Most years, I’d be planting peas this week or next, but despite temperatures trending slowly upward, the backyard still looks like something out of Doctor Zhivago, so the annual ritual of putting those first seeds in the ground won’t be happening anytime soon. Fortunately I have an alternative. I’ll start them in the greenhouse.
Scratch almost any gardener, and you’ll find someone who would love to have a greenhouse, I bet. There’s such an allure to a glasshouse. They conjure images of orangeries and pineries (18th century greenhouses for growing oranges and pineapples, respectively), or maybe a conservatory with rare orchids, china teacups and the fragrance of oolong. If the garden fairy flitted by one day to offer me one of those crystal palaces, I probably wouldn’t say no.
Even on a more modest scale, though, a greenhouse is a wonderful addition for a gardener. With it, I can: start my own seedlings rather than being dependent on what garden centers offer; work in a tee shirt, shorts and clogs in March, basking in eighty degree warmth while it’s in the twenties outside the windows; and drive the neighbors green with envy. This last is not to be discounted as a motive for buying or building a greenhouse.
I built my first many years ago, covering a wooden lean-to frame with plastic film. I was able to raise a decent crop of seedlings that spring and was pretty smug until the following winter’s snow caved in the roof. Lesson number one: Do not put a plastic roof under an eave, Sunshine, for there be icicles.
Next I inveigled my three closest friends into helping me build a sturdier structure of 2×2 framing and corrugated plastic panels. I seem to remember sangria, tacos, and much invective that day, most of which came from me, I am sure, but finally we had it up. That little sunspace did a great job for many years.
But it is a sad truth that once you’ve been bitten by the greenhousing bug, you always want something just a little bigger. When I added the great room onto the house, I had a lovely sixteen-foot-long, southwest-facing wall just begging for an attached greenhouse. This time I planned a glass roof to bear the weight of the snow, plus a work table, planting bench, and two cold frames. Rather than trying to heat the entire space, which would have been cost prohibitive, I decided to heat only the planting bench (which is basically a long, narrow table with built-up sides that is normally filled with potting soil so you can plant right into it) and the cold frames by burying soil heating cables in a couple of inches of damp vermiculite. (If you can keep the root zone of seedlings warm by nestling the flats into the heated vermiculite, they’re surprisingly tolerant of cooler temperatures above.)
The arrangement works very well. By May, every surface is covered with flats and pots of veggies and flowers just raring to go into the garden. The first year I had the greenhouse, somebody apparently thought it was a commercial operation of the illegal sort named This Bud’s For You. I was working out in the greenhouse one day, happily watering, talking to the plants, and listening to a Red Sox game on the radio when I became aware of the thwup-thwup-thwup of a helicopter. It wasn’t so unusual; a fair number of Life-Flight, Coast Guard, and Army reserve choppers pass overhead. This one was loud, though, very loud and very close. I looked up over my shoulder. A helicopter was hovering over my greenhouse, low enough that I could make out two people inside brazenly staring down at me. What the hell? I thought, angry at having my privacy invaded by what I thought was a couple of Guardsmen gawking.
And then it hit me what all those tomato and marigold seedlings might look like from up there.
Grinning, I held up one of the plants, pointed to the yellow flowers so the DEA agents could get a good picture, and yelled, “Tomatoes!” as though they could hear me.
A hand was raised in a wave, and off they flew. Case closed, apparently. Lesson two: do not succumb to the temptation to scratch your arse in the greenhouse, because you never know who might be watching.
Over the years I have tweaked things to make my sunspace more productive and easier to use, adding commercial-grade heating cables, for instance, so I don’t have to keep replacing them every year or two as I did with off-the-shelf models from the hardware store. I also found I needed to build wire boxes which look a lot like rabbit hutches over my planting table to keep out zinnia-munching chipmunks and a cat who thought all that vermiculite must be a litter-box. Too, because Gracie is an indoor cat and the greenhouse serves as her jungle as well as my Eden, I have added a few amenities for her. A whiskey barrel planter is filled with pillows for her lounging pleasure. She likes to nestle down into them so that her eyes are just at the level of the rim to spy on the doings of squirrels and robins just beyond the window. She also has a patch of oat grass for nibbling and a high shelf in one corner from whence to survey her kingdom. Lately she has been lobbying for a small pool with a bubbling fountain and some carp, but we’re still negotiating on that.
First, though, I’m going to thumb my nose at this interminable winter and start my peas in the next week or so at the time I normally would. Since peas take their time about soaking up enough moisture to germinate, often taking ten days or so in outside conditions at this time of year, I hope if I germinate them inside, then transplant them out into the garden as small seedlings in a few weeks, they might be right on schedule to bear peas for the Fourth of July. We’ll see. Even if it doesn’t work, I’ll be happy to be in my glasshouse, getting a start on my tan.
Photo credit for top image: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/7489260018″>Greenhouse</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>