January 8, 2017

Nothing Beats a Greenhouse in January

A store-bought hyacinth repotted into one of my home-made clay pots, helps boost my spirits. My bulbs won't be ready to force for a few weeks so a cheat bulb here and there is OK, don't you think? It's scent is transformative on a January day.

Now that the Holidays are over, and a long Christmas break has given me a bit of time to catch up on painting rooms in the house, as well as letting me put some good long work hours into the new kitchen (it's really beginning to look less like a construction zone!). Can you believe that I only made it out into the greenhouse once during the past two weeks of December? 

I've been spending time revisiting old gardening books once again (preparing for a secret book project), and while rereading  these 19th century gardening books I'm struck by how little things have changed if one owns a greenhouse, at least in New England. The same plants listed in mid-nineteenth century books as blooming in January or obtainable from a Boston plant source, are the same plants that do well in my greenhouse. In fact, in the 1860's, it was easier to acquires what we would define today as rare or unusual South African bulbs. Catalogs listed dozens of varieties and species of Lachenalia, Romulea, and even dozens of colors of Freesia.

After a 6 inch early January snowfall, as soon as the sun strikes the glass things begin to warm up the first South African bulbs, and mid-season camellias share their show with a colder one, outdoors.

We must remind ourselves that bulbs, seeds and dormant roots of recently discovered plants from South Africa, South America , Australia, Asia and elsewhere arrived via sailing ships in the great seaports of the East, and there were such things as mail order and catalogs. What didn't exist were wholesale growers, Dutch mega-resellers and large nurseries, so in many ways, a good book with advertisements or a gardening magazine was often the only way for a plant enthusiast to acquire stock. It still surprised me though, that such plants as the tuberous tropaeolum species, where all available from multiple sources while today, only one or two sources worldwide exist. I have three books on my desk now which list T. azureum, the rare blue flowered tropaeolum, while today, with a global market, I would be hard pressed to find one tuber for sale anywhere.

These shortest days of winter can be brutal on the heating bill, especially if it is bitter cold and overcast, but we've been blessed here in New England with some mild weather, and if it dipped into the single digits, as it did last night, a good sunny day warms things up quickly. In one way, the lack of bubble wrap helps the radiant heat effect, by allowing even the weaker early January sun to feel just a tiny bit stronger than it would be if its rays had to pass through the poly-layers of it's protective bubbles.

Inside, it's a bit like summer, which still amazed me. This is the magic one dreams of when one owns a greenhouse. Jasmine vines, lemons and other citrus here are blooming and fruiting as icy snow from the trees behind the greenhouse, falls onto the glass making a threatening noises. I know that I will have to remove those trees next year, as they are getting too large, and too fragile (they are Hemlock trees weak and suffering from the Wooly adelgid infestation). That loquat tree in the center is in full bloom.

Outside, the apple espalier trees are snug as a bug, sleeping under a new layer of powdery snow. These trees will be pruned in February, so for now, they look a bit shaggy with their long stems.

It's about 5 degrees outside, so even with a bright blue sky and sunshine, the snow on the greenhouse from last nights storm, is slow to thaw and melt. What has melted, refreezes on the sides. It always looks dangerous, but rarely will the snow build up more than a couple of inches, before it slides off.

Inside, the glass defrosts around 10 am, and for about 4 hours, the sunshine warms things up enough, and temperatures can reach 60 degrees. This Nerine sarniensis cross enjoys a sunny Sunday with no idea that on the other side of the glass, temperatures are 60 degrees colder.

On a high bench near the eaves of the greenhouse, where it is warmer, are a few blooming cuttings from a double Nasturtium known as 'Hermine Grashoff' - it cannot be raised from seed, as it is sterile, so collectors must propagate it vegetatively. The ice on the curved eaves is on the other side of the glass.

Camellias are the work horses in old greenhouses, thriving in the cold, damp spaces sometimes under benches or in large clay tubs. This Japanese variegated variety (lost tag again!), is lovely, and I was surprised to see so many blossoms on the plant. Each year my camellias blooms in a slightly different way, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, but most peak in February, around Valentines day.

The exhibition chrysanthemums are just about done for the season, and this how the pots should look for a month or two. Set under benches to spend their winter, a few cuttings could be struck even now, but most will be allowed to sprout stronger stems in February when things begin to warm, and these mother plants ( or stools)  will be discarded.

