Day 281: a greenhouse for all

A glasshouse is a glorious thing. A greenhouse – which might be largely glass, but could just as well have windows of polycarbonate – is the next best thing, and there’s something rather wonderful about cramming them full of frost-tender plants at this time of year, a kind of fuggy Aladdin’s cave of barely-snoozing plant life…

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Day 43: greenhouse repairs

The wind howls through the gaps in the greenhouse, reminding me that the structure needs some attention…

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Notes from the greenhouse

I have discovered that autumn sown sweet peas germinate far more reliably when they’re not being eaten by mice. Either science or philosophy might have led me to such a conclusion. The first might have encouraged me to consider whether there’s something about the digestive system of a rodent that disagrees with the awakening metabolism of the embryonic legume, and then to back up my hypothesis with empirical evidence. But it was the philosophical route that led me to my epiphany, via a chance observation I was in a position to make of an existential crisis being sufferred by the seeds in question. One afternoon, I would plant them. The next morning, they were not there.

And at the very point at which the foregoing musings ran through my mind, as I stood surveying the contents of the greenhouse staging with condensation dripping on my head from the newly installed tent of bubble wrap, I came to an inescapable conclusion. Watching too many reruns of Frasier on Amazon Prime (guilty as charged) can turn you into a fearful windbag, even in your own head.

So, having managed to silence my internal Kelsey Grammer, I considered what I knew for sure. Clearly, there were mice in the greenhouse. This was no great surprise, as the little buggers have been running amok in the kitchen and living room recently, gleefully ignoring the ultrasonic gadgets we’ve plugged in around the place to deter them from doing just that, and running rings around Bill, who clearly wasn’t designed to catch anything smaller than a fox. That they’d shown up in the greenhouse sooner or later was a fairly safe bet. A quick search online revealed that mice are well known to view sweet pea seeds as a tasty autumnal treat, but sadly the proferred solution of bringing the seed trays into the house for the first few weeks was not going to be of much help. A temporary fix was to get hold of more mouse traps – the humane kind – which I discovered are so-called as, not only do they fail to cause injury or death to the furry critters, but they also provide them with hours of amusement and free food. Our mice were clearly familiar with the workings of these devices, eschewing the front entrance and opting instead to gnaw through several millimetres of thick, hard plastic to get at the bait from the outside. Still, I reasoned, the expensive organic peanut butter I was lavishly spreading inside the traps might at least distract them from noshing on my peas, so it was worth a try. In the meantime, I was merrily pushing replacement seeds into the holes left by the rootling rodents – whatever seeds I had left over, and by the second or third time I’d been through this process, all hope at organisation had been abandoned, so we shall just have to wait till the plants flower before we can work out what the varieties are. To be honest, distracting the mice for long enough for seedlings to appear was now the main objective, I can worry about what plant goes where once I’ve actually got some plants.

The peanut butter and rubbish trap combination didn’t seem to be working that well. I’d resow the seeds, set the traps, and then next day find the tell-tale holes in the top of the compost, the abandoned outer husk of the seed coat and, oddly, the exploded fruit of Solanum pseudocapiscum, which had been inexplicably appearing on the surface of the root-trainers for the past few weeks, in spite of the bedding plants being several feet away. Apparently the mice hadn’t worked out that, like many members of the nightshade family, the Jerusalem Cherry is rather toxic; it certainly didn’t seem to have stopped them from chucking the fruit about inside the greenhouse, which was doubly annoying as it’s the fruit that makes this an interesting winter container plant – you certainly wouldn’t plant it for the foliage. I was beginning to wonder if I actually had a small resident gang of gremlins.

After some days of frustration, I hit upon a rather simple solution; I put the clear lids on the root trainers. That may seem blindinlgy obvious, but there are several reasons why I’d discounted that simple step, not least that, having observed with what ease a mouse is able to gnaw through hard plastic to get at what it wants, I was under no illusions that the flimsy material of the lid would offer any resistance. In addition to this, I knew that once the seedlings had grown achieved a height of an inch or so, I’d need to take the lid off, placing the infant plants at the mercy of the mice once more. What I hadn’t factored in is that what the mice must find so tempting about a sweet pea seed is the tight little package of energy-rich carbohydrates stuffed into its case, the endosperm which nourishes the embryonic plant. However, once the seed germinates and the seedling begins to draw upon this energy, presumably the seeds themselves become less attractive to scavenging beasties. This, I can only hope, is what the mice have realised and I, at last, have some (not as many as I’d hoped) sweet pea seedlings.

