Smiling through winter, an update

My hyacinths on the windowsill bring me happiness and joy.

After last week’s post, I implemented my seven ways to smile through winter plan. This quiet season covers at least five months of the year in Oklahoma so smiling through winter is vital. Like Demeter, we gardeners pine for Persephone until she returns from Hades, and green shoots push forth from the earth once again.

A yellow kalanchoe brightens my day as I sit on the sofa and read.
A yellow kalanchoe brightens my day as I sit on the sofa and read.

How did I implement my plan? First, I went to three four local stores–TLC Nursery, Whole Foods, Lowe’s and Under the Sun–and bought four or five six or seven indoor plants including a variegated airplane plant. The 1970s are alive and well my friends.

The airplane/spider plant is in the greenhouse video below. Consider it horticultural retail therapy.

New rugs for the living room and two orchids help too. I move the plants in and out of the windows so that they get light. You can't treat a plant like a piece of furniture.
New rugs for the living room and two orchids help too. I move the plants in and out of the windows so that they get light. You can’t treat a plant like a piece of furniture. It will die.

I returned home and transferred said plants into beautiful pots. Beautiful containers and sparkling glass do a lot to help improve a supermarket plant.

Beautiful containers and sparkling clean glass do a lot to improve a supermarket plant. Click To TweetI always keep decorative containers on hand, and I collect blue and white porcelain including the flow blue platters on the mantel, above. Beautiful containers and sparkling clean glass do a lot to improve a supermarket plant.

Joanna Gaines of Magnolia Market and Fixer Upper fame would agree. If you notice on the show, she cuts a lot twigs and branches and places them in glass vases. She even had cottonwood leaves in last night’s show! I followed her lead with this cotton boll arrangement in my dining room. That reminds me–I think I’ll grow cotton next year. Bustani Plant Farm carries an ornamental pink cotton.

Cotton bolls in a crystal vase ala Joanna Gaines and Fixer Upper. These remind me of stark winter.
Cotton bolls in a crystal vase a la Joanna Gaines and Fixer Upper. Looking at my Oklahoma sign in this photo reminds me I want to hang it above the china cabinet and retire that iron display rack for awhile.

I placed plants in spots where I could see them while I write, read books, clean house, etc. They, along with my forced bulbs, are in every window in my house. If you’d like to see more pictures of my indoor plants follow me on Instagram. I usually post once a day.

Click on the images in the gallery, below, to make them larger and see the captions.

I then decided to go outside and face my greenhouse. I haven’t written much about the greenhouse this winter because we had quite the early season disaster. My greenhouse is composed of wood and three-ply poly, so it swells and contracts depending upon the humidity. We’ve been very dry. Oklahoma is in a drought again. Of course, it is.

A huge cold front came through in December while we were away, and my son went out to check on things. God bless him for caring. If you don’t slam the greenhouse door hard enough, it can pop open especially when the air is very dry, The wind from the front nearly whipped the door off its hinges. We came home to the greenhouse standing wide open in 18-degree F. weather. Everything inside got either nipped by the cold wind, or frozen depending upon where items were inside. It was a scientific experiment in microclimates, and as in our gardens sometimes, there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the freezing. I lost several plants, and Mother Nature painfully pruned others. I’m grateful I put the coleus cuttings at the back of the greenhouse. They weren’t killed. However, my beautiful ‘Republic of Texas’ orange tree was so injured I lost half of it, the rest of the citrus were also burned, except surprisingly a kumquat on an elevated surface. The heater nearby must have kept that one warm enough.

To say I was sad about all of this would be an understatement. I was heartbroken, and after that first evaluation, I didn’t go outside and assess the damage again. I couldn’t face it, so Bill went out every couple of days and watered giving me reports. The orange tree already had ripening oranges on it when the storm hit. My beautiful dark red mandevilla died too. Maybe I can find a replacement at Under the Sun this spring. They carry the Sun Parasols® brand. Mine was a trial plant I’d overwintered twice. It was quite large.

After the post last week, I decided to go out and see what I could salvage. I took clippers in hand and began trimming away the orange tree’s dead limbs. The live video from Facebook, above, shows the results. Don’t you love how videos always catch you at your worst when they stop? Half the tree is gone, but of course, after I pruned the damaged bits, it began to perk up. I also took off the remaining oranges which did ripen but were also pithy from the freeze. As for the other trees, we’ll see if they put on a crop from their damaged blooms. It’s been warm enough this week I set the greenhouse top to open because nearby honeybees love to pollinate the citrus. One lesson I learned is there’s still a lot of good left in my greenhouse.