The first pots of Dutch bulbs have been moved to upper benches to force for winter blooms indoors, but the South African bulbs are entering their peak growth period. Every year, the bulb benches look slightly different, which maybe is a good thing. Here you can see Babiana species  (bottom left and center) Another pink Nerine sarniensis of unknown parentage, a precious primula x Kewiness (the plant with the silvery leaves in the center) and some Lacehenalia (with the speckled foliage) on the right, to name a few.

This is a new plant for me - a rare selection of the South African bulb Velteimia  bracteata. This is a form named with the unfortunately boring name 'Cream Form'. It is available from Telos Rare Bulbs but as most good plants are,  it isn't cheap. I  think I now have 4 selections in my collections, V. 'rose-alba'  (which looks like this bloom, but much smaller), V. 'Yellow Flame' (once rare, but becoming more available), The classic pink form and this 'Cream Form'. I still need V. capensis, but not sure that that it would enjoy the cool environment here.

Veltheimia ' Cream Form', showing the overall size of the plant. It is much larger than all of my other selections, and the foliage isn't rippled or wavy.

I always have enjoyed the winter blooming Kalanchoe species, particularly K. uniflora. This specimen should be in bloom within a few weeks and I can't wait for its warm, coral colored blooms which will last all winter.

A view of the front bulb bench, with a few tuberous tropaeolum beginning to vine around a balloon trellis, just about exactly like images in those 19th century gardening books.Of course, parlors in those days were wood fire heated, and allowed to drop down to 40 degrees at night, so the environment indoors made their indoor culture more successful.

This variegated lemon is extraordinary - it has pinkish fruit as well! Nearly ripe, I anticipate a very interesting marmalade this year.

The white marble was installed in the kitchen this week. I guess this project is about half complete. The painted cabinets in the back still need to be replaced and basically, everything that you can see here, is still the old kitchen. Maybe by June?

On the new side of the kitchen, I was able to spend some time with vintage books on the new concrete table top.  Having a new place to work and research is so delightful. It was a perfect way to spend a snowy January day.


  1. Must be great to have a garden where there is space for a greenhouse.
    Greatings from Holland

  2. As a kid, one of our greenhouses was excellent at generating long single icicles, three foot easy. Great for javelin throws, less great for sword fights, though that never stopped us.

  3. ah yes, even from mild-but-rainy l.a. i recognize that shiver of pleasure and relief of being in a greenhouse in winter. mmmmmmmm. yay - secret book project! and APPLE ESPALIERS!!!! : )

    1. I know! Shhhhhh. I am still preparing to pitch it to a few publishers!

  4. Beautiful greenhouse. I'm in the market for one. Would you mind sharing your pros and cons of this model, the dimensions, and the manufacturer? I'd be very grateful.

    1. Tracy - I am asked this question so often. I know that I really need to write that post! (I have written it a few time, but it then becomes so long!). Briefly, this greenhouse came from Texas Greenhouse Company, and overall, I am very pleased with the quality. There were some problems with the glass slipping out, but we resolved it mostly with silicone (which they don't recommend). The clips the supply are problematic in the north, with ice and snow knocking them off, but they may have resolved that. It is single pane glass, which I wanted, which, be prepared for a high heating bill! Feel free to ask me any specific questions. The cost (I really forget, as it was 2001, but I believe that in total it came to about 40k. Maybe 18k for the structure, then 5k for the furnace, 7k for the foundation, then factor in labor, (we did most of it ourselves), wiring and plumbing, etc. IT costs about $150 a week to heat (roughly, depending on sunshine and temps), can be as little as 60 a week to $350 a week if overcast, below zero and snowing. (I know, ouch). There are things that I would do differently, but I would probably still use the same manufacturer.

  5. Anonymous5:50 AM

    Happy New Year Matt,

    I never understand why 'new world' plants are so rare in USA culture. T.azureum is listed by five nurseries in UK [according to the RHS], although they won't all have it in stock at once. There are 'two markets' for plants in UK. The large retail 'sheds' and popular catalogues cater for the mass supply, but there is a thriving second market of specialist growers supplying the smaller but enthusiastic 'plantsman's' market. Initially The RHS Plantfinder book, published annually, connected supply and demand, but with the internet connecting 'rare' plants with 'rare plant growers' gets easier.

    If you are happy to grow from seed then incredibly uncommon stuff can be sourced internationally; and some the most exciting seed suppliers for my mild climate are in the USA.


    1. Chad - Well, probably because it's 'the UK'!. Oh, I wish I lived and could garden there. I have never tried T. azureum from seed (it is sometimes available here, but from UK sources). DO you know if I could strike cuttings? I do with other Trope's and last year, I had another species T. brachyceras break off of it's tuber, and I was able to root the main stem. I think I will try. I suppose the real problem here is who would ever grow these plants commercially. They are too fragile as houseplants, and there are too few collectors.

