Greening Up


I can understand why the idea of a conservatory or greenhouse space is so incredibly attractive.  I live in a climate that is inhospitable, even foul almost half the year-if you like growing plants, that is.  This room in the shop had no windows, but thanks to a used Lord and Burnham greenhouse from which I salvaged the roof, I have a green space.  It smells like warm dirt, moisture laden air, and plants-intoxicating.  Even when nothing is blooming, it still smells like life.  The climbing fig that covers two of the four walls is probably 10 years old now.  I had to have it, after seeing the hundred year old vines in the conservatory at Dunbarton Oaks.  I thought the shop had to have water and plants someplace every day-it’s why we do what we do.         

Though the weather is stubbornly refusing to give up winter and warm up, this room is warm and inviting.  The first of our favorite spring green plants have come in.  A single resident Wollemi pine lives happily in this space year round, even though we do not heat the space between January 15 and March 1.  I am not a huge fan of tropical plants in the house.  They always have that air of resignation about them; how theystruggle  to survive in poor light, and hot dry house heat.  This room offers good light, and protection from the elements.       

Elements?  No snow is allowed here.  No wind, no hail, no temperatures below 30, no ice.  The space is not at the mercy of too much rain, or too little.  We rarely have bugs in the winter-it is too chilly.  Most everything goes outdoors once the weather is nice.  We do have the occasional toad-how they find this room, I have no idea.  It is a space we look after, and it rewards us with a place of refuge from winter.  It is also a nursery-for plants that need hardening off.  These topiary lemon cypress just arrived from California.  Though they happily tolerate less than perfect conditions, they need to become acclimatized to the cold.  

These ivy topiary are lovely.  Though they require some work to maintain their beautiful form, they are otherwise little care.  A summer outdoors recuperating from being inside all winter they will appreciate.  They are a complete vision of a garden, in and of themselves.     

The bulb pots are coming on strong, having been moved to this space. We keep it at 55-60 degrees during the day, and 40-45 at night.  The room is helping to create an atmosphere of spring.  I have only participated in the design of 2 conservatories in my whole career.  They are expensive, they require loads of proper engineering, and they can be the devil to get working properly.    

But today I see why gardeners build them.  We have rosemary cones and single ball topiaries, lemon cypress in differing forms, and a collection of ferns.  Fresh green plants-oxygen for the heart and soul.  I asked Buck where we could have one.  We can’t, he said. Too expensive, too problematic, too big a heat bill.  It would be much easier to move to the shop greenhouse for the winter.     

The lemon cypress are not hardy in my zone, but they are easy to keep over.  They grow like weeds.  That lime green color is accompanied by a faint scent of lemon.  A collection of 6 inch pots-like a party.  I have no interest in a greenhouse space in July.  But October through March-wouldn’t it be lovely?   

In the lower left of this picture, a pair of 3 gallon sanseveria.  This black leaved lime-edged variety is quite stunning.  They would be so striking in a simple container in a very shady place, fringed with lime selaginella.  I can feel a fever coming on.  The greenhouse space is providing some welcome heat.

A Hot Spot For Cool Plants

I have a client with a vision that defies description.  Her vision well may be, is no doubt, visionary.  I have a history with her that spans quite a few years, but I am never ready for what might come next with her.  I have seen her collect the most amazing and esoteric objects-for both inside and out-and gone on to see her put it all together in a way that never crossed my mind.   A few years ago she had the idea to roof a rear terrace.  I was not prepared for a steel structure painted orange, and a dichroic glass roof.  As I have since learned, dichroic glass is layered with metal oxides.  Thus the sparkles that make for a little shade.  Dichroic glass-very reflective.  The roof, in no way symmetrical, in no way expected. 

It did not take long for her to have the idea to enclose the terrace with a roof space with glass walls. A conservatory, if you please. The upshot-a conservatory of the most un-conservatory sort you can imagine. New this winter-integral planter boxes made of marble.  A very visually active and sassy marble.  I went shopping for the plants.  Whenever anyone says home greenhouse to me, I cringe.  A working greenhouse is just that-lots and lots of work.  Professionals manage this with a steely dedication.  Most home greenhouses I have seen are neglected affairs.  The remains of holiday pointsettias stashed under the bench.  Struggling tropical plants.  I would not recommend them to a home enthusiast, unless they promise to live in that space.  Places you live in have a whole different feeling than places you visit.  My basement is a good example. This conservatory space-a space in which to live.  

The orange steel structure, and the marble floor-what plants would I choose? The dichroic glass makes for more shade than you would think.  A collection of black and silver alocasias-Black Velvet, Silver Arrow, and the very rare Alocasia Tigrina Superba seemed like a good idea.  They are a supporting cast to a particularly beautiful sanseveria-Bantel’s Sensation.  Sensational, indeed.  Grey, green and black-much like the marble, and the cast iron fireplace. 

A fabulous purple glazed sea urchin shaped pot from my client looks all the better for a planting of Selaginella “Ruby Red”.  Please note, It was not so easy to choose a plant for this partcular container. I have planted no end of green and lime selaginellas in pots-this variety is new to me.  I am falling for it-hard.  Little pots demand little growing plants.  Some horticultural relationships are about the idea of an equality of contributon.   As growing things never are at rest, a sensible start-little for little- makes for a reasonable approximation of equilibrium.  This is a fancy way of saying, match your plants to their environment, and watch what will come of it.       

My clients lives in the space-any chance they get. This entirely accounts for how compelling and lively a living space it is.  She has created an environment that is warm, provocative, and compelling.  I have been here to dinner on occasion-the room, the food, the music, and the conversation-magical.  Even with the winter light, there is a sense of life that makes for liftoff.  Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had happened in this room.  Make of this what you will.  

A second, and larger glazed sea urchin pot-I planted it solid with Escheveria Shaviana. Is this not a a happy relationship?  The color relationships and similar textures-very happy.  How do gardeners shop for plants?  For the flowers?  For the habit of the plant?  For the hardiness?  The designer in me shops for the visual relationships.  My background in the science of horticulture saves me from foolish choices most of the time-but not all of the time.  

Tillandsia Xerographica is a plant I had never seen before. They are strikingly silver grey.   Before trying to plant this extraordinary space, I would not have given them a moment’s notice.  This space-they belong.  Tillandsias are bromeliads.  They are commonly referred to as air plants.  A plant you can lay on the table, which will thrive with a generous misting twice a week-astonishing.  

This space is incredibly beautiful-my pictures do it no justice.  It is unlike how I think.  It is unlike what I usually see.  My client- she is a visionary girl.