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Greenhouse Apocalypse

Sunday, November 24, 2013

It was my happy place. I made it so, with a lot of help from my friends. 
You'll remember the agony of building the Groanhouse.
and then when it was finally done and stocked with plants and it looked like it was all going to work, it became The Greenhouse.

Recently I strung it with little white fairy lights and every evening before dinner I'd go down there with Chet, sometimes with Bill, and just soak it in. It was my retreat, and it could fix me when nothing else could. Everyone needs a place like that.

It had to do with everything growing and blooming and scenting the air.

Like tuberoses, ten of them, saved while still in bud from the freezing garden, and now perfuming nightly in the salubrious confines of the little greenhouse. 

It was aromatherapy, it was beyond marvelous, and I made it all myself.
I didn't go to a spa and pay somebody a bunch of money for all that. I just made my own spa.

Chet loved it too. This is about my favorite view, the plants between his sweet ears as he sits and meditates on my lap in the evening.

So the night of November 23 Bill and I talked down there for over two hours and we got a few things kind of understood, just sitting in that healing air and taking in the beauty. It was so cold outside, but so warm and humid in there.

It looked like this. And this morning when we got up it looked like this.

The gas line that runs from our well to the house had water in it, and that water froze overnight, blocked the line, and the gas cut off somewhere after 2 AM. 

When I opened the door it was 21 degrees in there.  Everything was frozen solid. 

At 21 degrees, a New Guinea impatiens that looks like this

becomes this

and a hibiscus that makes your heart sing every time you see it
so full of beautiful blossoms and buds for months ahead 

 goes to this

and a tuberose does this

My world crashed around my ears and I howled like a wolf for a long, long time
until Bill told me I had to pull myself together and I said I do not and stomped out to the orchard in the bitter cold to howl out there awhile longer where nobody could tell me it was all going to be OK because nothing was OK. And nothing is OK. It stinks, that fetid stench of leaves dying green, that stench you get after a hurricane or the first hard frost of the season. 

And while I was out there in the orchard a little voice spoke to me and told me to get back in there and start pruning. It was my primitive voice, and I listen to it when it speaks.

I don't know if there's scientific fact behind it but the voice told me that bad chemical messages would travel back down those stems from the dying tops and kill the roots, too. And I had better get those tops pruned way back if I was going to save anything in the greenhouse.

So I rushed back and got clippers and what had looked like this

got thrown out or pruned back to this

and a great pile of death stacked up on the floor

months and years of love and care and growth

night blooming jessamine and mandevilla and geranium and jasmine and tuberose and impatiens and lobelia and hibiscus just reduced to limp dead junk in a few hours while we slept.

I cut everything that was limp or squishy off. I cut until I got to firm stem, and now all I can do is hope.

I have pots full of dead looking sticks. But you never know. Even though the soil was frozen solid in the pots, maybe some survived.

I made an ICU in the living room, because the gas went off again while I was working. I didn't want those who had survived the apocalypse to have to go through it again.  Oh God. Please. We bled the drip valve twice, Bill re-lit all the pilots...Please don't shut off again.

The sum total of the living plants. The rest remain to be seen. 
Actually the three hibiscus babies on the left are probably dead. But I'm not throwing them out yet.

I don't know what inner fire kept Vesuvius alive, but it was the only thing that looked alive when I came in this morning.

I was so relieved to find this newly rooted cutting of my dearly beloved Vancouver Centennial still firm and alive.

It will come back, some of it anyway, but it won't be lush and beautiful in there again for a very long time. Where once there were blossoms, now there are sticks and bones.

If my happy place is gone, I'll have to figure out something else that will save me, probably working even harder on the paintings for my next book. I'll run farther. I'll keep going down to the greenhouse to look for signs of life. And you'll be the first to know when I find some.


I'm so sorry, that is tragic. I have no doubt it will be gorgeous again!

Very sorry about what happened to all of your hard work.
I'm not much of a green thumb, but I can tell you have the ability to make everything beautiful again.
I grew up in Southern Ohio-(in the valley) and following Chet and your adventures reminds me of my own upbringing-I even had a Boston terrier for a pet. Today, I live in Florida-freezing weather is never a worry here, although we have other weather calamities to endure. Today I have two Bostons-a male-8 years old-resembles Chet and a 5 year old female.
You may want to purchase a temperature alarm for your greenhouse-it will sound an alarm if the temperature drops to low.

