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Gardening In A Greenhouse

I wear a parka to cross the porch and make my way to the door of my greenhouse.

As I step in, the smell of damp soil transports me to my favorite season; growing season. The parka gets tossed to a bench as gardening therapy begins. I see the coleus seedlings are ready to be transplanted and notice that my tomato plants look splendid. I inhale the distinctive tomato aroma as I inspect their nice thick stems. They've been getting the right amount of light. The Aeonium arboreum succulent has nearly doubled in size over the winter.

It used to be that between November and late January my gardening was reduced to flipping through seed catalogs and doing landscape drawings of gardens to be planted in the spring. Short days - cold and grey - kept my mood down in the cellar. Plants I'd fallen in love with perished in below freezing weather. Unlike summer, I couldn't pick a salad for dinner or snip a few herbs to add to soup. All the greens I served my family had traveled many miles before finding their way to our plates.

A small house built of aluminum and sturdy polycarbonate changed all this.

There was a time I'd pondered becoming a greenhouse grower. Life directed me to writing, but the allure of growing year-round stuck with me. One day it dawned on me. I needed a greenhouse at home.

The word 'need', for me, really wasn't a stretch. Nurturing plants and growing a portion of my own food has become a habit that keeps me rooted and smiling. My home greenhouse is my cold weather sanctuary.

While a wonderful warm, well-lit haven and mood enhancer, the greenhouse has other attributes. It allows me to stretch the growing season in both spring and fall. I can keep and protect tender plants in the coldest parts of the winter.

My greenhouse habits have become routine over three years. As fall settles in and nighttime temperatures start to dip, I start to move prized plants into the greenhouse. Plants that would not be hardy in my zone, like Abutilon or Brugmansia, are perfectly happy in a lukewarm greenhouse in winter. I've pinched back large colorful coleus and held them in the greenhouse over winter to pop out in spring at a bold size. Perennials started from seed have a chance to beef up their root systems the first year if babied in the mild greenhouse environment.

It's a personal choice, but I chose not to intensely heat my greenhouse. I have a small electric heater with a thermostat attached and I leave it at about 55 degrees. To utilize a home greenhouse the way a commercial grower might, would require lots of additional light, heat and air circulation. I find natural light and cool temperatures perfectly suits growing in my small greenhouse.

My greenhouse sits close to a masonry wall, which acts as protection and provides some passive solar heating. The protection and sun keep the greenhouse comfortable to me and my plants much of the late fall and late winter. This set up is perfect for overwintering tender plants and growing cool season greens that need less light like spinach and lettuces. Herbs like thyme, cilantro and parsley happily romp in the greenhouse, even during the shortest days of winter. Loosely blanketing the greens and herbs with lightweight clear plastic helps to keep them snug during the harshest cold spells.

Many of our favorite cool season veggies can be grown in a greenhouse during the winter. But space is something to take into consideration. One broccoli plant takes up the space three good trays of lettuce might inhabit.

Once the days start getting longer, seed starting begins in earnest. I use heat mats and domes around my germination trays in my greenhouse. Once the plants emerge, some growers add extra light, but I find plants thrive in natural, and slowly lengthening, late-winter sunlight. Fans are turned on to simulate breeze and gently prepare seedlings for garden conditions. Good air circulation prevents many common plant diseases.

Come late spring, all my new and overwintered plants slowly make their way out of the greenhouse as the gardens get planted for the season. The greenhouse becomes garden command central where I store seeds and sketches and journals needed to properly launch garden operations for the season. Once real heat sets in, I close up the greenhouse so it can naturally heat sterilize. Soon, it's ready, and fall planting begins. And the cycle begins again.

A small house built of aluminum and sturdy, clear polycarbonate, nurtures and protects my plants and my mood. One well-loved greenhouse extends the growing season and extends my joy.

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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • Trees and shrubs are the framework for creating spectacular gardens. They also provide a respite from the heat of summer, enliven the fall with exceptional foliage and add interest in the winter when most gardens are void of blooms. Plan now to add a flowering tree or two to your landscape this spring. If you wait to buy when the trees are in bloom, it may be too late to find a good selection.

    • Magnolias - available in sizes to suit most gardens with blooms of white, yellow, pink to purple.
    • Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) - it isn't spring without this stellar native tree with blooms of white, pink and red.
    • Chestnuts/Buckeyes (Aesculus) - Beautiful and the Red Buckeye (A. pavia) is a hummingbird magnet.
    • Cherry (Prunus) - too many to mention, sensational bloom and fall foliage.
    • Princess Tree (Paulowinia tormentosa)- quick growing with lilac blooms and incredibly huge leaves.