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My Greenhouse Story: Clearing the Hurdles

Friday, September 15, 2023



I started working on this Real Greenhouse idea back in December 2022. A Real Greenhouse is made of glass and aluminum (or polycarbonate, whichever you choose). It doesn’t need Gorilla Tape to hold it together. Everything is square and true and the weatherstripping stays put. There are louvers and a fan, and it’s not a lot harder to heat than a sunroom would be. This was my goal: to graduate from my wee hobby-grade kit-made plastic box (above) to a Real Greenhouse. After 12 years of dealing with small uninsulated plastic structures, I was more than ready. 

The dream was to hook it onto the downstairs bedroom in the tower part of the house so I could get there without clearing away snow or falling on ice. What a concept! I drool at the possibilities. Roll out of bed and go putter in the greenhouse in my slippers and PJ's on a snowy morning. Yeah. I've earned that luxury, and I was prepared to pay for it now.

 I looked around for greenhouse companies. I was seduced by BC Greenhouses’ Instagram feed, showing softly lit glass greenhouses glowing in snowstorms, but it didn’t make much sense to me to engage a company from British Columbia. Could I find anything farther away than British Columbia? Maybe Alaska?? So I came east and settled on Botanical Greenhouse Builders LLC, based in Rocky River, Ohio. I liked their quality, liked that they are Ohio-based, and I liked Jen Sutton, the person I interacted with. She was helpful, responsive, and empathetic to the problems I would encounter along the way. She gave great advice and was always clear in her communication.

 I sent her photos of my house and she sent back some rough drawings to help me envision a lean-to on my tower. And we were off and running…sort of. I still didn’t realize what lay ahead of me. In the least. So I’m writing these posts to remind myself that nothing good comes easily; that you have to save and spend and claw and scratch away at your big dreams to make them come true.

 In order to create a lean-to greenhouse, I needed to do several things. First, I needed to find someone to demolish the Groanhouse and remove its existing concrete pad, which was badly deteriorated. While I was at it, I’d have the concrete retaining wall to the left, and the old patio taken out. It was too narrow to house the greenhouse Jen and I had come up with: 10 ½’ wide x 16’ long. And it likely wasn't near thick enough, either, to support a lean-to's weight, and it didn't have monolithic footers.

 Then, I needed a new concrete pad poured, 6” thick with monolithic footers dug 2’ down. That meant large excavating machinery. 

 After that, I needed a low wall built from concrete block, for the glass to rest upon and be anchored to. I'd have it faced with nice looking stone, inside and out. Only when all those things were in place could I have the glass kit installed. 

The foundation would look something like this, but higher and with different stone facing.

 In short, I needed an excavator, a concrete person, a mason, a gutter guy, and a glass installer. Suddenly, I was thrust into the role of a general contractor, but the magnitude of the work in front of me, to line all this up in sequence, snuck up on me over time. Putting a greenhouse on the side of your house is tantamount to building an addition, plain and simple. It is not cheap, nor is it trivial. 

 In December 2022, I emailed a local landscaping company looking for help and never heard back. I didn’t know they simply shut down in winter and didn’t answer emails. Lots to learn. So I went through the Yellow Pages, more or less. I struck up a correspondence with a guy from a small glass company who said he could do both the concrete foundation and the glass installation. In one phone conversation, he even offered to be the general contractor for the job. Wow, I thought. This is AMAZING. Everything in one! I was hooked!

I called and left him a message on February 3. And then I left six more. On February 13 he finally picked up my call. Said his “phone was all messed up.” Oh. Right. I hate it when I’m running a business and my phone is all messed up. On February 14, the landscaping company emailed and said they were ready to help, having seen my email two months later. Well, I had someone, thanks. Or so I thought.

 I kept leaving messages for the glass guy/magic general contractor. He kept never answering his phone or his messages. So one fine day I drove 40 minutes to his storefront and introduced myself as the Julie Zickefoose whose calls and messages he never answered. He was NOT happy to see me. He looked like a fox caught in the headlights. Somewhere along the line, he’d decided he wanted nothing to do with this job, but he didn’t have the grace to tell me that. Thus cornered, though, he promised to come to my house on March 6, maybe even with his concrete guy in tow. And then, a big surprise! He never showed up. I was shocked! 

 After two months of steady pursuit, all I’d gotten out of the interchange was the slim satisfaction of facing him down in person about his constant ghosting and avoidance. If any of this sounds familiar, I’m sure you feel my pain. The pandemic, which had everyone renovating their living spaces because they couldn’t do much other than hang around them, made a lot of contractors fat and happy, and made some individuals extraordinarily lax about, um, answering their phones. Supply and demand--those laws are in full force. I kept feeling my dream slip through my hands, and I felt helpless to change any of it. Why couldn’t anyone return a dang call? It’s not like I’m crazy, or rude, or unwilling to pay them for their work…what was it? Was there a SARS-Unreliability-19 virus going around, and every tradesman for miles around had caught it? Nobody I talked to seemed to care that there was work to be had.