Oh I am so sorry! Great life lesson, though - for me, I mean - the pruning bit. If anyone can recreate eden in there, it'll be you!

Oh, Julie, so sorry this happened!

I think your primitive voice was spot-on. You may be pleasantly surprised at what survives, returns, and even thrives again. Your botanical therapists may have gotten as much strength and comfort from you as you have from them, from basking in the warm glow that comes from YOU!

I have to differ with BTIII, somewhat, though (sorry, Bill). If you feel a sense of loss, if you want to have a good cry, then DO IT! It can be very healing, very cathartic. And as you quickly saw, this is not paralyzing you. You soon got up, dusted yourself off, and began the cleaning up, the rebuilding, the actions of a hopeful and determined human in the face of disasters large and small. (Should we organize a team of disaster-relief volunteers to swoop in and give you a hand and a whole bunch of hugs? I know CPR... :) )

Please keep us all updated.
Thinking of you.

We come here (this planet) to grow, and learn to love, better, and deeper. This gut wrenching, sad event WILL do something for your spirit.. Now, it is a damn cold wind, but,there are lessons here.. Down the road I guess they will become apparent, for now, we, especially those who have strong affinities for green growing things, offer our love and our hope for a new spring under plastic.

Posted by Courtney Peterson November 24, 2013 at 7:09 PM

I'm so very sorry. All your appreciation and love, not to mention hard work. What a sad loss. You did the right thing in cutting back what was obviously dead. You might be surprised at what lives. A plant's will to live can overcome amazing adversity. Good luck and keep us posted.

I can understand. Some of my plants are like family. My old jasmine sambac, sweet of breath. So old its becoming like a bonsai, would make me want to cry, if it froze. My mitristigmia, lovely of flowers, but so slow growing that if it froze, I don't know if I have the heart to grow another one.Oh, yeah, I understand.Gardeners will garden, whatever happens.

The wonderful thing about life is that is DOES go on. It breaks your heart occasionally, but it does go on. Things will bloom again. It might take a while, but they will bloom again. And you'll undoubtedly receive some new plants from old friends, or maybe some new plants from new friends. Don't despair Julie. The greenhouse will rise again!

Oh dear.
I am so, so very sorrow-full to see this. My heart goes out to you. I cannot find other words, I can only wish and hope along with you.

Nooo! I read the title and of course thought there had been another nightmare wind blowing the greenhouse apart. At least THAT did not happen. There will be a new spring in the greenhouse. What can I send you from California?

Wishing the greenhouse a speedy recovery and YES to the temperature alarm. Who knew?

That is absolutely brutal.
No condolences will help at the height of your distress, so I won't offer any platitudes.

I am sorry you're going through this.

We were with you while it was being built. I remember Chet claiming he had some important role in the construction and was glad for another place to warm himself as he sat on your lap. We were attentive as you mused over the beautiful flowers going in and out of it's shelter,appreciated the advice from your friend Tools to keep it sturdier,learned the names of some of the exotics,were delighted by the colors and charmed by the twinkling lights and touched by your evening visits in that magical place. Today we felt your pain and tomorrow we know it won't feel that much better especially when it is just you and Chet alone with all of that sun where there was once lush green,unimaginable fragrances and the special plants with their own histories and sentiment. We appreciate the purity and honesty of your story today. It was heartfelt and some of us cried with you. That primitive voice which spoke to you is a mighty force. It will continue to help you do great things not only for those fragile little plants,(many who will survive), but also for people in your life,some whom you have never met,who care about you and appreciate you sharing your gifts of storytelling and wisdom with us. We will be here awaiting the news of signs of life in that still magical place.

You have been so happy in that greenhouse that, seeing the carnage, I had no words of comfort. My guess is that there is no comfort until you see life returning, leaves reaching for daylight, and buds opening.
Lush beauty will return to the greenhouse. For now, I hope the unexpected bits of beauty you find as you run will get you through until that time comes.
For myself, I find more happiness framing things in my viewfinder than almost anywhere else.
(And keep the Ed Sheeran playlist handy.

