Ode to A Greenhouse

The Best Little Greenhouse in Texas

Summer’s here. It came late this year, for which we’re all grateful. To be honest, I like riding my bike in the heat, and I absolutely love hot nights with their exotic breezes and air-conditioned bedrooms. Even if we didn’t have a hundred 90-degree-plus days up in Connecticut each year, I do remember a third-floor walk-up with a thermometer that read 96 degrees and no air conditioning. Takes a whole lot of the fun out of those hot nights.

Down here in Texas it’s about to become seriously hot, and that means bustin’ out our best survival tactics (Cf. previous post regarding mojitos). Cold drinks, cold food, nominal clothing, cars and public buildings air conditioned so hard that when you step out your glasses fog over and your shoes and jewelry feel frozen against your skin.

When even the shade fails to provide relief, it’s best to adopt the siesta culture. Streets are abandoned in the middle of the day, with only the hardiest folks walking, jogging, biking, gardening. We stay indoors between noon and seven p.m. – we need a long siesta – and think about cold things. A few suggestions:

Read books about Himalayan expeditions and imagine yourself in a tent at 30 below zero, a fierce wind whipping snow across the icy surface on which you lie, giving up all hope of sleep before tomorrow’s summit bid. Or remember how cold it can be just at the top of Whistler.

Review photographs of all your ski trips, arranging them in new albums. Remember how nasty cold feet feel, and that time you dislocated your ribs from your sternum but skied the whole week anyway. Think about Snowbird and the drop down into Mineral Basin, taking such a great spill that snow got in your nose. Consider more skiing lessons next time you go.

Alta. Snowfall and Sore Ribs.

Think about winter at your brother’s house in northwest Connecticut, and how unfun it must be to go up and shovel snow off the roof so it won’t go melting down through the skylights, raising an irreparable ruckus with the cherry sunroom floor.

Meditate on winter near large bodies of water. How efficiently cold air can seep through as many layers of clothing as you can wear, reminding you that cold is the boss of all bosses – no matter what people say about cold weather being easier to endure than hot weather “because you can always put on more clothes.”

But on this first official day of summer I’m thinking of my greenhouse and how I spent the most pleasant winter afternoons and evenings reading there, the little space heater providing plenty of warmth. There was a straight view to the birdbath, where cardinals and small brown birds came to drink. The shelves of happy plants and thickly oxygenated atmosphere contributed to my sense of sheer happiness, I’m sure. So did the tiny white lights strung all around.

I miss my greenhouse.

In our old, funky neighborhood, Keep Austin Weird was alive and well. If you wanted to build something in your yard, as long as it wasn’t against city ordinances, you built it. I knew just where a greenhouse would go, in a little flat space between the back door and the tool shed. The bigger building in the background is a wonderful workshop Floyd built. As much as he loves our current home, I bet his misses that workshop.

One year as winter approached we took out all the greenery here and spent what seemed like hours making the ground level. When your husband is a welder and pipe-fitter, level means level as defined by a laser level. And he has even been known to trade in laser levels that don’t seem accurate. But we needed to set the bottom of the frame well into the ground so the little greenhouse wouldn’t blow over – we’d suffered through that with a temporary greenhouse already.

It came in a kit, boxes and boxes of parts and parts and parts. Luckily we had two grandboys to help us put it together.

Floyd had chosen options like roof and side vents that were temperature-sensitive: you could set them to open and close at whatever temperatures you chose. The only thing I would have done differently would have been to put doors on both ends. The greenhouse proved to be a great location for succulents during the summer, keeping them out of reach of insatiable squirrels, but sometimes it just got too hot. My jade plant basically boiled to death.

We got it up right before the first freeze. Its floor was brown river rock with a foot-wide perimeter of white river rock. Before the first plant went in, I hung little Christmas lights.

Even though such a thing as a greenhouse is not permitted in the neighborhood where we live now, our neighbors in Hyde Park told us they really enjoyed the sight of the twinkling lights on cold nights, with green leaves and flowers inside. It was truly life-enhancing to be able to go out and sit among flowers and succulents all winter long.

We don’t have the worst winters on the planet, of course. But they can be very colorless and drab; and when you are accustomed to the kind of tropi-desert environment we enjoy, even three months of leafless trees and flowerless gardens can be too much. I like pansies as much as the next person, but I’m not going to put too much energy into annuals. Besides, where do you sit?

My chair in the greenhouse was right in the middle, on the river-rock floor, next to the little space heater that kept the indoor weather mild even through our semi-annual (ok, annual. Ok, every few years’) snowfall.

I could prop my feet on a shelf, lean back, and read a book, something good to drink right by my side. Just outside, hardy birds came to the feeder then flew across the yard to the birdbath. I could watch it all unfold, snug as a bug.

For no good reason, I just love this old roasting pan full of succulents.

For a potting table, I chose an inexpensive dining room sideboard from Ikea. Slapped on three coats of polyurethane and had a lovely workbench, complete with drawers to dispense tools, string, and paper towels.

Overhead, a fairy on the moon I’d found at a metal arts fair down in Bourne – which, by the way, is a great place to go for a fair.

The greenhouse was also a great place to spend time with one little grandboy who was very enamored of rocks. We spent hours dipping stones in water so we could see how pretty they were. Turned out, they were all so pretty it was hard for Cooper not to take them all home in his pockets.

He’e quite a bit older and much bigger now, but rocks still comprise one of his favorite collections. And that’s saying a lot.

Last winter I had to cast about for a storage place for my plants that aren’t overly fond of cold weather. You can never really tell whether you’re going to have a winter of no freezes, or a winter of enough 13-degree days in a row to kill your clumping bamboo. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Too many bugs like to come into the house with plants, so the old shelves-across-the-living-room-windows system was out. I even debated buying a kit for a smaller greenhouse and digging a deep enough foundation that it wouldn’t be visible from the street. Too much work.

Then one day I was out at the Natural Gardener – imagine! – and saw a pop-up greenhouse that looked like it just might fit the bill. It looks like a little spaceship, which makes it behave very well in the wind. It’s equipped with zip-up windows and screens all the way around, and even has zippered holes along the bottom for electrical cords. That black line across the front is the metal frame for the canopy we need on the patio in summer.

If I had more discipline there would have been room for a chair, but plants win out over discipline every time. I swear I’m going to be giving away a lot of pencil cactus later this year, and I’m totally giving up on growing citrus. Swear.

But the succulents surely had a great winter.
While I regret not having left space for my chair and a book last year, the miniature greenhouse stood right outside the tall living room windows, so it was easy to see in. And there’s always next winter to plan for, a perfect pastime for the 100-degree days now pressing at the door.
So I miss the Best Little Greenhouse in Texas, but there are plenty of excellent qualities in my current gardening situation, so I can’t really complain. My friend Mary sent me a card recently, and as usual, she has captured my feelings to perfection.

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