    2. Anonymous4:12 PM

      All the tuberous Tropaeolum that I have tried have rooted from stem cuttings. T.azureum is notorious for 'resting' for a year if upset. It usually grows away again the next year. Once in growth it bulks up its tubers quite fast so I've never needed to do cuttings.

      The UK is only the size of Alabama with a population of about 63 million [USA about 309 million]. Somehow we have more nurseries than the whole of the USA!

      I have a perennial form of Tropaeolum smithii [flowers are red rather than orange - I'm not 100% behind the ID] Would you like the three sees it set?


    3. Chad - seeds???? Oh yes! I am going to try cutting this year. I don't know why I haven't tried before, as I take cuttings on other tropes. T. azureum always takes a few year off for me (I may have even lost it this time, as I cannot find the pot). I have had one for about 12 years. It has only emerged 3 times. It had never bulked up - wonder what went wrong?

  6. Your greenhouse looks (and I bet smells) fabulous this time of year. How nice to have a slice of summer in the middle of winter! Congratulations on making progress on your kitchen project. You're an inspiration. Maybe one year we'll tackle the heinousness that is our kitchen. (130 year old house with a bad 1980's kitchen remodel.)

  7. Thanks Outlaw - the greenhouse does virtually stink (in the good way), but oh that kitchen - still much to be done. I am dealing with a remodel from 1940, 1970. 1980, 1999 and now this one. A little bit of everything.

  8. Anonymous11:38 AM

    dear matt
    thank you for replying to the question about costs associated with your greenhouse, and for the enticing (as usual) pix.
    can you also tell us what are your min/max temps at this time of year?
    am guessing stylin' in your new kitchen may offer stiff competition to the greenhouse in your future blog-posts. can't wait!
    all best,
    ~ 02568

    1. Minimum temp is between 38 and 40 deg (thermostat is set to 40). On sunny days, it can reach 65 or maybe 70, much warmer in February, when the solar effect really can raise the temps on a sunny day to 80 or 90. January is the toughest month. Or, long periods of overcast days with temperatures below 20 deg. F

  9. As a native of the tropics, I am totally mesmerized by your blog and photos! Your are recreating a tropical paradise in the dead of winter. I am ever so appreciative that we in this geographical region can delight ourselves year-round with the beauty you are growing in your greenhouse. I love the Camellia flower...and like Outlawgardener, I also congratulate you on your kitchen project. I like your kitchen as it is and would make minor changes to keep the vintage vibe. Great blog!

    1. Thank you Victoria! The vintage vibe won't be lost, believe me!

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Your greenhouse looks incredible! Do you ever lose power during the winter months? If so, what do you do to protect the plants. I live in CT and we lose power quite often so I've always figured that I would need a generator. I've been thinking about installing a greenhouse so a blog post would be very helpful.

    2. We have lost power, but since we live in Worcester (within the city limits) we have been lucky enough to get the power restored within a couple of hours. One problem we do have is the propane tank running out of fuel, usually when it is very cold (under 0 deg. F. and on a weekend). The greenhouse has frozen with some damage, but usually minor damage. Last year we had a short and the greenhouse temperature dropped down to 19 deg. It took hours to get it restored and I thought that we lost everything, but only a few plants froze.). Keeping plants dryer in the winter helps (a tip from the 19th c. books). We do keep a couple back-up propane portable heaters, but the small tanks only last a few hours. Electric space heaters help a bit on the coldest nights, but I haven't used them lately. Pray for sunny days when the power goes out, it helps. I am sure one of these days, we will have the ice storm of the century (we missed that big one a few years ago by only a few feet! The tops of our trees were iced. Hopefully, tomorrow won't be too bad.

  11. Anonymous4:18 PM



  12. john in cranston12:24 PM

    I always love reading posts of winter greenhouses. A way for me to live vicariously and not pay the heating bills...
    Beautiful, natch.

    Total off topic question: The saucer that the paper whites are sitting on (on the new beautiful island/counter), what is that? I see them around in posts and in person, but was it originally for plants? This is the kind of thing that keeps me from sleep at night.

    Thanks, be well

  13. What a fabulous tour. I'm completely jealous of your greenhouse and marvelous plants. I live in Minnesota where winters are beautiful, but too long. I've been giving more and more thought to a greenhouse or some type of winter growing structure. Thank you for the inspiration!

  14. Congrats on being listed a great gardening blog by a local nursery in DC:

  15. Lovely and amazing garden. I love your greenhouse.


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