December 27, 2012

December Greenhouse Tour

A December bouquet completely from the greenhouse. 
As it snows outside today here in New England, I thought that I might share some images I took yesterday in my greenhouse - it will help me in justifying the heating costs, as seeing images in iPhoto just satisfies me as it makes everything look nicer than it really is. Don't get me wrong, I love my greenhouse, but sometimes, late at night while I am laying in bed, I stare awake looking at the cieling thinking ' I'm bored with all of the same plants, so why do I keep paying the heating bill every week? It's a reality many home greenhouse owners experience at one time or another I think. It's not that I have any regrets, but after 12 years of the same camellias, the same lemons, the same velthiemia, it all starts to feel more like part of the garden which I am not only heating, but watering and maintaining.

Velthiemia bracteata varieties are budding early this year. Looking like the perennial Red Hot Pokers, these South African bulbs make easy winter blooming house plants.

Yeah - that's it. The risk is if one doesn't edit a collection in a greenhouse, the experience can easily move quickly from 'experience and discovery' to maintenance.  I keep many plants just because I  feel obligated to keep them. The giant 48 inch tub with a giant gardenia that was given to me by a friend who kept it at an estate for 40 years - who would want to throw that out, yet for 12 years, I've hauled it into the greenhouse in the fall, and then back out again in the summer. The two giant standard bay laurels are nice, but they now fell merely decorative - architectural elements in the summer garden which would be missed if I left them outdoors, but somehow I only feel nostalgic about them, and the few leaves that they supply for the kitchen may help me keep them, but again, it becomes maintenance more than enjoyment.

Jasmine vines and other vines bud and bloom as the snow blows outside. Ahhhhh.

Each year I try to edit the greenhouse collection, but somehow old plants end up back in, sometimes just out of plain guilt. An old olive tree, which I have had for 15 years just ended up back in the greenhouse yesterday, as I felt bad about seeing it covered in snow, and yet still alive. Beside, my friend Abbie Zabar in New York City would never let me forget it, if I let my olives freeze. ( Abbie - I do have some nicer varieties trained to you precise topiary standards in the greenhouse - this was an old one, but I suppose, still worth saving).

Alpine Vireya Rhododendron plants - a new addition to my collection, which was a Christmas gift to myself, may make things more interesting this winter. These are all from a collection of forms found at high elevation in Borneo, and are crosses made with what I believe is the finest Vireya - Rhododendron macregoriae

This year I added some new plants. A few new Jasmine vines which I planted in the ground to crawl and creep up the posts. A few other vines which will be in bloom soon. Vines are tricky if not risky things to plant in a greenhouse, as they always become too aggressive, but I kind of like that look. If I don't like them after a few years, I can always cut them out. Since my greenhouse is 16 feet tall, vines and tall trees do very well, and all of that extra space above my head, is essentially wasted - and hey - that's where all of the heat is anyway!

Seeds from expeditions and seed collections from plant societies often need to experience cold temperatures for one or two winters before they germinate. These seeds have been in pots for two years from a Burma collection, and now that they have frozen for a second winter, are being brought into the greenhouse to grow,

Seeds are always helpful in making things more interesting.  I try to always plant some seeds in individual containers each autumn of unusual South African bulbs, Primroses from expeditions which cannot be purchased anywhere else, and seeds from seed collectors ( it helps that we know many individual collectors who often stay with us when in the US for speaker tours at botanic gardens and plant societies, so we sometimes get special seed gifts in the mail - nothing says Merry Christmas better than a wax envelope of rare Tibetan poppy seeds!).

Hard to find South African bulbs such as rare species forms of gladiolus such as these, must be sown from seed collected in the wild as they are impossible to find in the trade. This is one of the gifts that a home greenhouse offers.

I also try to amp things up by sowing some of my own seeds of rare plants. This may simply mean saving seeds from the many species of Cyclamen I keep in the sand beds, or sowing seeds from my own crosses made with South African bulbs which generally grow during the winter months.  Sometimes, more often than not, seeds self sow into other pots, which can be both a curse and a gift. Self sown seeds often planted by ants, or by messy greenhouse care, always seem to do better than seeds which I sow myself. Go figure.

Cyclamen seeds mature in May, and seeds must be sown fresh, before or just as the seed pods open. These C. hederifolium seedlings are from a white blooming form. The pot in the foreground is this years seed, the pot in the rear, is a year old. Dry seed will rarely germinate, but if sown fresh, and if the pots are kept dry until September, nearly 100% of the seeds will germinate. They need a summer of comfortable sleep in the soil before the cool weather of autumn tells them to grow.

My friend Jess will complain about this post saying that I am being too geeky again, but I think many of you, even if you are not a serious plant collector, might find some of these images interesting. Look, it's the only way you will learn, and believe me - there are plenty of blog posts out there telling you how to force paperwhites and amaryllis right now. It's time to grow a pair and raise the bar bit.

