Growing Outside In

Margaret Knight gets downright tropical in her Chappy greenhouse.

From inside my greenhouse I see the world outside: the chickadees flying back and forth, the clouds ambling past, a crow flapping its way above the treetops. The quiet is reflected in the stillness of the brown grass and gray, hibernating trees beyond the fence that surrounds my dormant summer garden. But inside, in a garden bed raised to knee level, there is a tiny field of vibrant green kale, Swiss chard, and New Zealand spinach. Red geraniums, orange and yellow nasturtiums, and the pungent purple spikes of rosemary grow in pots nearby. The sweet, earthy smell of living and decaying plants fills the air inside my glass sanctuary.

It’s late February, the high point of winter in my greenhouse, not because the plants are growing so well, but because the sun has risen high enough to be warm again after the dark of the year’s end. Against popular opinion,
I think February is a wonderful month: lots of sun, not much wind. Life can truly be gratifying on a sunny day. I lie on a pile of pillows in front of the French doors that open to my greenhouse with its blaze of green vegetables and brave red geraniums that never stop blooming, despite the dark and cold. The greenhouse is a huge factor in my enjoyment of winters now – I pretend I’m on a tropical isle whenever I can spend a sunny day at home.

When I started building my house, before I met my husband, I made sketches of a living room with a lawn instead of a rug. I wasn’t able to try that out. We got together and added on to the little house in one direction, and then spent fifteen years planning extensions off the other end – plans that always included a greenhouse. The dreams finally became a reality in the form of a ten-by-twenty-foot greenhouse attached to the south side of an addition. With the doors open to the house, the sun coming through the greenhouse can heat our living space for a good part of the day, even when it’s freezing. Vents in the top of the interior wall send heat to an upstairs bedroom, and the solid mass of the brick steps and wall of the growing bed retain the heat after dark. The greenhouse isn’t heated, but even in the coldest weather, only a few nasturtium leaves against a window have ever died.

I love to take care of this small, contained garden – the bed is only two-and-a-half by twenty feet. It’s much more manageable than my outside garden, which tends to become a patch of weeds and worm-eaten vegetables. I have the same growing plan for both, though – let the volunteers have the run of the place. Right now, probably 75 percent of what’s in my greenhouse has grown from plants I let go to seed. With the bed’s size, I can keep things under control, more or less.

I experimented with what would grow well the first few years and eventually let the cool-weather crops take over during three seasons. In summer, I sometimes plant basil and leave a few greens for the next winter. I have a seven-foot-high kale plant that looks like a Dr. Seuss tree, and a Swiss chard that looks like a miniature palm, each heading into their third winter.

One of the joys of my greenhouse is sharing my living space with other animals besides my husband, kids, and dog. A wood frog came to live for a couple of winters, and while it stayed, I’d have to be careful picking the chard because the frog sometimes curled up in the fold of a leaf. A little snake used to sneak in under the outside door, and one fall, I bought a couple of geckos to live there, but I hated having to purposefully feed them live crickets when the insect population died out in the middle of winter.

Unwanted critters come in too. One spring day I set new seed trays for my outdoor garden on the brick steps in the greenhouse. The next morning when I came to water, the larger seeds were all dug up and eaten. I felt as if the enemy forces of gardening had entered the inner sanctum. I set a mousetrap and caught a couple of plump mice before I tried planting again. Another time, I found a mouse hiding behind a bushy lettuce, so much at home that it didn’t even try to run away. I caught it under a pot like Mr. MacGregor in the Peter Rabbit story. In the fall, crickets chirp noisily until I rout them out, and grasshoppers eat big chunks out of the chard.

Any time of the year, it makes me happy to wander into the greenhouse with no particular purpose in mind and breathe in the earthy smell, see what’s growing, and maybe pick up a trowel and dig around for a few minutes. In the winter, if I want something green for dinner, I can pick a handful of the freshest vegetables it’s possible to obtain. I can decorate a cake with nasturtiums. I can give a friend a vase of red and white geraniums. When I am irritated or struck by cabin fever, if I spend a few minutes in the greenhouse, I feel my mood changing.

When I was little, I always loved terrariums – looking into that miniature green world contained inside a glass box. There are times, especially when the snow covers the ground, that I feel as if I’m inside a terrarium, and sometimes I’ve thought that the plants in this man-made environment are too subdued, too fragile without the elements of wind and rain to toughen them. Then my greenhouse starts to feel a little restrained with everything
under my control, and I miss the wildness of the world outside where the unexpected happens. Here, I play the role of the all-powerful and it’s a lot of responsibility. I think that’s partly why I like to let grow whatever wants to grow, because I feel more comfortable in the role of shepherd. Except for weeds – I like a little bit of control.