White Knuckle Greenhousing



Well, it happened. The killing frost. A thick, white sheet of microscopic ice shards cast across the valley. This is the longest I’ve gambled with the weather and my plants. Some are still outdoors. Some will actually suffer through it. That dracena, lonely amid its brown, wilted husks of Heliotrope. He’s a good segway from fall to winter greenery arrangements. It still looks a little classy when the mums have finished blooming. It reflects a fine starkness that seems to pair well with the bare branches.

I have a lot of tropical plants. I’m pretty sure that approximately the majority of anyone reading that just said, “ya think?!” I can look in just about any direction of any room, and there they are. Most of them are a manageable size and do fine scattered around the house on shelves. But I’ve got some really huge ones that just don’t fit in very well indoors. I’ve got a citrus tree that I didn’t really want to bring indoors, since it does much better as close to natural outdoor light as possible. I also have some passion flower vines that are really just a terrifying mess when I bring them in. They get spindly and leggy. This is the first year they’ve done really well, growing up the inner walls of the greenhouse. I also have a rosemary that I can’t imagine throwing in the compost heap, and I don’t want to bring it in.  So what do these brothers and sisters have in common? They are going to be part of my WHITE KNUCKLE WINTER EXPERIMENT!

I’ve described my greenhouse setup many times already, but today I’m going to tell you about the way we have decided to heat it. As you know, I have a small greenhouse inside the bubble tube I call the Mini Crystal. Since the Bubble tube’s walls are inflated, that provides a fair amount of insulation from the outdoors versus using a simple single-walled white plastic. Placing a smaller greenhouse inside of this greenhouse is hopefully going to increase the overnight lows to a tolerable level for these hardier tropicals. But I didn’t stop there.

Clip your passion flowers back hard, and don’t be shy! I only give them about 6″ to 1′ of trunk. The citrus pictured is a variegated pink lemon, that has only ever bore me one small lemon.

The overnight lows can go down to about -15 to -18 degrees celcius in the greenhouse. In the mini-crystal, however, I’m hoping to heat it so that it will maintain a cool 7-8 degrees celcius. These four plants I’ve chosen can handle short periods of cold, but not freezing temperatures.

Thermo.jpgMy thermostat that we are using for the experiment has been altered so that it can be used in a situation like this one. I’ve hung it up on the side of the greenhouse, and it can be programmed to go as low as 5 degrees. My husband is capable of electrical sorcery, so I will not bore you with the details of how he wired it up. It is not wired to the  greenhouse. It is instead wired to an extension cord so it can be removed and stored away as needed.

The heater we have chosen for it to activate is this oil-filled radiator. We did some minor experimentation last spring, but it struggled to maintain the desired temperatures overnight. After talking to some plumbing and electrical folk, the reason for that was I was trying to force my heater to pull 1500w of energy from a thermostat that is only capable of doling out 1000w.  So I’m turning down the dial to medium, which shouldn’t exceed 1000w of energy. That’s the experiment for this year.

The second step we are going to take is to create a heat sink with this plastic barrel filled with water. I have a few already, but we discovered a little late that the barrels here are too big to fit in the door, so we’re watching for other options to present themselves. In the heat of the day, the greenhouse, in winter, can get quite warm, a balmy 22+ degrees! It’s warm enough to have a coffee and kick off your shoes in there. That’s why Umberto and Otis (my two plastic flamingos who keep the winter morale up) stay here in the winter. When the water absorbs the heat from the sun, it should hopefully radiate that back into the air overnight. This will hopefully reduce the need for the heat to come on as often.

Next we wait for the overnight lows to reach the temperature needed to turn the heater on. Last night was the first night I noted it was time to begin. -2 overnight in there. Brrr.

If this works, it can mean all sorts of opportunities for winter storage out here. I will post an update later. I suspect the rosemary will winter perfectly fine, as it was planted in the ground in the greenhouse over the winter and only suffered minor dieback. The citrus, on the other hand, we will see.

That’s not all there is to be done in the greenhouse. It was kind of a fragmented and chaotic summer for us. There were desperate things beginning to appear. I had some surprise visits from spider mite and aphids. I had weeds to pull, and pots to organize.

So this fall I channeled my energies into getting the greenhouse “closed” for the winter. Here’s what a greenhouser (amateur I will add) would be looking at doing this fall for “fwinter” chores:

First things first, the cleaning process
– Weeding *drags feet*
– Determine where your “overwinter” spot will be for your hardy garden perennials, trees, shrubs etc. Clean it, weed it too, and start putting them into tidy rows (I’ve worked in nurseries, and this is an insult to the great things I’ve learned. This was a rush job, and I have so many different sizes and cultivars). I pull all the brown stuff, and stuff them together pot tight.
– Clean the workspace. All those tools get put away. All the surfaces made as tidy and bare as possible. I might come out here occasionally to do projects on warm days.
– Composts and trimmings all pulled out and thrown in the compost heap.
– Pack up all the fertilizers, liquids, and temperature sensitive things (and tropicals too) and bring them indoors so they don’t crack or split.
– Organize the pots. I did this, this is not fun. This is a good time to take inventory of what you have, and what you need, and make solemn vows that it will stay organized next year, and you won’t be fumbling through piles of pots, trying to find a certain size.
A lot of things in my pictures show a LOT of dust. This is best prevented if the ground was not a soil ground. In time, I will cover this either with sunbelt material or patio stone and it will hopefully keep things less coated with that old dust crust.

Things I did in the raised beds
– Pull stuff I’m done growing. I harvested the peppers pictured. The tomatoes are showing signs of succumbing to the freeze. I’ll be pulling those too.
– Might finally be time to harvest those turnips I wish were rutabagas, now that they’ve had a little freeze.
– Plant seeds! You bet. I’m really pushing it a bit late, but I sowed some peas with a faster harvest time, and I’ve also planted lettuce, spinach, radishes, more carrots, etc for the cold frame bed, which will be covered with glass panes very soon. These seedlings should do just fine right now. In the winter though, they will benefit from the panes’ protection, and the heat will radiate back from the soil warmed in the day. I’m still experimenting with this process, so I’ll share updates as the season goes on.

Ohh, that’s exciting! A beautiful row of radishes in November.

The last step? I’m not sure! I’ll probably bring my bistro set in here in a week or so with a few chairs. Last winter, we did some work out there on balmy february day. I think it got to about 22 degrees. If I can sit out in the sunshine this winter with a coffee, I will.

And that’s been a summary of my greenhousing. It’s a busy time for being a greenhouse owner. The rush will die down, and soon I’ll be retreating to the indoors and planning for next spring and dig out my favorite books. It’s going to be a little slow outside, so for a while, most of my posts will be houseplant, book, or product related until the spring.

Time to have a glass of wine. I did it. I survived garden season 2016.


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