If one wants a collection of Cyclamen like this, sowing ones own seed will allow you to edit and select the forms with the most interesting foliage.
 Winter bulbs are the standbys of the winter greenhouse. Cyclamen species, some of which might grow in cold outdoor gardens, do look best when kept in a winter glasshouse. When grown at waist height, one can appreciate the fancy foliage patterns, for Cyclamen species have amazing patterns. I don't grow any of the hybrids one sees at florists and garden centers, but even they ( which are all developed from C. persicum - a tender species from Turkey) can make interesting displays in a cool sunroom or windowsill when not in bloom. If I were to buy florist cyclamen, and I am often tempted to, I admit to searching carefully for the ones with the most interesting foliage more than the flower color.

Lachenalia are starting to bloom in the greenhouse. The first species to bloom is always L. bulbifera, a red and purple flowered species from this easy-to-grow relative of the common hyacinth.

This year I added many new Lachenalia bulbs to the collection, and thanks to my friend Nicco (Nick de Rothschild who keeps an important collection in the UK), I now have many new species and varieties, and many L. aloides forms ( or new species?) that will be blooming soon. I think I added about ten new selections this year, so that will be something to look forward to.

South African bulbs such as Lachenalia species and Oxalis species dominate the winter greenhouse floral display.

 South African bulbs form a good part of my winter blooming bulb collection. Even on an overcast day, they look interesting. Once the sun comes out, the buds will open. Others, like many Lachenalia have curious foliage with speckles, pustules or colors that look great even when not in bloom.

The unusual blue-flower coleus, Coleus thyrsoideus looks like a weed, that is, until it bloom in a month or two. It's cobalt true-blue flowers were once common in Victorian glasshouses, but it is a plant rarely seen today. In the pot on the right, Shirley poppies that were self sown, grow, and may bloom under glass if I am lucky.

Other plants may seem like odd things to keep in pots, but once they are in bloom, it is clear why one keeps them. Often, seeds of summer annual and perennials self sow into pots which are kept outdoors for the summer, as I often place large pots and tubs of tender shrubs in the perennial border. During the winter months, it's not uncommon to find self sown hellebores, camellia and even poppies coming up in pots of acacia and other sub tropical plants that spend the summer outdoors, and the winter under glass.

A rare Brunsvigia bosmaniae bulb in a large tub has yet to bloom, even though the bulb is massive. My size 14 boot shows how thick the leaves are now, and even though I thought this pot was too large, now that it has filled it with roots, I now think I need to find even a larger pot.  You know what they say about big boots. Big bulbs.

Other plants I keep simply because they have yet to bloom, as many rare South African bulb plants can take 10 or 20 years to bloom, or, there are shrubs such as citrus that provide some produce for the kitchen, for cocktails or simply just for aroma therapy during the shortest days of the year. I mean, who really needs five plants of various citron, yet I can't seem to live without them, as they make me smile with their large, goofy fruit and their fragrant flowers in late winter.

This giant Citron is an unusual selection of Citrus medica, not commonly seen in many collections. A selection known as 'Turunji' it is surprisingly sweet and can be eaten like an apple ( I've never tried it, but this is what the Internet says!). 

The small Australian finger lime, will drop most of its fruit during the winter when kept in the greenhouse, but they will still ripen, even when found on the ground. Great in cocktails or deserts where the segments pop like pop rocks, its texture if often compared with caviar, but I think they taste like red ants. You know, they way red ants smell, not taste.


  1. I dare you to take a bite out that giant lemon. And take pics.

  2. Definitely worth the expense and bother as long as you find joy.

    I always look for the little common white cyclamen with the big fragrance among florists' cyclamen.

  3. LOL. Right, OK. Maybe I should try and take a bite out of that lemon - for authenticity! As for scented Cyclamen - I know! I love that nutmeg smell some of the florist varieties have. I once had a women blast me at a garden center for sniffing each one. She told me that Cyclamen had no scent.

  4. These are all sights for sore eyes on a wintry day. I can almost feel the humidity.

    Any winter bulb suggestions for us urban dwellers who don't have greenhouses?

  5. Anonymous5:36 PM

    Pleased you are well and able to return to your pottering about this winter, Your posts are very focused and I like that. It is so easy to amass unsuitable collections. I do admire your devotion to the old timers in your green house. I hope to sit down and write a list reference Matt's posts before I buy any more seeds or plants. Cheers!

  6. Well you are clearly still passionate about your collection if you have created such a detailed and informative post! Great work.

  7. I have no greenhouse, just a couple of workable windows to over winter in. That said, I do know your pain in that I look at that dracena, haworthia, or all those agave pups (that are now full on dogs) and wonder why. 10 years? that Clivia is pushing 15 years only blooming twice, and those seed raised oranges that will never bloom.
    But I keep them, embrace them, and they thrive. Now I know that if I had greenhouse that this "problem" would be multifold, with a heating bill.
    Oh well, time to go back to shovelling, then find room by the windows for 2 rosemaries and 8 more agaves: we are getting the big freeze tonight in Cranston RI. oof.

  8. Matt, you garden with the stamina of farmer, no wonder you need big boots.


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