One lesson I learned is there's still a lot of good left in my greenhouse. Click To Tweet

The same is true about our world. You find truth in whatever you focus upon, good or bad. I choose to stand in the light.

I bought seeds this week. Because we’re having the regional daylily tour in June, I won’t plant the large vegetable/cutting garden this year. It’s too much to care for it, travel, have a wedding, get two children graduated, etc. I just can’t do it all. But, I wanted to show you these seeds from Hudson Valley Seed Company. I love their art packs. They are so beautiful. I bought their calendar too. It’s comprised of the art from the seed packets.

I’ve also kept doing videos for my YouTube channel, and as I wrote above, this is a live video on Facebook. I also read two books last week. If you’d like to know what I’m reading, follow me on Goodreads. I started a bullet journal. I’ll write a post about it another time.

I stepped up my exercise too. Thank goodness! I’m walking most days, but I also contacted a friend who is a trainer and asked her to create a weight training plan for me. I have osteopenia, and I definitely don’t want osteoporosis. Weight bearing exercise is all important.

That’s what I’ve done so far. What are you doing to improve your winter days?

Growing plants in the greenhouse

'Republic of Texas' orange tree that grows in the greenhouse over winter. The oranges are very good.

Have you ever wanted a greenhouse? Most obsessive gardeners do, and who could blame them? Growing plants in a greenhouse is one of those exquisite pleasures Victorian gardeners understood. A greenhouse or sunroom full of plants gets a gardener through the cold, dark days of winter.

The greenhouse and cold frames on a cool morning. Notice the condensation on the windows. Everything is nice and warm.
The greenhouse and cold frames on a cool morning. Notice the condensation on the windows. Everything inside is nice and warm.

This is the third winter for our greenhouse, and we’ve figured out a few things after the first two years of growing. Here are my greenhouse musings from last year when it was eternal summer all winter long. After reading these, you may be green with envy, but may I give you some advice before you order that freedom greenhouse kit like I did?

Inside the greenhouse, the scent is heavenly because the string of pearls plant blooms most of winter.
Inside the greenhouse, the scent is heavenly because the string of pearls plant blooms most of winter. Soon, I’ll start sweet pea seeds, and have lily of the valley pips blooming too.

First, if you order your kit to be shipped to your house, you’ll need to be there with a forklift and someone to put it together. My husband and son spent two weekends building the greenhouse. Some of the process is shown below.

Also, note that you need level ground for the vents to open and close. Since we live on a hill, we had to level the space first. That took some work too.

Greenhouses require a good and reliable heating system. As for ours, it’s all automatic up to a point. We have a small electric heater that we use for backup in case the propane runs out, and just before last week’s ice storm, the propane heater did quit working. After much troubleshooting, speculation and testing, we figured out the propane regulator was busted, probably because it got turned upside down, and water got into it. At first, we thought we were out of propane, but we checked and that wasn’t it. Then, we thought it was the heater so we bought another for approximately $250.00, but we were able to return it after replacing the regulator.

See how tall the plants have grown in the greenhouse.
The electric heater was at the end of the greenhouse for the first two winters, but I now need that space so we put it on the side.

The electric heater has an automatic thermostat. We set the propane heater on the lowest setting because it has a mechanical thermostat.

Propane heater for the greenhouse. Bill thinks he bought it a little large.
Propane heater for the greenhouse. It’s now three years old. See how we set it up on bricks to keep it out of water and off the cold floor?

We did run out of propane once last year which is why we have the backup electric heater. If the electricity goes out in a storm, propane is the backup plan.

We watch the condensation line on the propane tanks to see how much is left. We also have a gauge, but remember gauges break. You also must watch the condensation line, but it only appears when propane is burning. So, if you’re having a warm day, you won’t see it. We also have a thermometer we can read from the house so we know the temperature inside the greenhouse whenever we look out the kitchen door. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees, the tropical cuttings I took in fall probably won’t recover. Heat is the most important factor of the greenhouse operation. Normal temperatures run between 50 and 60 degrees F. I could make it warmer, but then, I’d spend more on fuel. I try to keep costs down.

Watering the tropicals in the greenhouse with my Haws Brass Watering Wand.
Watering the tropicals in the greenhouse with my Haws Brass Watering Wand.

