January 23, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough… Build Greenhouses

The Amish have a wonderful custom. On a beautiful summer morning, twenty or so families gather together and they build a barn. While the men swing hammers and hoist beams, the women and children prepare a bountiful meal. It’s all done against a picture-perfect, bucolic background of farm fields filled with ripening wheat and puffy white clouds.
Yesterday morning I participated in a similar event. Well, there were a few differences. For one, the temperature was 13 degrees and there was a stiff wind that cut through you like a knife. The ground was frozen solid with large patches of ice and the bountiful meal consisted of donut holes from Dunkin’ Donuts. And, the structure was a greenhouse rather than a barn. Other than that, it was exactly the same.

Perhaps I should explain.

Paul Miskovsky is a landscaper of large repute who lives and works out on the Cape (Massachusetts alone has two ‘capes’ and America has hundreds, but around here, when you say, ‘the Cape’, you mean Cape Cod, but that’s a different topic.). Paul is also a friend and, if he asks you to help ‘pull plastic’ for a project, you don’t ask what the weather will be like. You just inquire what time you should be there. The project got put off twice because of the miserable weather that has plagued the region but, on Saturday morning, everything was in readiness.

You may be wondering at this point why a landscaper needs a greenhouse. The reason is: flower shows. Paul has historically exhibited at flower shows in the region and, to do so requires a lot of trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials, all in perfect bloom. Moreover, for every square foot of the aforementioned plant material, you had best have two more in reserve. That’s because the birch trees may or may not be fully leafed out and perhaps one rose bush in three will have the look you want. So, if you have a thousand-square-foot exhibit at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, you had best plan on three thousand square feet of plant material.

In previous years, Paul rented greenhouse space.
Here, he takes a visitor on a tour of the plant material
planned for use at the 2010 flower show.  Some trees
were so large they needed to be laid on their side and
rotated every few days to maintain proper shape.

Which just happens to be the size (or, more precisely, 3300 square feet) greenhouse Paul has built in Falmouth. Betty and I arrived at the appointed hour, 8:30, to find an enormous hooped structure, 100 feet long and 33 feet wide. The superstructure was already in place: dozens of massive concrete caissons to anchor the hoops and trusses and a large excavated pit to give the greenhouse enough height – 18 feet – to hold many trees upright.

What was needed was to ‘pull plastic’ – install the double layer of thick transparent sheets each more than 100 feet long and 70 feet wide – that would form the roof of the building. Bulldozers and Bobcats can do so much; when it comes time to put on the roof, it takes a dozen people. Some of the ‘pullers’ were Paul’s crew but most were friends and there were even a few customers helping out.

So, here is what we did: Six thick ropes were thrown across the steel superstructure and tied to bunched segments of the first sheet. When everything was connected, and with one man on either end of the roof to monitor the progress, one team of six pulled exactly in unison while the other team fed. It was slow work because a) the plastic could not be allowed to tear by snagging on something, and b) the sheet had no margin of error in terms of width. There were approximately four inches of leftover material on either side.

When the first sheet was temporarily secured, we pulled the second sheet. This went considerably faster because it needed only cover the first sheet – no snags or hidden faults to contend with. Then, almost anticlimactically, aluminum rods were hammered to hold the plastic in a narrow channel. Two men did this while the rest of us watched. (There was one hang up: the aluminum channel on the north side of the building had filled with ice because of the bitter cold and had to be thawed with butane blowtorches). But less than half an hour after the second sheet of plastic was pulled, the roof was in place.

Paul readies rhododentron for the 2010
Boston Flower & Garden Show.
Standing inside the structure inspires awe: 3300 square feet of sand, rock and ice that in a few days will be an 85 degree hothouse with 100% humidity. It will be filled with plants that, in two months, will head for Boston in sealed, climate-controlled truck to provide 75,000 show goers with five days of artificial spring at the end of a cruel New England winter.

When we were finished we stood inside drinking coffee and tea and munching on those donut holes. Paul thanked us for our help and congratulated us on a job well done. We were sheltered from the wind, and the weak sun shining through the plastic was already starting to warm up the interior.

It’s probably the only time I’ll ever be asked to build a greenhouse. But it’s a good thing to have on my curriculum vitae – just in case an Amish crew needs an extra pair of hands with a barn.

January 7, 2011

Hooray for Cyclamen!

Outside my window this afternoon is a world of white – a product of the Boxing Day Blizzard - punctuated by a dismal oak tree that for reasons outside of my understanding, hangs onto its limp, brown leaves.

Fortunately, indoors, I have a cacophony of never-ending color. Thank goodness for cyclamen.

Cyclamen, along with orchids and a few other tropicals, are the bright spots of a cold winter. If I may allowed a moment of anthropomorphism, they’re perky little plants that cheer me on as winter hunkers down and gets entrenched in New England.

The cyclamen that greet me each morning
If you don’t know cyclamen, head to your nearest garden center and get acquainted. They’re a European import that is more than welcome in any home. They produce prolific white, pink and purple flowers all winter long; seldom seem bothered by disease, and thrive indoors with little more than watering. Their leaves are a marvel of plant biology: a veritable roadmap on each one etched in green, black and white. We keep a clutch of cyclamen in our master bathroom where they greet us each morning. There are other groupings around the house, where ever there is a splash of sunlight and a welcome need for color.

They’re also durable. By April, their energy is spent (but by then, the first spring bulbs are up) and we consign our dozen or so cyclamen to the basement for six weeks of rest. Then, in mid-May, we un-pot them and plant them in out-of-the-way, shady spots in the garden. There, the bulbs (technically speaking, corms) gather strength and produce a few leaves. Before the first frost, we gently dig them up, re-pot them with a loose potting mix, and find them a window with good, filtered light. By the time Thanksgiving has passed, they’re back in flower. In case you think this migration is hard on the plants, we have one cyclamen that has made the pot-to-earth transition for considerably longer than a decade and is going strong.

Orchids are another winter pleaser. They’ve come a very long way in the past decade. Once orchids were rare, temperamental and outlandishly expensive. Today, tissue culture technology has made them readily available, especially phalaenopsis and dendrobium which adapt well to growing in homes. Ours occupy a tray in our upstairs hallway where a southeast-facing set of windows provide all-day light. We provide the moisture they need by resting the orchid pots on trays filled with a thin layer of pea gravel and water.

Orchids require more care than cyclamen. They need a reasonable amount of air circulation and higher humidity than most homes can provide in winter. They’re prone to spider mites, scale and aphids and so need to be watched (a little alcohol or soapy water is the best medicine). But the payoff is worth the effort: months of spectacular flowers on spikes and, miracle of miracles, re-blooms on plants that have been allowed to rest and gather energy.

The croton with its own skylight
My other, personal favorite winter plant is the croton. Its colorful, glossy tropical foliage can only be called gaudy when you see it in summer. In the winter, with all that miserable snow outside, it’s a bit of heavenly eye candy. I grew up in Florida with masses of crotons outside my bedroom window and I never appreciated them because “they didn’t bloom”. Well, I’ve learned my lesson. There are two in our home, both several feet high and I cherish their cacophony of color. All that’s missing is a mynah bird cawing in the distance.

Crotons want even moisture and lots of light. Ours have a skylight all to themselves and they reward us with a bountiful display of leaves. Yes, just leaves; but they’re red and yellow and dark green and gold and no two are alike. They make winter a little more bearable.

And, isn’t that what houseplants are for?