Valerie with orchids grown in her greenhouse (in the background).

by Stan Cutler

Valerie, my wife, used to be an art teacher in Philadelphia public schools. When she retired, she spent the money from her accumulated sick leave for a mail order greenhouse kit. It arrived at our Germantown house in five, large cardboard boxes. The framing material is lightweight redwood, the panels are sheets of double thickness, clear polycarbonate plastic. It took a weekend to put together –seven-feet wide, 12-feet long.

It would be the perfect place to grow orchids in the winter.

On the day we moved to our Highland Avenue house, two years later, we hired a tow truck to transport the intact green house on the flatbed. It was quite a sight on Chew Avenue. But when we got it to Highland Avenue, we realized we were in trouble. The space between our new house and the twin next door is a bit less than seven feet, a circumstance we had not anticipated. The thing could not fit through the opening.

The property stretches from the house on Highland to its garage on Meade street, a hundred feet away. The yard is separated from its neighbors on either side by low chain link fences. In years to come, Valerie would find extraordinary uses for the fences. On that day, we lifted the greenhouse over the next-door neighbor’s fence facing Meade, carried it toward the house in his yard, then over the fence that separated our properties. Ta dah!  We put it near the house, which was a big mistake. 

The problem was purely aesthetic; the structure dominated our view of the yard. A year after we moved in, we relocated the greenhouse to the far end of the yard, near the garage. Relocating required extending the utilities underground for 70 feet.  Orchids ain’t easy.

A portable electric heater came with the kit. The greenhouse is not insulated – we needed another heater. After a winter’s worth of electric bills, we had a propane gas heater installed in the polycarbonate wall on the end of the greenhouse opposite the door. We decided to fire the heater at the new house with a PGW gas line. When we moved the greenhouse, we had to extend the pipe.  

Valerie waters her 50 or so specimens once a week with warm water mixed with fertilizer, requiring a hose attachment that sucks plant food from a bucket. Before we moved in, a plumber ran hot and cold water lines from the basement of the house to the spot we planned for the greenhouse to occupy. More pipe.

We ran a wire from the greenhouse back to the house for the alarm system. If the temperature in the greenhouse rises too high or drops too low, a high-pitched alarm sounds inside our house. It goes off if the gas heater has stopped working or if it’s a particularly sunny day and the thermostatically controlled exhaust fan can’t overcome the heat buildup. The alarm sounds like someone is stabbing a cat. If the greenhouse is overheated, Valerie climbs on a ladder and covers the roof and the sunny side with a twelve by fourteen-foot shade cloth.

Most orchids are tropical, requiring a minimum of ten hours of sunlight every day, so the timed lighting fixtures are high-tech, lightweight, broad bandwidth tubes that mimic the sun’s radiation. The electricity also powers a fogging mechanism because the plants absorb water through their exposed roots. And it powers fans that Valerie clamped to the wood frame in three corners of the greenhouse to spread the fog, equalize the temperature and keep sap-sucking insects from getting comfortable on the leaves. I had to install a circuit box to service the thermostats, alarm, humidistat, timers, fans, lights, and fogger.

At this point, you are probably thinking that we are nuts. I wouldn’t argue. Here’s why I support Valerie’s obsession. Most orchids flower during the winter as if they still remember the Southern hemisphere of their ancestors. When a plant’s buds are starting to open, Valerie drops a big plastic bag over it and carries it into the house. The bag keeps the orchid warm during the 15 second walk from the greenhouse to the back door. (Nuts!) Then she finds places for them, either in the kitchen, the bathroom, bedroom or living room. Most orchid flowers stay open for weeks at a time, some for over a month. There are vibrant, sculpted beauties all over the house from Thanksgiving to Mother’s Day. In January, we typically have a half-dozen specimens glorifying our bedroom.  Hers is a fine madness.   

Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.

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