I’m now seriously thinking about making a welcoming home for a feral cat.

Notes from the greenhouse

Mission Control has been looking a little sorry for itself of late. A wet winter and a less than watertight structure have taken their toll on the end of the greenhouse where I station myself to sow seeds, pot on, check the temperature, listen to the radio and drink tea (although the last two activities invariably occur wherever I find myself in the garden). This isn’t to say I’ve not been using it – far from it – but ‘making do’ has very much been the order of the day, as I’ve watched with a growing consciousness of my own inadequacy the seemingly endless stream of tweets testifying to the ruthless efficiency of my gardening friends, all of whom have appear to have cleaned, repaired and rearranged their greenhouses in good time over winter in preparation for the new season. Social media is wonderful for providing support and encouragement, particularly I’ve found in the gardening world. Just sometimes, it reminds me that I’m still very much a journeyman at this game.

My greenhouse, of course, couldn’t agree more. The leaky roof has decided that the main cascade is shown to its greatest advantage when falling directly over the potting bench, the plywood surface of which became badly waterstained, the grain not so much raised as mountainous. The max/min/in/out thermometer has been staring at me blankly for weeks, due in part to the absence of a sensible battery compartment, necessitating the irksome removal of six fiddly screws and a rubber gasket just to discover what manner of exhausted power source lurks within. It doesn't sound like much of an obstacle to overcome, but by the time I’ve made the short journey along the wavy grass path back to the house, I've passed several other more pressing things-which-need-doing along the way, and all thoughts of batteries and screwdrivers have been forgotten.

Clearly some TLC was in order, and so making the most of the extra hours of light we’re now enjoying, the potting bench has now had a rub down and several fresh coats of Briwax, which ought to see it through for a while longer. The thermometer is restored to an operational state (triple A cells in there, who’d have thought? I was expecting those annoying watch batteries), and I’ve built a new shelf above the bench for essentials so I can keep the working surface clear. Suddenly, it feels like a much more efficient operation.

I’ve also got a plan to add in a lower level of staging to create a third tier – there won’t be the height for anything taller than moderately sized seedlings, but then there won’t be the light levels for anything that’s exhausted its onboard store of energy, and by the time the first pairs of true leaves are unfurled and seeking out the sun I’ll be needing to pot them on anyway. It will just give me an extra (slight) defence from the mollusc army, though it is tempting to clad the vertical surfaces in copper. Now there’s a thought... but perhaps I’m getting carried away.

If the weekend stays sufficiently dry, I shall attack the roof seam with some silicone, a slightly fiddly process as I need to do this from the outside rather than from below to prevent the water from gathering between the roof timbers and causing them to rot. I’d rather be sowing seeds.

Whats growing in the greenhouse this month

Sweet peas in root trainers. Sown these into Carbon Gold GroChar seed compost, which I think might have been a bad idea due to the length of time they’ll be in there –they’re beginning to show signs of nutrient deficiency. Silly me; I’ve given them a shot or two of Maxicrop seaweed-based plant tonic and will get them into the ground in a few days.

Tomatoes in modules – these need potting on now. A snail got up onto the staging and munched all the 'Gardeners Delight'. Only one of the measley eight-in-a-packet 'Red Robin' have germinated (a new variety for containers), so I’d better look after this. All the 'Moneymaker' look good.

Cleomes – germination rate rather good, and potted on now into 9cm square pots. These were also looking a bit yellow (also sown in GroChar seed compost. I think it might only be good if you’re sowing into seed trays and pricking out fairly swiftly after germination, I tend to sow into modules and so need more food for the seedling as it’ll be in there for a while. I will stick with the GroChar but use sieved multi-purpose I think).

Butternut squash and courgettes – the first signs of life just showing, sown straight into multi-purpose in 9cm pots.

Hanging basket of petunias waiting to go out the front of the house, for some retro gardening cool!

A knackered looking melianthus in a 2 litre pot, a favourite plant I was intending to plant out till I discovered its toxicity to dogs.

Not to mention the posh pelargoniums, astilbes and misc cuttings/splittings, which all need some attention.

The cosmos will get sown today. Or maybe tomorrow.

What’s in yours? Do leave a comment, or send me a tweet!

If he’s not going to hurry up in there, he could at least let me in to munch on the astilbes