What to do when you'd planned to go to El Dorado to see flowering witch hazels but a snowing, blowing deep freeze sends everyone scurrying for the safety of home?
Becky Miller was at home as she was supposed to be when I called her Tuesday afternoon at the height of the Blizzard of Oz (as they called it on Twitter). She graciously said I could come over and partake of the warm comfort of her greenhouse, which she'd e-mailed me about last winter.
I headed right over to her bungalow in Delano and got stuck in the snow; I was one of those people. Why is it that despite all the information you can get about any particular snowstorm, you rarely get quite the information you need about whether you should be driving to a particular place or not?
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This was obviously one of those rare occasions when I had received accurate information and should have followed it.
Fortunately, I got myself unstuck and proceeded to the Millers'. They greeted me in the charming house that they're renovating, and then we walked a short distance to the greenhouse. I could smell the wood fire as soon as Becky opened the door.
"We just put in a wood-burning stove, and it's doing really, really well," Becky told me. Her husband, Brent, is a night owl and feeds the fire with hedge before he goes to bed, 'round midnight, while Becky is an early bird and catches the wood duties at the crack of dawn.
"If it's sunny out it's 100 degrees in there. If it's cold like this ... it's about 40, 45 degrees right now."
It felt perfectly warm as we entered, in contrast to the storm pounding on the glass all around us, and I marveled as well as rejoiced to look down under the tables to see beets, onions, lettuce and Swiss chard growing in the real ground.
There were also tropical flowers including jasmine and brugmansia and oleander; artichokes that Becky's been growing for three years and hopes will finally fruit this year; overwintering annuals including geraniums and begonias; and dianthus, datura, marigold, love-lies-bleeding, amaranth and Egyptian sweet pea seedlings. Of the latter, she giggled, as if with a secret. "They're really pretty," she said. I couldn't find out anything about them, so they must be special.
"It's great to be able to go out there when the weather's like this and you have things in bloom," Becky had told me before I went over. "It's really nice. But it's really nice when the sun's out because ... you think about spring."
Becky's greenhouse has a warm story behind it. She had gardened for five years in an 8-foot-by-8-foot greenhouse that her father built her; then she met a man in Benjamin Hills who had a greenhouse that he hadn't used in three years. He offered to give it to Becky if she would move it. With the help of her father, a retired ironworker, she decided to go for it, and it was quite the process: It took three weeks to disassemble the 78 pieces of glass, metal frame, tables, fans, misters and wood boxed frames. Many photographs were taken to provide points of reference.
"I marked each piece of glass and frame to indicate which wall it belonged to, east, west and south," Becky e-mailed me last February, apparently not during a blizzard. "This was a lean-to model. All the aluminum pieces had to be cleaned and the old gummed adhesive removed. This was a tedious and time-consuming task. We worked on this each day for several hours a day, weather permitting."
It took five to six months over some cold months to put the whole thing back together, alongside one wall of the Millers' garage.
"There were 78 pieces of glass, and we only had to replace about a dozen," Becky says.
Now the Millers have plans to move the wood stove from the far end of the greenhouse to the entrance, so they can sit by the fire. They're thinking about bricking the garage wall to radiate more of the heat. She also insulates the glass with bubble wrap in the winter.
"Almost everything grows well at 70," Becky told me, and I had to agree, shrinking back into the cold.