A most pretty spot.

Ta-dah!
Ta-dah!

Here she was stepping out of the cocoon. Ms. Jeannie just missed her actual emergence by sheer minutes. She had just checked on all three of the cocoons (status quo) and had gone around the corner to cut some herbs for dinner. Five minutes later – here was Wednesday fanning out her new wings.

b6

It was a slow-going little journey up the stalk of the flower while she figured out her legs  and the tricky business of holding on. But by the time Ms. Jeannie took this aerial view, Wednesday was an expert!

Hello butterfly!
Hello butterfly!

Because Ms. Jeannie had missed the actual moment of Wednesday unzipping the cocoon doors, she was determined to at least catch Wednesday’s  first moment of flight on camera. She didn’t how long this would take. So she waited. And she waited.

Ms. Jeannie’s cat, Satchem (incidentally named after a butterfly, herself) even waited with her for awhile.

oh the anticipation...
oh the anticipation…

This gave Ms. Jeannie some time to explain to Satchem that there would indeed be no butterfly dinners in her future. She seemed to understand. Eventually though, she lost interest in the butterflies altogether and fell asleep underneath the tulip tree.

Meanwhile, Wednesday just stayed in her same spot, fanning those wings and taking in her new surroundings.

b10

After 25 minutes of waiting, Ms. Jeannie got side-tracked and went on to other projects – but she came back to check every few minutes. Going into the second hour, Ms. Jeannie came out to check and there was Wednesday on her petal and  then in a flash of a second, there she wasn’t.

She flew off into the garden so fast it was all Ms. Jeannie could do to frantically photograph her flying through the air. Unfortunately this is the best photo she got…

First flight!
First flight!

You can just make out the fuzzy swatches of orange as Wednesday flapped her wings. So long pretty girl!

The next butterfly to emerge was Thursday…

t2

Like Wednesday, Thursday also chose the afternoon hours to emerge – although this little butterfly decided to come out just as the storm clouds started to rumble.  The wind picked up considerably, and Ms. Jeannie feared that Thursday would get blown away before he had any sort of chance to get his bearings.

With some his legs, not attached - it looked perilous for a moment...
You can see him sort of half-hanging there – it looked perilous for a moment…

But Thursday knew what he was doing. He was being blown about quite a bit – but he para-sailed through the high winds like a champ. Apparently, those stickly little legs are a lot stronger than they look!

Then the rains came – torrential downpours so heavy Ms. Jeannie considered clipping the stalk he was on and bringing it onto the screened porch just to give him a chance to get his act together.

But again, Thursday, adapted. Although this time, he crawled back down to his cocoon and hung onto both the casing and the stalk for extra support.

t4

The rain came down for hours and Thursday hung on. The moment the sun came out, he fanned his wings out  a few times and went in search of sunnier skies. Again – Ms. Jeannie managed to grab her camera in time for the first flight – but Thursday was fast – so this is the best she could do…

Only a slight improvement was Wednesday's photograph!
Only a slight improvement was Wednesday’s photograph!

The next day it was back to full hot Georgia sunshine and Friday decided that this was his day to join his pals.  Friday was the one who chose to cocoon behind the wooden spinach sign – in what Ms. Jeannie thought was the most disguised location of the group.

Ms. Jeannie was most curious about this ones color pattern since he had a different color cocoon than the others. But he turned out just the same!
Ms. Jeannie was most curious about this one’s color pattern since he had a different color cocoon than the others. But he turned out just the same!

If Friday picked a shy spot to nest, he certainly wasn’t shy about coming out. He immediately started climbing up the wood spike…

So long cocoon, Friday's on a mission!
So long cocoon, Friday’s on a mission!

Friday's on a mission.
He climbed…

He climbed and climbed...

…and climbed…

and climbed...
and climbed…

All the way to the top of the sign, he climbed. And then do you know what he did?

He climbed over the other side and gave Ms. Jeannie the most beautiful display…

Ohh...
Ohh…

So handsome and so perfectly balanced, he almost looked fake. Like someone had positioned him there on purpose!

so perfect!

And then, just like the others he was there one minute and off exploring the world the next. This time, Ms. Jeannie was sort of ready – but boy is it hard to capture these little fellas when they are flying!

Definietly the best of the flight pictures - but no photo awards for Ms. Jeannie on this front:)
Definitely, the best of the flight pictures – but no photo awards for Ms. Jeannie on this front:)

So there it is – the tale of the three black swallowtails.  Most likely, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will stay close to the garden enjoying a bevy of summer flowers before finding their own loves and making more swallowtail babies. Ms. Jeannie hasn’t seen them since their birthdays – but she feels like they could be close by. Of course, if she sees any fluttering about the garden, she will photo them for you to see too. Hopefully by that time, she’ll have improved upon those flight photos!

Watching these little guys grow was a completely amazing experience for Ms. Jeannie, packed to the brim with hope and wonder. If you missed the previous posts, read about the beginnings of the butterflies (as caterpillars)  here and (cocoons) here.