 I had good reason to be frustrated. I couldn’t order the glass until I had someone committed to pour the pad and build the foundation wall, and there was an 8-month manufacturing lag time AFTER the glass was ordered until it would be shipped and installed. So every week and month of my spring and summer the fibby contractor wasted pushed the greenhouse glass delivery later into the fall—and into the winter. 

 Finally I did what I should have done FIRST, and called my neighbor Kathy, who takes care of Curtis when I have to be away overnight, who waters my plants, who loved my Groanhouse and everything in it. And she recommended two people for the concrete. I called the first one on March 23 and left a message. He didn’t return my call until April 6. OK, he’s out. Been there, done that, not playing that phone tag any more.

After waiting for the first guy for a few days, I called the second person: AJ Johns Excavating,  a small local concrete and  construction firm. Owner AJ returned my call the same day. What was this new sensation? Someone was paying attention? Wanted the work? Oh, how I wished I’d started off with Johns Excavating! I’d really be somewhere by June! 

 He knew my road, and he knew where I lived, because he’d worked right down the road for two of my neighbors. Now we were shopping local! We made a date for him to come and look at the job on Saturday, April 1. And you know what? He kept the date! No big surprises nor April Fool’s from AJ Johns Excavating! By April 16, I had an estimate and a plan for the work from AJ.

 Together, we made a plan for July, when the yard had finally dried out, for the excavation of the footers. The greenhouse would be so heavy, and frost heaves such an issue with an attached lean-to, that we had to make sure it wouldn’t move around and tear itself off the house. Next, I had to have the gutter moved around to the south side of the house, to get it out of the way of the greenhouse glass. AJ recommended Eric Stemple, who did a fabulous job and was a delight to work with. Each little bit of progress made buoyed my spirits. After five months of screwing around, we were finally on a path. It felt marvelous!

                                      Extra points for loving on my sweet Curtis, Stemple Gutters! 
                                                 And for knowing just where to scritch.

I know y'all hate cliffhangers. Just know that I'm not hiding anything here...just doling it out in pieces. 
I am still waiting for the glass to be delivered, as of September 15. 

Time for a Change... of Greenhouses

Wednesday, September 6, 2023


Eleven years ago, my Rion "Prestige" greenhouse kit arrived in a bunch of big rattly boxes. Looking at these photos gives me PTSD. I would never, ever, ever attempt to build my own greenhouse from a kit again, now, or ever.  But that's just me. Maybe you're more kit-oriented. Maybe there are better kits than this. Lord, there have to be. Oh, what I didn't know in this joyful moment...My greenhouse kit is here, yaaay!

In the photo you can see me standing in the humble circular imprint of my first greenhouse, which was called the Garden Pod. I loved that thing. It was tiny, but well-insulated and strong,  and I enjoyed it hugely from 2010-2012. I can't get over just how small it was. I could span it with my arms outstretched!

I used that little phone booth as well as anyone could. Man, did I cram the plants into it! It was my tiny she-shed before anyone came up with the terms.

I might still have it today, but a derecho (straight line windstorm) hit July 4 2012, and a mulberry tree fell on it and went boom. Got back from a hard week at Hog Island, Maine, to utter devastation. Luckily, there were no plants in it; it was just a winter retreat for us all. I knew I needed a greenhouse before winter came. Having experienced the mood lift, I knew I wouldn't make it through another Mid Ohio Valley winter without a greenhouse of some description.

Enter the Rion "Prestige" plastic greenhouse.  It was what I could afford at the time. You can see that fall is well in progress here!

Here I am studying the instructions, which had no words. Yep. No words at all. Just pictures, and arrows, and lines, and letters, and numbers. Saves on translating, I guess. The kit was from Israel.

It took Bill and me about six weeks to put it together, though the friendly lady on the phone said we could do it on "a good Saturday." Mmm-hmm. That would be SOME Saturday, with a crew of 12 rocket scientists.

I know I saw Part A-16 in here SOMEWHERE. Lookit th' Bacon settin' in the corner below...

Sheesh, the Prestige wasn't all that much bigger than the Pod, as I look at the Pod's imprint on the slab! 
I got four corners and a little roof height out of it. 

In the end,  I got ten years of use out of the Rion Prestige. Which, considering the quality of the materials and the janky kit construction, is astonishing. By the fourth winter, I was taping the plastic panels in place with clear Gorilla Tape. Each fall I'd rip it off, wash the plastic panels as best I could, and put fresh tape on. God, what an awful job that was, putting a ladder up on the creaking, groaning side of the Groanhouse, trying not to fall through the roof, but if I didn't do that, the panels would blow out. It happened once in a windstorm on a frigid January evening. All the heat just flew out of there, leaving my plants shivering and dying. I had to empty it immediately and fix the panel the next morning. Thank God I was home at the time. Talk about scrambling...
Ever buy 12 rolls of clear Gorilla Tape? Don't. 

What's wrong with this picture? EVERYTHING. Snow on the ground and a pane out of the Groanhouse. January, 2014. I've hauled everything but the rosemary Christmas tree out of there.

I could go on about the periodic greenhouse freezes, but y'all have been there with me. Still, in the wash, joy prevailed, and I knew I had to have a Real Greenhouse. The Rion Prestige helped get me through what I hope will be looked back on as the hardest decade of my life. And so for that, I most humbly and grumpily thank the Groanhouse.

