January 8, 2015


TO anyone who lives in a cold climate with a greenhouse, as freeze is inevitable. Why they always happen on the coldest night of the year is beyond me, but for what ever reason, the heater always blows up during an epic blizzard, glass breaks during an ice storm or it just plain runs out of fuel during an arctic vortex, as it did for us last year. This morning, I awoke to temperatures which made the morning national news ( -6º without windchill), and when I looked out at the greenhouse at 5:00 am in the dark, I could see that it was completely white with frost - never a good sign.

At 5:15 am, it didn't look good. Single pane glass, tender plants and -5º just isn't a good mix. I gave up.

I am not good with these sort of things. I mean, I am a realist, or a fatalist - regardless, I just turned and started to make my coffee, and then watched the weather for a bit, ignoring the facts since - well, there just isn't much I could do about it at this point. At least, that's how my head works. I was not about to run out and start hauling tender tropicals through -5º F weather as that would surely kill them, even in the short run to the warmer house. What was done, was done. I didn't real defeated, just a little 'done with it'.

By sunrise, the entire greenhouse what covered in frost - never a good sign, as usually the glass is clear near the ridge. it looks like it is crying, doesn't it?

By 7:00 am I stood in the kitchen with my coffee in my hand, stareing through the window looked to see if the furnace was perhaps on, and that due to the insanely cold weather, that for some strange meteorological reason, there was no steam emerging from the exhaust. That inside that single pane glass house, all of the plants were indeed fine, and it was 70º and balmy. After about 17 minutes of standing there watching ( yes, it I timed it), reality began to sink in and all hopes for a miracle faded.

These are the things that make keeping a greenhouse stressful - cold, frigid nights, running out of fuel - everyone who owns a greenhouse has their own horror stories of loosing everything, entire collections, plants that were collected from all over the world - and for me, a massive collection of plants which can sometimes seem like a burden, but at the same time, valuable and difficult to replace, many being in the collection for 15 years or more.

Our Calla lilies suffered significan freeze damage, but I think that their roots are fine, and I am confidant that they will regenerate new growth once cut back.

Thanks to Joe who woke up at that point, and ran out in his slippers, fiddling with the switches and thermostats, not all was lost - for he said that it was 20º in the greenhouse, the pots were just starting to freeze, and for some strange and magical reason, many of the plants looked fine, but the truth was that it was -5º outside, and the temperature was dropping quickly.

Camellias are very hardy, perhaps so hardy that I could grow them in the greenhouse planted in the ground without any heat at all, but the flowers on many get damaged easily. This Higo was frozen solid.

We called our gas company ( Suburban Propane) who are now, I am convinced, the best guys out there, as they rushed out at analyzed the situation within an hour. In the mean time Joe made me run to Home Depot to buy a couple propane heathers that were 200,000 btu's and they were able to bring the greenhouse back to a balmy 75º. Our gas men analyzed the problem and felt that our furnace was broken, ordering a new part which may or may not be in stock, and the left. We waited, with our propane space heaters on, and the sunshine which helped rewarm the greenhouse. We had to move a few benches, many pots and tubs of plants in order to make way for the gas men who would be installing a new blower, and by noon everything was moved,  and continued to wait.

Many of the plants in the collection would not mind a good freeze, this Narcissus cantabricus was frozen crisp, but thawed out nicely in the January Sun. It is native to the high, alpine meadows in Morocco's Atlas mountains.

While making lunch in the kitchen, I noticed steam emerging from the greenhouse, and thought that perhaps one of the heaters over-heated, but then I saw that the furnace had magically restarted. Strange.
They lights too, had come on in the greenhouse, all of which are on separate electrical lines, but nothing was working earlier even though the meters that the gas men used told them that we did at least have power coming to the furnace.

Velthiemias always surprise me - I was certain that I lost these this time, as the leaves were so frozen that they appeared transparent - like a head of iceberg lettuce that accidentally was placed in the freezer. Once the sun thawed the greenhouse, they became green and alive again. Magic.

This is becoming a long story which surely no one really wants to read, so I will shorten it. After finding an electrician who come come right away for an emergency call, and who thankfully travelled out from Boston just at dusk, ( Thanks so much James! You are AWESOME!) we discovered that the problem ( he discovered that the problem….) was just a plug which rusted, got wet and somehow triggered the furnace to short - or something like that, I clearly know nothing about electricity.

The tuberous tropeaeolum also survived the hard freeze, and these looked so tender and small, that I didn't even bother to carry the pot into the house. By the end of the day, they looked as they would have looked on a warm, day in May.

The surprising fact here is that it looks like most of the plants have survived, even though at 7:30 am the temperature inside the greenhouse was 18ºF. My greenhouse has frozen three times now, at least, frozen to low temperatures that were below 25º F, and each time I am so surprised to see how many plants survive, especially given that many  plants freeze and die in a frost when outside. The reason so many survive is that most of the plants in the collection come from either areas of the world which experiences extreme temperatures, such as the deserts or alpine areas, or they come from South Africa, Chile, cold areas of China or New Zealand.

Some plants are native to cold altitudes, yet still from tropical climates. The Vireya are alpine forms of rhododendrons from Mount Kinabalu in Borneo - but they grow at such a high elevation that they can handle light frosts. Only the pedicels on these plants were damaged.