I live in NC now but spent most of my life in your area. I have a greenhouse here (actually 2 this year) and I can relate to your blog. The greenhouse is a haven in the winter when things aren't growing nicely outside. I can feel your heartache at losing so much. I always feel like a piece of me goes when a plant dies. But I go back and plant, prune, water, fertilize and find peace and joy working in the greenhouse. They when the plant I thought was gone suddenly appears again or that tiny seed emerges with the first leaves it restores my faith in life and the universe. I hope a lot of your little guys come back. I am often surprised at that happens in the greenhouse.

My heart just ached for you when I saw your initial post, Julie. I know the love you felt for each and every plant in there, and the tender care you provided them to thrive, and how much they gave your spirit. I will be hoping, beyond hope, that most of them survive and go on to thrive once again. XOXO

Oh, dearest one! A lump formed in my throat even as I read your entry title. I teared up at the scene of such devastation. But as bad as it was, I had expected that the greenhouse had been destroyed completely in the gale force winds that we had experienced yesterday. I know it looks really bad, but I just know that your plants are survivors! The hibiscus, for certain; my husband had found an unpotted stick of a hibiscus by the incinerator of a hotel we worked in at the time. He brought it home, potted it, gave it water and love, and today that hibiscus is resplendent! It takes time, but most of your plants WILL come back!

And it is good that you had a wail instead of holding it in. Better out than in, I always say. Holding in the pain only makes it fester away at you. And the little voice... I am convinced that it was the voice of your spirit guide... your Muse... your higher self. Whatever name you want to give it, it is always there, always available, and will never steer you wrong. I trust in that little voice completely.

I am so very, very sorry. You create beauty with plants, and people, animals, and paint...the beauty will return, I'm sure of it.

Julie, as much time as you spend observing the natural world, you know this: things want to live! You have done your best to help them, now wait and watch in wonder. And while you're at it, ask "Santa" for some pretty blooming plants to brighten your special place while things recover!

Julie, I am so sorry your sanctuary got hit. So very sorry. And I am glad you went and wailed & howled. Take good care of yourself. And play tug-of-war with your Chet. He will stay in the moment for you.

I am sorry.

So sad, but I am sure you will refill that greenhouse over time with more gorgeous and pampered blooms.

A back up heater that only comes on when it gets below a certain temp. An alarm that goes off when the greenhouse temp goes below some number. Course that only works when you are at home. I keep only orchids now, the rest of the plants were given to Ishtar long ago. I bet since you wrote your post, kindly folks have taken cuttings, found seed packets, divided living plants to share with you. Plus, serendipity will reign over what comes back on it own.

Hi Julie,

My heart goes out to you about the greenhouse disaster.

My inlaws have a summer home on Lake Huron that is monitored by a local "cottage watcher" during the winter months. He uses a device that will turn on a lamp when the temperature falls below a certain temperature. I don't know the exact name of the product, but I found something else that might be useful to monitor the temperature in your greenhouse. I hope this is useful. If it doesn't fit your needs, it will probably direct you to different avenues to investigate.

You open your heart and give your love freely. I'm so sorry about the freeze and loss of your much loved plants. Grieving honors that love.

When I saw the title of the post my first thought was that you had a big snow and the greenhouse roof fell in. I'm glad that didn't happen! I see some tips that I've never heard of in the comments so when you add something to make sure this doesn't happen again then you will be helping so many people. And I was thinking of plants at stores that need a home, neighbors that can share cuttings.

Wishing you comfort and joy.


I'm sorry but this is not going to be a sympathetic comment. I couldn't help but think of how many blessings you and your family have. When I read about your agony, all I could think of was, this is only a greenhouse. Your home is fine, your children are fine. Have you seen the devastation in the country lately caused by tornadoes? There are people who have lost everything. They have a good reason to cry.

Oh Julie, I've just read through all the comments imagining how comforted you must feel knowing that others share your sense of loss. (I hope you're ignoring that last slap-in-the-face comment by P.W. though...I can see where she's coming from, but that was just uncalled for.)

