October 24, 2016

Autumn Portraits in a Conservatory

Shaggy elegance or shabby chic? This exhibition mum which I've been training all summer by pinching and removing side shoots to allow only a giant, single bloom,  is really performing now in the greenhouse. 'The variety, called 'Paint Box', is available from Kings Mums as a cutting early in the spring.

The autumn glasshouse reinvigorates my gardening passions causing me to seriously rethink if I really even enjoy outdoor gardening in the summer, especially given this past summers drought and heat here in New England.  The greenhouse makes gardening feel fresh and new, as the seasons change and the approaching cold weather means that it is once again packed with plants. Fragrant, damp and feeling alive, it's a second spring, in a way. Certainly a second spring literally, as spring blooming bulbs from the southern hemisphere begin to emerge, but also because fall blooming heirlooms - the old fashioned conservatory shrubs, potted winter blooming trees and shrubs and certainly the tall and cascading exhibition chrysanthemums from Japan and China come into bloom.

Experiencing a greenhouse in full autumn glory is a rare thing in the 21st century. A time when the idea of a 'greenhouse' is either limited to a plastic hoop house on a farm, or a sterile commercial structure of twipolycarbonate at a home center, and at that, it is more likely to be packed with rows of 'hardy mums' for bedding out in that disposable way, or pallets of rock salt and a few mark-down shrubs as room is being made for Christmas Tree's.  For many, an autumn or early winter greenhouse, which should be a place of wonder, has become something rather depressing.

The fact that a home greenhouse is a luxury item doesn't escape me, and although I sometimes wonder why they are not more popular in the US (as they are in the UK), the realities quickly become apparent once it snows. Heating costs are high, and maintenance costs often keep the fantasy of a greenhouse in ones back yard, just that - a fantasy. But I do wonder if glass houses at home, in the American back yard couldn't become a reality - even if barely heated, not unlike the glasshouses of a hundred years ago? In these structures, often kept just above freezing, many things can still be raised if the foundation is deep, and the soil exposed. Nature has a way of creating a moist, damp environment - a pit house, a place where scented violets, camellias and other cold tolerant plants can thrive.

Greenhouses like mine are kept at temperatures just above freezing, often dropping to near freezing on the coldest of winter nights, it still brings life to that long, cold season. One scented with Osmanthus, the fragrant olive so omnipresent in old greenhouse in the north, along with a seemingly endless supply of pink, red and white winter-blooming camellias. Right now? It's all about the big, fancy exhibition chrysanthemums and countless varieties of South African bulbs. Enjoy.

As I kick-off this new season of gardening under glass, I can't help but be reminded of the old estate greenhouses here in the North East. Any book about gardening in the 1800's offers a glimpse of just how common a home greenhouse once was. The conservatory was essential to many, if not to raise pineapples and lemons for the winter kitchen, then to force beds of freesias, ranunculus and for tender shrubs to augment floral arrangement for the home.  I so enjoy reading about the same plants that Lincoln or Longfellow may have experienced -  the tender Asian butterfly bushe that filled the bouquets in fireplace heated parlours and winter weddings, the trays of forced lily of the valley for the Holidays and the Saint Valentines Day traditional tussie mussie of scented Parma violets.  Even clay pots of Lachenalia - the Cape Hyacinth, which was more common in 1850 than it is today as a windowsill winter blooming bulb harks back to a time when one only had time to appreciate plants between the stresses and labor of another era.

Large yellow incurves and other mums are blooming, but I am fussing a little less with them this year. Just trying to get a few varieties which I have not grown yet, to bloom.

People often ask "Why do you bother?" when they see or read about these plants hidden behind the hedges and fences where I live, but these  are all simple the rare experiences I seek.  I suppose I don't need to defend this luxury, for I truly can barely afford it. The sacrifices are many. A house peeling without paint, weeds and trees which need to be cut down, older used cars and a never ending heating bill which keeps one storing ramen for those 'just in case' overdraws at the bank. Greenhouses are not cheep,  but they do offer more than just flowers. I suppose the cliche is that they are medicine for the soul. Maybe so so they can also be stressful, a constant worry that the fuel will run out, as it undoubtedly will often on that coldest night of the year, but somehow, their therapeutic benefits out weigh the negatives, in so many ways.

One of the shaggier giants from England will hopefully open before mildew gets the best of it, but if not, I think it is quite nice as it is. It's almost 7 feet tall, and this bud is larger than a softball already.

Nerine sarniensis seedlings are so colorful, not one is ugly. They grow from bulbs just like amaryllis, which they are related to - a bulb which sits halfway into the soil in pots, but these are a bit more challenging to grow well. Rarely seen today, even at botanic gardens, each year I cherish my collection which now has grown to over a hundred bulbs which originally came from both the Exbury collection in England, as well as from Sir Peter Smithers in Switzerland.

