Plantry transformation

Almost 10 years ago to the day I wrote about the little lopsided glassed-in entry porch that sold me on this house, and tentatively named it “the plantry.” I have filled it to the gills every fall since with tender plants and cuttings — and, of course, the name stuck.

Over the years Z improved it. He installed exterior doors that closed and an interior door with a view. He plumbed a spigot, hung a fan, and found a plug-in programmable thermostat that turns the space heater on automagically. And, over the last 10 years, he has wooed me with whispers about turning it into a “proper greenhouse.”

Other (less sexy) projects have taken precedence, such as replacing a furnace that coughed black smoke, putting a new roof on the rest of the house, reflooring the bathroom and kitchen, and installing a wood stove in the living room. (Super sexy, that one.) Being unhandy, I am the soul of patience — and gratitude. Obviously. 

This year the plantry roof, which we didn’t bother replacing back when the rest of the house was done, really started to look rough and Z got busy realizing my wildest greenhouse dreams. He started by cathedral-ing the ceiling, insulating the walls and spraying the interior bright white, all of which is a game changer light- and heat-wise. I contributed by thinning the herd of plants that needed to be moved in and out during the project, and by freeing up 2 more sets of IKEA metal shelves. (In library-speak, I “weeded” my gardening books. There’s probably another post in that.) The polycarbonate panels for the roof arrive at the end of the week — much later than originally anticipated and maybe too late to install before winter. That’s OK. The plantry is still and again my favorite room in the house, brighter and cozier than it ever was before. I’d be out there writing this right now if the living room stove wasn’t ablaze…

Down to earth – sem(pl)antics

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers July 6, 2016.

I had a friendly debate the other day (weeks ago now) with a fellow professional gardener that might have devolved into a heated argument if I hadn’t capitulated. We were talking about one of my favorite plants, African blue basil, which she described as an annual. I call it tender perennial. To-may-to, To-mah-to? It comes down to semantics.

What is an annual? The definition I use was written by botanists who base it on a plant’s life cycle. An annual is the sort of plant that grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies all in one growing season. My friend’s definition swings a bit wider to include anything that won’t survive winter in our gardens. I yielded the point because she’s not alone. You won’t find African blue basil in the perennial section at any nearby nursery.

African blue basil growing in the Mount Hope Farm cutting garden with nicotiana, feverfew, and snaps

But this is where it gets tricky and why I’m having trouble letting go: I bought mine a whole growing season or two ago. Life-cycle-wise, African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum ×basilicum) takes after its perennial parent. In its East African home climate, O. kilimandscharicum doesn’t die after flowering and setting seed. (Never mind that the hybrid child is sterile. That tiny detail is beside the point.) It grows on.

I use the term tender perennial where applicable because I rise to the challenge of keeping “annuals” alive inside over the winter and replanting them summer after summer.

Self-sowers add to the confusion. Plenty of botanically true annuals return year after year more reliably than some perfectly hardy perennials. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) falls into that category along with shiso (Perilla frutescens), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). I always think of Verbena bonariensis as an annual because in my garden it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies. Or does it? In fact, it’s a marginally hardy perennial (to Zone 7) and sometimes only dies back to the ground after frost, coming up fresh as a … well, not a daisy exactly, but as itself all over again the following summer. And whenever winter kills them, seedlings will pop up in the same spots and everywhere else besides.

I know another gardener who would give perennials that aren’t great at spreading from the roots, such as coneflower (Echinacea sp.), sea holly (Eryngium sp.) and heuchera, the qualifier “short-lived.” We might think twice about purchasing a plant with only three or so years to live. Then again, in general, only the sterile hybrid cultivars will poop out completely and need to be replaced (or not); given the chance, straight species self-sow their own succession.

When it comes to buying plants, most of us gardeners simply want to know exactly what to expect. But a lot of factors are involved in ultimate plant happiness and longevity; a certain amount of unpredictability is part of the challenge. If we didn’t enjoy that we wouldn’t bother bothering. I will always be happy to shell out for one-summer wonders because my garden wouldn’t be half as lively without annuals. And with any luck some might just turn out to be perennial.

The plantry

One of the things that “sold” this house for me (to me?) was a tiny enclosed south side entry porchlet/breezeway.  Nevermind that when we first looked at it, the entry was painted a bilious yellow and full of children’s shoes.  What I envisioned was a jungle – the greenhouse where my plants would live during the winter.   It’s perfectly bright with windows facing the three good directions.  On a sunny day during the winter it can warm up into the 70’s making it a perfectly passive solar heater which ratchets up the temperature of the whole house a degree or two when I leave the kitchen door open.  Night flips the coin to the chilly side.  The porch is uninsulated and although the windows have thermal panes, the 2 outside doors are bent and abused crappy metal screen doors with gappy sliding glass panes.

Lavadula dentata - I think a reverted variegated varietythe big guys - starring a ponderosa lemonLast fall I repainted the room – from the bilious yellow to a bilious green and obnoxious teal.  Stand back, Martha.  (Some other day I will try again to match the lovely colors in my head.)  This summer we bought a full glass paned kitchen door that lets the porch light in.  When we buy the winning ticket, I’ll ask Z to enlarge the porch and convert it to a full greenhouse with working vents and drains in the floor.  For now, I’d settle on replacing the outside doors.  And until then I’ll probably just “winterize” them again with blow dryer plastic and draft dodgers.

Before my $15 hi/low thermometer stopped working, it actually never registered lower than 37°F.  Even so, last year I kept an electric oil-filled radiator out there for the really cold nights (insurance that cost an extra $30/mo.).  And the plants seemed to thrive (read: survive).  Everything out there can take it cold – the rosemary, lavender, phormium, geraniums and various oddball New Zealand shrubberies prefer to be on the cold side rather than come all the way into the house (which even at 58-62° is too warm for them).  Good news is things like the agave, lemon, and orchid cactus don’t seem to mind it at all either.

I like to have a name for everything and have had trouble naming the plant room.  I certainly can’t be calling it that.  “The Vestibule” has a nice ring to it – not too high faluttin’ or too low – but only the dog dons vestments out there.  Porchlet?  No.  Entry?  yawn.  The polls are open for write-in candidates and until someone suggests a winner I will have to call it The Plantry.