By late winter 2023, I knew the panels wouldn't make it through another season. I could see the sky through pencil-sized holes in several of them. The frame sagged and all the rubber weatherstrip had worked its way out and couldn't be forced back in. I could hardly keep it warm with two gas heaters when the temperature dropped to the 20's, so I was in the habit of emptying the damn thing every time the mercury dropped below 20. Bringing all those plants into the house was SuCh a DrAg. 

After a decade of THAT, I'm more than ready for a real greenhouse!
To be continued...
don't y'all love a cliffhanger?


The Family that Bathes Together...

Monday, August 21, 2023


On mornings when it's getting hot fast, I always give the WarblerFall a quick scrub. I change out the rocks to clean ones (all I have to do is leave them in the sun between cleanings, and its heat does my work for me!), scrub the basin with a Magic Eraser, and rinse and refill with clean water. It only takes a few minutes to make the bath fresh, clean and sparkling again. Thank you, Sun!

I knew there would be serious action today, August 21, with a humid high of 88.

Sure enough, along came a baby cardinal, a female. 

She still has the blackish bill she was born with. She's likely still being fed by her parents.

She had such fun in the cool bath it wasn't long before her parents came to join her!

I was thrilled to get the whole family in one shot. That doesn't happen often.

The 'rents look considerably less fresh-faced than she does. Well, they've probably been feeding her for 50 days. I know. I've done it. Baby cardinals beg for forever, and then add a few weeks. 

Mom Cardinal was down to the last two feathers in her crest. Maybe she pulled them out in frustration...

Anyway, I'm projecting. The little family was having a nice bath together, and it was Baby's idea.

Then someone new showed up, startling everyone!

It was a male scarlet tanager! Mom didn't mind. She was just happy to be able to take a bath without anyone clamoring at her for something.

Dad Cardinal made a classic dad move, rudely crowding the tanager, who protested with a little squeal.

The tanager, a juvenile male, held his own.

At length, the Cardinal family left, and the tanager was finally able to take a long soaker.

At one point a female American goldfinch joined him, looking like a mini-me!

Finally even the goldfinch left. Every time I looked out the window for the next ten minutes, the tanager was there, soaking. It was sweet to see him enjoy the bath so very much. 

The WarblerFall got a nice shoutout last week on the Martha Stewart website!
They called to interview me and I had to tell them about the WarblerFall.

I sent them photos, but they didn't use them. The WarblerFall beats all the bird baths featured in the article by a country mile. I'm not bragging here. It just does. It's the best bird bath you can get. I've had 28 species in mine just this summer. My friend Briana at The Hungry Little Birdie in Michigan hit 42 species for the summer today with a young Blackburnian warbler! I'm waiting for my friend and neighbor Laura to tally up her species. I think she'll blow us both out of the shallow pool. ***see end of post for an update!

                                              photo courtesy The Hungry Little Birdie

I got a SWEET pair of juvenile Kentucky warblers recently, though! The female arrived first and poked around the shade garden amid the ferns and pink Angelonia (a new favorite flower!)

And then she came to the WarblerFall!

soon to be joined by her splendid brother, here perched on a tomato cage. Oh man, I love this warbler. This pair were probably hatched and fledged just a few hundred yards away, in my orchard, where their handsome daddy scolded me every morning as I walked by their nest. I saw at least two fledglings being fed, and then along come these jewels on 27 July. My cup runneth over--KEWA was species #25 in the WarblerFall this summer. 

 The best part about the WarblerFall, after the ridiculous bird diversity it attracts, is that you make it yourself, and customize it to your liking. 
But please take close note of the type of rock and shallow depth of the water in our creations.

I'd recommend getting your WarblerFall built as soon as you can, because fall migration is coming into full swing. Just ask that young tanager! Migrating is thirsty work, and warblers, tanagers, vireos and finches are delighted to find cool running water to bathe in on these hot, hot August days. 
September is even better, and October holds such surprises! Kinglets, anyone?

See what the fuss is about at

Here's an update from my neighbor Laura, whose trail cameras capture the most outrageous things.
She's got two baths, one with a recirculating pump and one without. The classic WarblerFall with a pump has 43 species for this season, so she has edged me out by a long shot, and she has only one more than Briana in Michigan. 

We'll start you off easy. Here is a photo from August 8, 2023.
An older female Baltimore oriole and a two-year-old rose-breasted grosbeak bathe together.

Here is Laura's trailcam photo from early July 2023. Not one, but FIVE blue-winged warblers consider a bath. This has to be a pair with their three fledglings. Can you stand it? 

And the piece de resistance: SEVEN species at the bath at one time, 13 September 2022. From left, Laura identified them as common yellowthroat (male); scarlet tanager imm (big bird in front with pale bill); a bay-breasted warbler in the water behind the tanager; an imm. Tennessee warbler on the rim in back; an imm. chestnut-sided warbler in the water to the right; a tufted titmouse on the rock; and a song sparrow at the far right. I just squealed when I saw this. Thank you, Laura, for this insane clown posse of birds in your WarblerFall!

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