Even though the idea of a conservatory may seem to be a relic of the past, I can't help it but try to recreate this experience in my own greenhouse.  It's a constant journey, an exploration, really. Sourcing antique and old plant material can addicting, as all collecting can be, but keeping such collections and watching them grow, both in rarity and in number, is very special. It's true, I sometimes am embarrassed to share these oft repetitive experiences here on these pages, but I feel that someone you really don't mind. 

Here are a few pictures of what is now blooming in the greenhouse if only because my post on digging and dividing a growing collection of dahlias, is still being composed.

This neuron is nearly purple, and so bright, that the color is difficult to capture with a camera.

If you've never seen Nerine sarniensis before, don't feel bad. This insanity of color,mostly in the pink, salmon and coral range, is special.  Only a handful of collectors seem to have any of the named varieties, so I am reluctant to share or sell any (for now!). 

A blush  toned Nerine sarniensis  is an old estate variety from the well known DeRothchilds. The name, now lost only adds to it's romance, like a lost painting or a rare wine with a label which has decayed. 

While visiting Longwood Gardens one time, I saw a large clay pot in one of their conservatories with an X Amarcrinum planted in it. An artificial cross between an amaryllis and a Crinum. Now, I have one and it blooms every autumn in a large, Guy Wolf pot in the greenhouse. So fragrant, it's a bit like cotton candy.

It's been a bit of a mad rush to try and get everything moved back into the greenhouse this year, but the camellias can stay outdoors for another month or so. They can handle freezing temperatures, sometimes as low as 20 degrees F, but I do want to avoid the pots from freezing, as this is often the thing that kills potted camellias. 

I know that I shared this Narcissus serotinus in bud, in my last post, but I can't help but show it again - reserved only for the supergeeky, this native of southern Europe is a bulb so rare in the trade, that is is only available from one or two sources overseas.  Now, after ten years, I have three buds coming from my two bulbs. Does this mean seed, perhaps?

Outside the greenhouse, some self seeded annuals are still blooming near the foundation such as this Nicotiana langsdorfii, which has been self seeding now for nearly 12 years. There are many selections, some with larger blossoms and perhaps worthy of propagating, particularly one which is still in bloom, and 5 feet tall.

Outside, woody culinary herbs can remain which includes all of the sages, thymes, lavender, rosemary pots and bay laurels. These will be moved back into the cold greenhouse around Thanksgiving, in late November.

The harsh violet Callicarpa is fine for some, but I'm just not a fan. It;s color is magical, but a bit too Las Vegas for me. Don;t worry, I grow it too, but it's difficult to work into most schemes. My choice is this, the all white 'alba'  form.  If we get a late freeze, it remains white well into November. If not, it does turn brown.
Planted along with the Japanese bamboo, Sasa veitchii ( it's a runner - beware! But since I can't get rid of it, I have to pull a Tim Gunn and 'make it work'). Together, this combo looks stunning. The edges of the foliage on this low growing bamboo dies back a half inch or so,  to a brilliant white, which starts around November first.
In a couple of weeks, this motif will look amazing.


  1. Hi Matt, I am very impressed with your garden, and loving all the pictures. Have to say.. amazing job.. I was wondering did you ever grow anything indoor?

    1. It's funny that you ask. For a few years after building the greenhouse, we decided not to have houseplants - to only bring in plants as specimen plants when they look good. Well, that only lasted a few years. Now, the house is full of plants again. Mostly begonias, palms and plants which require warmer winter temperatures. There is no escape!!!

    2. I see, but from what I see on the pictures, this is just wow. Love it.. I have planted some vegetables indoor. But seeing these pictures, I want to do flowers now. I think it depends all on the nourishing.. Do you have any recommendation which flowers to go for?

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  3. I dream of a greenhouse. Actually, I should say, I'm planning for a greenhouse. I know all of the negatives: the heating bills, the cleaning, the part where we'd have to run electrical and water to the location where I plan to put it, and none of that makes me want it any less. I do wish they were a little more commonplace in the U.S., as perhaps it would be a little easier and a little less expensive to get a nice one. But it's a plan.

    1. Even though they have many downsides, I have never regretted building one. There will be a day when I cannot heat it, and then, I can convert it into a winter garden, I suppose.

  4. Anonymous5:17 PM

    What a wonderful post! I understand what you say about the heating costs as a significant downside of a greenhouse. Have you thought of a ground battery system, I'm in the middle of experimenting with that idea in the greenhouse I built (but its warmer here, just off of Seattle)

    1. I have not however, I have the ground open to the soil, and the foundation (with French drains) dips down 6 feet into the ground, as I have trees planted in the soil. They way it is constructed right now, I believe that the soil keeps the greenhouse a bit warmer (I know this as when the fuel runs out, solar heat and/or radiant heat from the ground keeps the temperatures at around 25 deg. F. But here in Worcester, the ground in most winters freezes at a depth of about 1 -2 feet. The single pane glass also is not efficient at all, so that doesn't help.

  5. Your flowers are a dream, as always!


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