I experienced something similar to this, although on a much smaller scale, years ago when I was trying to establish a large perennial garden in our new yard. I planted hundreds of dollars worth of flowers one day, only to find them all eaten to the ground in the morning by a ravenous herd of deer. I cried too.

Anyway, I'm so sorry for the loss of all those lovely plants, but I know your spirit is already figuring out how to re-establish your sanctuary. There's something about tending to things with roots in the soil that creeps into your heart and becomes a part of your soul. And when much-loved plants are destroyed, it's as if your heart has been sucker-punched.
I hope you gain strength from the knowledge that so many of us out here are eagerly anticipating the story of how you and your greenhouse emerge from this better than ever. Hugs to you and Chet.

I'm SO sorry for what happened. I know how I would have felt. At least know that many of us who so enjoy your blog send our sympathy and know better times will come for you.


So sorry to hear about the greenhouse. Many of us have enjoyed following the progress and seeing the beautiful pics. Glad that most of your readers understand that your blog is your personal and private property, not a public forum. I agree with Kim...hope you are ignoring that P.W. comment. Thanks for sharing your blog with us. I enjoy it!

Posted by Fritzann Isenhart November 25, 2013 at 3:49 PM

Oh, Julie. I can imagine what you feel, have allowed yourself to feel through, wail and grieve through. All emotions are real, valid, never needing justified, which you know. PW's comments are true, too, which you also know, and live by; but they are not kind or timely. We have to feel all of it in the moment, not rationalize away our emotions. You know and live this so well. PW doesn't get it and I am sad for him/her. Sending you love, comfort. I get it.

I'm back again. So glad you are getting so many kind comments and suggestions. I too thought maybe the greenhouse had collapsed. In some sense it did. Perhaps an essay will come of this, well, experience. I too live in California, southern, and if you have a yearning for something from out here, I'll look for it. You might have lost some longtime friends--I know I've lost some long-lived and long-loved plants. To this day I still remember them!
And I keep returning to Chet--he was so sweet in trying to help you through this. Here's a hug for you & Chet.

Oh, dear. I am sorry that your place of renewal has been so damaged. Besides being living entities all their own, plants often connect us to another person or a particularly meaningful event in our own lives. Even when we may have just picked one up at a big box plant sale, it becomes part of our existence. With your skill and determination you are bringing these forlorn looking plants back to health and beauty, and friends will share their plants with you. You and Chet will spend evenings yet communing with each other and the healing plants around you.

I'm so, so sorry. I have so enjoyed the pix you shared of your greenhouse plants. I have always wanted something like that.

Back when your pod was destroyed, I really didn't understand (Sorry!) because your plants were OK. Now they're not.

Do you remember a TV commercial a couple of decades ago for some cleaning product, where a plant falls from some kind of pedestal? The actress screams: "Oh, no my carpet!" You and I would have been screaming: "Oh, no, my PLANT!!!!"

Nooooo! I read your post with the same feeling of foreboding I had reading a novel over the weekend. I could just see the train wreck coming and while it tied my stomach in knots I couldn't look away. I'd have been howling in the woods too.

No! I'm so very sorry. No way of getting around it. This just sucks.

boo hoo!!!! so sorry for you. makes me so sad too. :(

So sorry, Julie. I'm hoping those little roots are thinking something like, "Hmmm, I think it's spring already!" I'm wondering if you have a book in your area that conveniently gives the temperature ranges for ornamentals. Here in the West, we rely on the Sunset Western Garden Book for an encyclopedic collection of plants, all assigned to a zone in their own more specific zoning system tied to temperature extremes, among other criteria for success. Just in case this happens again, I'm thinking you might want to consider choosing fewer tropical and semi-tropicals and more of the hardier species. There are plenty of beautiful choices that can survive even below the twenties.

Julie, Although I love plants I don't LOVE plants, but I have always, enjoyed reading your posts about the greenhouse and your orchids and bonsais, and...reading this particular post made me cry. I'm so sorry for your losses and your grief. Someday your sanctuary will return to the way it once was. I wish I could send you something beautiful and flowering and fragrant.

Whew. Lovexxoom.

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