Be Careful What You Wish For

(Recently, while sorting through some of my old scribblings and photos from the era of garden #1, I came across this and decided to bring it back into the light of day…as a cautionary tale, perhaps? 🙂  )

I think it’s fairly safe to assume that the dream of almost every windowsill grower is to someday have a greenhouse; at least the feeling occurs when one is gazing at some high-light-loving species covered in glorious bloom, along with the conviction that “If only I had a greenhouse, I could grow one of those.”

The same sentiment may also be present as one is carrying the 10th or 20th tray of windowsill pots to the sink for watering, or whilst mopping up the water which has overflowed the saucers and onto the livingroom floor: “If only I had a greenhouse, all the plants would be in one place and how much easier everything would be!” All in all, a greenhouse may seem the answer to every indoor grower’s prayer.

Wanna bet??

I was one of those ‘lucky’ windowsill growers who finally got her greenhouse [back in the mid-1980s at house/garden #1] after several years of accumulating nearly 100 orchids in almost every east and west window in the house – there was no southern exposure – and having assured my then-husband that the installation of two large bay windows would give me all the growing space I’d ever need and stop my incessant hinting for a greenhouse (they didn’t). The happy event was precipitated by two things: The arrival of eight laboratory flasks of my own phalaenopsis hybrids, containing 250 husky plantlets for which I had absolutely no room, simultaneously with the appearance of an ad in the local paper for an 8’x10’ freestanding greenhouse “with all the accessories” at a bargain price of $900. The accessories included two electric heaters, an exhaust fan, and two eight-foot benches. After all, what more would I need? 🙂

The only possible site for the greenhouse would cover about 60% of our backyard patio, which was an eastern exposure but I was not about to quibble at that point because something is better than nothing, right? The two days after it was delivered were devoted to cleaning every individual pane of absolutely filthy glass – none of which appeared to have ever been cleaned since the greenhouse was first built – and naturally it was a glass-to-ground model.

We will pass lightly over the trials and tribulations of constructing a perfectly level wooden base (the patio was sloped for drainage and made of solid concrete); the erection of the aluminum frame which in some places refused to fit together properly; the replacement of several panes of glass that inevitably broke in transit or cleaning; the discovery that there were not enough glazing clips, that the greenhouse had been made in England and the manufacturer was now out of business (a transatlantic phone call confirmed this); and that screens for the pop-up windows would need to be custom-made. All of this took place, most appropriately, over the 1983 Labor Day weekend.

My first qualm came when the electrician arrived to run a line from the house to the greenhouse, at which time I discovered that neither of the heaters supplied with the greenhouse were in working order nor repairable. Because there was no natural gas line in that neighborhood, and I refused to consider a kerosene heater because of the ethylene problem, I blithely purchased a large electric fan heater for $200 which would deliver the proper number of BTUs. This promptly required a new 220-volt line of its very own plus wiring for its thermostat, another 110-volt line for the exhaust fan and its thermostat, and several outlets for the fans which would be needed during the summertime. The electrician went home nearly $500 richer, and I felt secure for the winter.

Secure for one week, that is, at which time the brand new heater burnt out its coil from overwork and had to be replaced. As the winter progressed it became apparent that whenever the temperature dropped below 20°F, the heater could not keep the greenhouse much above 35°F-40°F… much too cold… and so an auxiliary electric heater was purchased but not before several freezes had cost the lives of several of the warmer-growing genera.

Apologies for the terrible photo, but this is a photo of an album photo that my dad took with his black-and-white film camera at the time.

Apologies for the terrible pictures; these are photos of album pics that my dad took in black and white.

Although I’d carefully computed the number of BTUs needed to maintain a temperature of 55°F in a single-glazed 8’x10’ structure, obviously either my calculator or the textbook had lied. Even a layer of bubble-pak painstakingly applied to the entire interior with double-faced tape was insufficient to prevent massive heat loss, especially in our area where the wind-chill factor can be 30 or 40 degrees’ worth. So another few hundred dollars was spent on a thick blue vinyl tarp which would hopefully insulate against the wintry blasts, but that meant rigging it up with several ropes so that it could be partly drawn back during the day to let in the sunlight  (such as there was) and dropped back down at sunset. This helped, but the inconvenience was considerable.

Speaking of inconvenience, it was discovered that it would be impossible to install a hose bib on the wall behind the greenhouse without ripping open about 25’ of interior wall, which I was told in no uncertain terms was absolutely not an option. The nearest outdoor spigot was so far away that a hose line would quickly freeze. Thus, watering had to be done by carrying pails of tepid water from the upstairs kitchen and then watering by hand – hardly an improvement over the carry-pots-to-sink method of my windowsill days! But I was still optimistic, thinking of all the lovely vandas, cattleyas and cymbidiums that I could look forward to blooming… if they survived the winter.

greenhouse 1983 b


Although the humidity of our waterfront area had kept my windowsill plants comfortable with no misting needed, I quickly discovered that the fan-powered electric heat in the greenhouse was resulting in noticeable dessication of leaves. The solid concrete floor was no help for ‘damping down’ and to have a constant trickle of water in the floor was impossible during the cold season. I located a company who could fabricate large deep aluminum trays to fit beneath the benches and hold water…. which promptly grew a bountiful crop of algae, even in our grey northern winter light. (If anyone is curious, algicide does a very fast and dramatic job of corroding an aluminum surface.) So the trays were duly scrubbed out and then filled with 300 lbs of crushed bluestone to hold moisture while the multiple gallons of delivered-via-buckets hot water drained slowly off via a freshly-drilled hole.

Naturally, heating a greenhouse electrically cannot be expected to be inexpensive and thus it was with some trepidation that I opened the power company’s bill that covered the period from Nov 15th to Jan 15th. Imagine my relief when I saw a bottom line of only $150 which was not much greater than our normal cost for that time of year. Obviously, I said to myself, electric heating costs are not nearly as bad as they are reputed to be!

When the next statement arrived, covering the period from Jan 15th to March 15th, I assumed the same and simply left it for my husband to open with the rest of the bills. The resulting verbal explosion that evening must surely have been heard in all three neighboring states; suffice it to say that were I not in what used to be called “a delicate condition” I might well have found myself, my orchids and my greenhouse pitched headlong into the bay. The total amount due was very close to eight hundred dollars – the previous billing was only an estimated reading, while this one was The Real Thing. Clearly, something would have to be done about the situation before the onset of the following winter. But what??

(this sordid tale continues in Some of Us Just Never Learn)

  10 comments for “Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. April 10, 2015 at 11:24 am

    I have fingers crossed that there is a happy end to this story!

    • April 10, 2015 at 3:41 pm

      Even though it reads like ‘The Perils of Pauline’? 😉 (not that I’m old enough to remember THAT, of course, lol)

  2. Amy
    April 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Holding my breath… and hoping the finale includes survival of at least SOME of the orchids!

  3. April 10, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    It seems like the biggest disasters make for the best stories. No one cares that the turkey was perfect, they always want to laugh at the year the table collapsed and the dog ran off with the ham!
    But I do hope your story has a happy ending. What a learning experience so far!

    • April 11, 2015 at 9:40 am

      The media has operated on the bad news/good story principle for years, LOL

  4. April 10, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    You’re making me feel a little better about not having a greenhouse.

  5. April 14, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Okay…you were holding out on me…you are a gifted storyteller! 🙂

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