Although I paid extra for them, the flood tables aren’t my favorite feature. You need a large tank sitting beneath the benches to flood the benches. As you can see in the photos above, I need this space for other things like pond plants now that we have a pond. We hired a company to bore under the driveway and tie in a water line to our well. Inside the greenhouse, we installed a frost free faucet and shortened a garden hose that reaches only to the cold frames outside. I then attached a Haws V360 All Brass 24-Inch Watering Wand with Ball Valve and Rose, an extravagance, but I love it. It wasn’t very expensive to bore under the driveway because we traded out the work with some friends. Bill said that at retail it would probably cost $200 or so. I can now flood the tables if I want with the want, or just spray the plants with water every few days. I do like how the flood tables hold the water beneath the plants for a period of time before it drains into the brick floor below.

These are the vent and flood table controls. I keep the vent controls turned off if the weather is very cold.
These are the vent and flood table controls. I keep the vent controls turned off if the weather is very cold.

Don’t build a greenhouse unless you have someone handy around to figure out what’s going on at any given time. Ice storms can make the vents that open on top of the roof stick and and tear up the gears inside. That was last year’s fun. Bill spent most of a cold winter’s day fixing the gears when that happened. If you’re expecting an ice or snow storm, or any extended cold period, go ahead and turn off the automatic vents. If they stay closed, you won’t tear up your greenhouse and will save money on heat. Also, the vent control batteries always seem to go out on the warmest day of the year, or if we have extended cloudy weather, i.e., most of February. The batteries are normally charged with a solar panel, but we have a small battery charger as backup. You don’t want your plants to fry or freeze.

Amaryllis soaking up the sunshine in the greenhouse. I want it to bloom by Christmas.
Amaryllis soaking up the sunshine in the greenhouse. I want it to bloom by Christmas.

Because the greenhouse is heated, you need to water plants every three or four days. One of the joys of greenhouse growing is the ability to stage how quickly forced bulbs grow. If they are growing too slowly in your house, you can always take them out to the greenhouse for a spurt of growth. All of the sunshine is captured by the greenhouse. Even though temperatures in your home are warmer, sunshine wins every time. I started my amaryllis late this year so I put several pots outside in the greenhouse to get a jump on things. I’m also growing paperwhites that don’t stink like ‘Ziva’–which I hate. This year I’m growing ‘Ariel,’ ‘Early Pearl,’ ‘Erlicheer,’ ‘Cheerfulness’ and ‘Nir.’ All are growing well except for ‘Early Pearl.’ I haven’t a clue why it’s not growing yet. I put it in the greenhouse to see if that will get things started. Here’s my other post on how to force bulbs. I’ve read that ‘Erlicheer,’ ‘Early Pearl’ and ‘Cheerfulness’ need two to three weeks of refrigeration before forcing so I did that. Here’s more information from Old House Gardens about forcing bulbs indoors. This winter I also bought prechilled lily of the valley pips to force indoors for later winter because I get a little sad after the holidays. It’s pricey, but well worth it for those of us who can’t grow these fragrant flowers outdoors.

About the bugs…a greenhouse environment is perfect for insect production too. I have trouble with fungus gnats, but my friend, Layanee, of Ledge and Gardens, suggested I put gravel on top of my soil to prevent them. I use chicken grit, and it helps. I also find black aphids on my citrus. When they show up in late winter, I drench the stems and leaves of the orange tree to drown them. After the foliage is dry, I then spray the tree with neem oil, or another organic insecticide. It keeps them down to a tolerable level, and I have oranges this year. The other big pest I have in the greenhouse are the mice. I use mouse traps to keep them from digging into larger plants and burrowing down into the soil. I like these Tomcat heavy duty mouse traps because I don’t have to touch dead mice. I find peanut butter to be the best bait.

'Republic of Texas' orange tree that grows in the greenhouse over winter. The oranges are very good.
‘Republic of Texas’ orange tree that grows in the greenhouse over winter. The oranges are very good.

What else would I tell someone about owning and operating a greenhouse? Before you build it, buy a kit that is two times larger than you think you’ll need. My greenhouse is always full to overflowing by the end of the season. I now want a Meyer lemon tree and a variegated Pink Lemonade tree, and, on Matt Mattus’ of Growing With Plants suggestion, a ‘Nagami’ kumquat to join my orange tree, but I don’t know where I’m going to put them. Bill says we’ll figure out someplace. I love that man.