Plants are also kept somewhat dry, which helps the cells stretch a bit when a freeze happens. Amazingly, it appears that we only lost a handful of plants, and we are grateful to everyone who helped or offered to help haul plants into the house today. Thanks to Bob and his assistant from Suburban Propane in Rochdale Ma who drove out first thing, thanks to the ladies in the office there too - you deserve lots of chocolates! Many thanks to Glen Lord who stood by on call for most of the day offering to help us move everything into the house, as he has helped us before, and thanks to James Holske our new electrician who truly saved the day with his skills in sleuthing out what the problem was.

This species of Vireya is more alpine in nature that most of my other forms, and the only damage appears to be frozen and wilted new, tender growth. The flowers were still fine.

Australian vines like these hardenbergia violaceae came through with no damage at all - with many plants, as long as the roots or pots don't freeze, all is well. These are planted in the ground, which remained cold, but did not freeze.

Succulents behave differently with frosts, most can handle such freezes well if they are dry, or wilted. This Aeonium was pulled out of its pot in October and just set on the ground, where I found it frozen solid with little hope of recovery, but it looked fine - no longer transparent and turgid again by nightfall.

Begonias were another story, most suffered some damage, but many froze partially, with half of the plant wilted and the other half still alive. Whether they will all survive is yet to be discovered.

I hate to share this all with you, but since many of you follow our dog's lives on this blog too, I am.

Yesterday we were told that our sweet Fergus has cancer, and only has a little time to live with us. His lungs have nodules throughout them and it has spread to organs. He started coughing this weekend, yet appeared so healthy after some dental work two weeks ago.

We have decided of course to not prolong any suffering and opted to not treat him other than with pain medication and some steroids. He is is super good Fergie spirits, full of energy and hungry, but coughing terribly at times. Today was a good day for him, no coughs which we feel was due to the steroids, but we've been told that it could be a matter of days or at best, a month or two. He is 12 years old, and surely a senior, but as many of you who have beloved pets, one is never really ever ready for this. He did chase a squirrel today.


  1. Fergie. We love you!!

  2. All this is painful to read but I take heart that the freeze was short-lived, which makes a difference in plants returning from the apparent dead.

    I am saddened to hear about the dog's illness. I agree with comfort measures. Prepared, we are never ready.

  3. So sorry to hear you went through this, events like this are always disasters but they are also EXTREMELY instructive. A few years back I received a bunch of begonia cuttings from a friend who'd had a similar mishap with her own greenhouse; it went to 16 degrees inside for several hours, yet several of the plants that she thought were dead ended up coming back. I have tested them outdoors, in the ground, to verify their hardiness and I now have a bunch of begonias to use in my breeding that nobody ever thought were the least bit hardy.

  4. P.S. I'm so sorry to hear about Fergus. I've been through this with 2 elderly cats in recent years, and I know how difficult it is because our "pets" truly are family members, but it sounds like he's had a long life, and a good one.

  5. oh such a sad post, and sad start to the new year which is unfortunately shared by many, for other reasons. so sorry about Fergus, and the plants. lost a cat to cancer under very similar circumstances. you have all my sympathy it's an awful waiting game. hope it will be an excuse to shower him with affection and special treats in the meantime.

    1. Thanks M. Paradis, but our pain is nothing compared with what people in your country is dealing with. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and those affected by this awful tradgedy. "Je suis Charlie!"

  6. Hello Matt. I am so glad you were able to save most of your plants. My Hardenbergia violaceae, which grows outdoors, weathered several days in the low 20's a few years ago and bounced right back in spring, although it didn't flower that year.

    I am so sorry to hear about Fergus. Even when they have lived a long life, it is seldom long enough for us who love them.

  7. Thank you Noelle. I think our Hardenbergia survived quite well, it is in full bloom now, as they bloom here in greenhouses during the winter. I have a book from 1805 which mentions them blooming in estate greenhouses outside of Boston during January. I think it's interesting that they actually had an Australian plant in cultivation in 1805, obviously those whaling ships travelled the world. Fergus is doing fine, hungry and playing like a puppy these past two days, but obviously, it wont' be long.

  8. Narcissus8:16 PM

    Thank you for this so poignant post--circle of life and all that nonsense.....ahhh, I feel for you and Fergus. We are as tutors or coaches or friends to our plants, but spiritual kin with our dogs. I am glad so many plants pulled through.

  9. I am so terribly sorry to read about Fergus' illness. I have, as you said, followed him on the blog. Our dogs mean more to us that people know. My husband once remarked after the loss of our first dog how short his life seemed yet how bright he shined. May the coming days be sweet and the hardest ones be brief.

  10. Amazing. Wait until warm weather. I have a clump of spider plants which have survived outside now for 3 years. They come back from the roots.

    Oh, Fergus. I worked at North Carolina State University vet school hospital for sometime. Its never easy learning losing someone in your life. Take care.

  11. Bad luck on several counts, Matt. So sorry to hear of your beloved pet's illness. Enjoy what time you have left with him; I am convinced we meet our loved ones again (yes; even our animal friends). We can hope.

    As for the plants; well, you will save all you can.

  12. Sorry for your hardships.


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