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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!

One Late July Morning

Sunday, August 13, 2023


Along about late May 2023, when it finally warmed up nicely, I went down to the basement and fetched the little plastic tub labeled HICKORY HORNED DEVIL SEPT 12 2023. I'd been periodically taking a sniff and gently squeezing the pupa, weighing it in my hand, to make sure it was still good and alive and ready to go. Yep, it still smelled like acrid chemicals, but without a hint of corruption. 

I buried it about 3" deep in moist potting soil in a heavy ceramic pot, and put that pot in a mesh laundry hamper, the same kind I use for my bats. (You can get them at Walmart for about $10. Make sure the whole thing zips closed.) I put the hamper, with the heavy pot inside to weight it  down, on my mouse- and chipmunk-proof plant table up against the north side of the house. There, it would get natural ambient temperatures, frequent watering, and the safety it needed to finish its metamorphosis. 

Hickory horned devil pupa on the left, imperial moth pupa on the right. I'm still waiting on the imperial moth to eclose! This was taken maybe four days before the devil dug its way out of the soil. I could see the pupal shell pulling away from the insect inside. I knew it would be soon! 

Look at the "drill" on the bottom of the imperial moth pupa, on the right. Tami says that's characteristic of the species. I'm not clear on what it's for--to dig into hard ground? 

I would wait, and wait. Tami's moths would all emerge and fly, and mine, many miles further south, still stayed a pupa. She warned me that it might be planning to go another year before emerging, but I had a good feeling about this. I usually don't see royal walnut moths before my birthday, which is July 24. A bad sample, admittedly because my friend Laura has come the last few years on my birthday to set up moth sheets, and we always get royal walnut moths on the sheets! I never see them otherwise.

On July 27, I walked out of the front door, checking the hamper as I had every durn morning since late May, and I saw this. THIS!! 

On the outside, two wild royal walnut moths, mating. On the inside, my splendid huge female, finally emerged!!!

but wait, there was more. Liam looked down and found this: 

and then I poked around and found this (and this is a pair hooked together, as well)

and this--another pair, but fresher than the former.

In total, FOUR MATING PAIRS of royal walnut moths had been attracted to the immediate vicinity of her hamper by the powerful pheromones of the one female I'd raised. Tami Gingrich, who has years upon years of experience raising gobs of this species and many others, said, "I've never seen that! I'm coming down to YOUR place!"

I guess we have a lot of royal walnut moths in Washington County! Or that was ONE SEXY GIRL I raised!

And she is. Oh, she is. Don't you love the color scheme of bright cinnabar, charcoal, and cream? As if the turquoise, emerald, orange and black caterpillar hadn't been enough.

As if to cheer on the royal walnut moth orgy, each of my Creole Lady trees put out a twin pair of flowers that morning. Yeah Yeah Yeah! Go Moths!

Now I had to wait until nightfall to let a male moth in with my freshly emerged female. I did not want to disturb the clasped-together pairs of moths, but I worried about them. They were on the nasty, well-worn Chipmunk Highway that runs beneath my chipmunk-proof table, and it looked like they planned to stay there. I knew if I tried to pick them up they might break apart before fertilization took place.

Sure enough, a couple hours later, I found this poor live moth and the wings of its mate. Thanks, chipmunk. Have I told you lately that I hate you? 

I gathered up the remaining moths, all of which seemed to have uncoupled, and put them in the hamper for the rest of the day, for safekeeping, atop the glass table. They aren't interested in mating until the female begins to "call" by emitting a pheromone after dark.

I got a fascinating look at what that crazy gripperdoodle on the back end becomes!
Just look at the furry claspers on this male!

Looking closely, there are also some sort of scary hard dark keratinaceous clasperclaws beside the soft furry bits. Yikes.
I got you, ain't gonna let you go. Unless, you know, a chipmunk comes between us. 

I was planning to drive to Indiana on the morning of July 28. But my moth guru Tami Gingrich told me that, to catch the best action from the moths, I should get up at 3 AM the morning of my trip, because they don't really get going until that witching hour. "I'm up with my moths every night this time of year," she said, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. (I LOVE this woman!) 

