When I lived on Elm Place in Nutley, New Jersey, my father and I simulated a much-needed greenhouse environment in the only really sunny window in our house -- a large picture window positioned right above our kitchen table. Dad built out the sill so that it measured a bit more than a foot wide, installed fluorescent lightbulbs directly above it, and placed all the seedlings we would need for the vegetable garden on the shelf until it was time to plant them in the prepared beds. Dad always dreamed of having a real greenhouse, at least a lean-to type attached to the back of the house, but with six children, college educations looming, and a limited income, the windowsill greenhouse remained the reality.
I carried on that greenhouse dream, and when we moved into Turkey Hill in Westport, Connecticut, my husband and I constructed our own version from a Lord & Burnham kit, attaching it to the garage. I loved the space, the light, and all the possibilities such a greenhouse offered, but I hoped that one day I would have a real working greenhouse, freestanding and well engineered, that would provide me with the opportunity to grow seedlings, establish plant collections, and overwinter tropical, ornamental garden plants.
It was not until I bought my farm in Bedford, New York, that I had enough space to build such a glasshouse. I worked with an architect and a good greenhouse company to build what I hoped would be a modern structure, but one that would resemble an old English plant conservatory, something like those I observed at Kew Gardens or in old botany books.
The result is a wonderful 100-foot-long greenhouse with end and entrance porticos and a real "head house," or gardener's house, attached, where supplies can be kept, seeds planted, soils mixed, and work desks and even a library of garden books housed. It is a very lively place nowadays. We perform seed planting in late winter; two of the large benches are devoted to growing the vegetable and flower seedlings. This is also the time when the orchids are in bloom and when the fancy-leaved begonias come into flower, or "do their stuff," as serious gardeners say.
In April, all the forced bulbs start to bloom for Easter and Sunday lunches, and then May to September, the greenhouse quiets down, as many of the plants are put outside to enjoy the summer conditions. At that time, it is readied for another winter-storage period.
During winter, maintenance is done on every plant -- repotting, dividing, disposing, and rejuvenating goes on every day -- and my own learning cycle continues. Greenhouse plant culture is an entirely different type of gardening from outdoor cultivation: Every plant species requires a different amount of light, moisture, and heat. Some plants will thrive and others will not, depending not so much on technology as on the color of one's thumb. Luckily, my thumb has become a pretty bright green over the years.
I love my greenhouse, and I love the relaxation and quietude it offers me when I step inside with a small pair of scissors, the dogs, and some time to putter, trim, prune, and enjoy!