Some of Us Just Never Learn

As we left the greenhouse saga begun in Be Careful What You Wish For, it was the winter of 1983-84 and I’d finally figured out a few ways to keep the orchids from either freezing to death or dying of thirst.

It turned out that the electric-heat problem solved itself just at the start of milder weather: the large heater burnt itself out entirely and gave up the ghost forever. So I entered the spring season full of good intentions regarding improvements needed to make the greenhouse energy-efficient. Because I had no desire to further subsidize our power company’s fiscal-crisis recovery, I decided to purchase an LP-gas heater that would be vented to the outside. As far as the actual improvements went, they were halted before they were even begun when my husband injured his leg in a boating mishap in late April (no, not on purpose…so he said) and when one is eight months pregnant, carpentry and moving benches are definitely out of the question; after my son was born, it was quite an achievement if the orchids even got watered! Before I knew it, it was Labor Day weekend again, the night temperatures had begun to drop into the 50sF, and there sat the greenhouse with no cover (the tarp had ripped to shreds), no additional insulation, and no heater.

A frantic call to one of the local propane-gas companies produced a salesman who seemed to know even less about gas heaters than I did. Another firm’s rep was more knowledgable but told me frankly that their heaters were not meant for greenhouse use; they would provide an LP tank and supply fill-ups, and would make the actual connections to a heater, but would not do a heater installation in my situation. I sat down and figured out that not only would I need to find a heater but would have to to call in a carpenter, an electrician and a plumber before the thing was even hooked up. My checkbook was clearly heading for another workout.

Finding the heater turned out to be the easiest part: a helpful fellow at a commercial nursery supply company had a Modine unit delivered to my door by Sept 25th. The lack of extra insulation necessitated an extra 8000 BTU capacity and needless to say, larger heaters carry larger price tags.

Next came Richie the Plumber to put in the gas pipeline… or so I hoped, since several phone calls went unanswered. It turned out that he was in the midst of a Big Job and couldn’t possibly do my work for at least a month. That was much too risky when the night temps were hitting the bottom of the 40sF, so he referred me to someone else who informed me that my chosen location for the heater would make servicing next to impossible unless all of the benches were rearranged so as to give the heater more room. That meant moving about 200 pots around in a big hurry. Finally the heater, copper gas line, and chimney were all in place – after four hours’ work. The rest should be easy, I thought.

Not likely! Our old friend Gary the Electrician (you remember him: the one who was able to hire a secretary out of what I’d paid him the previous year) took one look at the existing thermostat, which he himself had put in, and pronounced it unfit for use with a gas heater: Wrong type, he said. Naturally he could provide the correct type, so in went a new $50 thermostat, plus labor costs for that and for all of the new heater’s necessary wiring (probably enabling him to hire a second secretary).

Two down and one to go, I thought, and called the gas company while keeping my fingers crossed that the unusually mild late-October weather would continue. The gas man arrived soon after the newly-rich electrician had left, and promptly told me in great detail how many errors and omissions the plumber had committed: the chimney pipe was made of the wrong material, and where was the safety valve?? etc etc. Not to mention that the heater itself was designed to be hung from a ceiling (a fact that the greenhouse supply salesman had failed to mention) … not placed on a cinderblock floor-stand as I had it. There was no way that the aluminum greenhouse framing could support that monster, so all I could do was mumble “Well, do the best you can” and hope that my bank balance could survive this latest fiasco. It did, but just barely.

When everything was finally connected and completed, it was found that the heater failed to work at all. There was some sort of manufacturing defect, covered under warranty but replacements were on back order for 2-3 weeks. The result was that over 200 orchids had to be moved out of the greenhouse and back to the windowsills, floors, folding tables, and wherever else in the house that I could find room, while the entire heating system was ripped out and redone – in large part by a neighbor who turned out to be a retired heating contractor and who constructed an iron frame from which to hang the new heater – while I muttered imprecations about the lousy workmanship done these days by the so-called professionals.

I will admit that during the three years that I grew orchids in the greenhouse they did far better than they ever had indoors, even though I never was able to provide the right conditions for vandas which are happiest in places like Hawaii, Florida and southern California. The cattleyas were always hovering on the edge of disaster because of the low winter night temperatures and I simply had no room left for any dendrobiums. I did dabble in a few of the smaller cool growers such as miltonias and odontoglossums even though they sulked a bit in the August heat waves. But the phalaenopsis took to the greenhouse like ducks to water and during their second year there, one of them – bearing three sturdy spikes of 20+ perfect flowers each – eventually won an AM (Award of Merit) for me at an American Orchid Society judging.

Over the next several years I gradually moved away from orchids and toward perennial gardening, and the death of the third heater (again from overwork, in a particularly vicious winter) inspired me to convert the greenhouse to an unheated alpine house. Freed of the need for high humidity, I dumped several large bags of topsoil over the bluestone in the underbench trays and tucked in some maidenhair ferns and a flat of annual impatiens; they loved the shaded conditions and looked fantastic. I attached a trellis to the exterior and grew a morning glory or two up it each year to provide filtered light during the summer.

alpine house in 1988


The largest bench was converted into a miniature ‘scree bed’ in which I successfully flowered Lewisia cotyledon which would never have survived in my garden, and could appreciate such small gems as Erodium chamaedryoides (syn. reichardii) ‘Charm’ at waist-level and under controlled watering conditions.

scree bench in 1988

Various other plants were kept in pots – including a tender dwarf species rhody whose name escapes me at this late date – and it was an ideal place to harden off seedings. I also had my favorite blue-flowered (but tender here) vine, Tweedia caerulea, growing up an improvised trellis year round. Unfortunately, although the greenhouse survived one hurricane in 1985, a nor’easter in the mid-1990s caused damage that was simply too extensive/expensive to repair and so it was removed. And although I would not want a greenhouse again, I’m glad that I had the (sometimes-traumatic) learning experience!

  7 comments for “Some of Us Just Never Learn

  1. April 12, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Wow, what a story! Your greenhouse must have looked wonderful with so many beautiful orchids. Mine have to make do with the kitchen windowsill.
    I love the idea of growing alpines too. I was quite sad when I came to the end and found that the greenhouse is no more.

    • April 12, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      We would have repaired it if our homeowners insurance company hadn’t refused to cover the damage, claiming that the “appurtenant private structure” coverage did not apply because it was all-glass… and the glass coverage didn’t apply either, because it was not a “window”!

  2. Amy
    April 12, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    Oh my, what an experience…! I find myself thinking that it proves the point about growing plants adapted to the… umm… locale – outdoors or in! Actually I’m impressed you were able to turn the situation around and work with the alpines 😉

    • April 13, 2015 at 9:16 am

      It was more like desperation: “What can I grow that likes dryish cold winters, doesn’t need humidity and allows me to use the greenhouse year-round so as to justify all the expense and hassles?” LOL

  3. April 15, 2015 at 8:46 am

    That does sound traumatic, if I had gone through all that I would be bald from tearing my hair out. Congrats on that Award of Merit, though.

    • April 15, 2015 at 9:02 am

      Thanks, that was my first and only time at a judging — I was surprised at how nervous I was about what they would say! 🙂

  4. April 25, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    This is a story I’ll think of one day after I’ve made my own greenhouse mistake. Having faced good advice I’ll have only myself to blame!
    What an adventure though 🙂

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