Well, OK, I said, I'm usually awake then anyway, for weird hormonal/psychological/cavewoman reasons beyond my ken. Unbroken hours of sleep? I dimly remember it. Sure enough, I woke up and looked at my clock. It said 2:53 AM, so I dragged myself out of bed, and went out with a flashlight to see what was happening. Sorry I'm so incoherent in this video, but nothing could have prepared me for the ruckus going on out there.

I could hear the clatter of their wings as I came up the stairs. Lordy dordy, those males wanted my female.
Nice to see the life force running so strong in these creatures. There were at least four, three clustered right next to her, and a fourth careening wildly just outside the hamper. And these moths were all brand new, fresh, unlike the heavily worn eight from the night before. All told, over two nights, my newly eclosed female had drawn a DOZEN other royal walnut moths out of the forest on my sanctuary. I was absolutely floored.

After my foggy brain was done taking it all in, I decided to catch two males and zip them up in the cage with my big female. That way, if one was a dud, the other would come through. 

I caught two, did that, marveled for a few more minutes at the absolute frenzy of it all, and went back to bed.

In the morning, it looked like one was coupling with my lady; another was hanging out, and two were still plastered to the outside of the hamper. 

Whoops, they aren't coupled. Female, with giant abdomen, male with claspers, behind. 

 Hmm. Now what? I leave for Indiana this morning...I consulted Tami, and she advised that Liam should open the cage and release all three at dusk that evening. That worked for me. If they didn't want to mate in the cage, my magic lady was more than capable of bringing in a male to mate in a place of their choosing. 

Happily, Liam said that later that morning, the two were hooked together. Hooray! They stayed that way until well after he opened the hamper that evening. And they were all gone the next morning. 

I loved how Tami described the female moth as "calling" when she put her abdomen in the air. Calling with chemicals, she was.

Yoo hooo!

And a very close look showed two white pearly eggs that had escaped her. These giant silkmoths, described by one of my college professors as "gonads with wings," are all about reproduction. They don't even have operable mouthparts. They don't eat as adults. All they want to do is mate. 
Oh, that. Yep, I remember that. It can get you in a lot of trouble, that life force; it can put you on the chipmunk highway, wings clipped, all chewed to bits.

But look at the eggs.

So ends the story of the hickory horned devil who was a GIRL all along, and underwent a stunning transformation into Miss Yvonne, the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppetland.

She's out there somewhere, probably having dropped her load of eggs on a persimmon or a hickory or a black walnut. I've got all of those.

I went crazy for this one caterpillar. I documented every step of its colorful, constantly changing life. And it's taken me three entire days to put together four posts about the experience, and I don't even know how many days to put together last summer's posts. But I know that, though I summoned the energy to document and share this creature's development as best I could,  I don't have it in me to become a real Crazy Caterpillar Lady. Raising them by the dozen, running the sleeves and gathering the food--I know what that's like, because I did it with a schtun of monarch caterpillars in 2022. It's WORK. 

 I love that there are people who do that all summer long. I know and deeply respect several. Let's see... I'm counting...I personally know FIVE Crazy Caterpillar Ladies, which goes to show you that I am attracted to people of passion, like a moth to the whiff of pheromone on the moonlit breeze. My friends are witches. They are tuned in to the beat of life in the day and in the night. This is the pageant going on all around us; this is the miracle going on in our woods and fields. If you've never seen it, haven't thought about it, now at least you know it is happening. 
And the more you know, the more you want to know. 
My deepest thanks to Tami Gingrich for guiding me gently, every step of the way. She had a real greenhorn on her hands and she couldn't have been kinder or more helpful. She told me I was a good caterpillar mom! 

I can't say what I'd do if I found a little prickly hickory horned devil now, in August of 2023. I have a feeling I'd sleeve it, just to protect it from the birds, just to be able to peek in on it. And yes, I'd put it in my fridge for the winter, and make it a hamper in the spring. Because I catch myself peering up into the persimmons on my morning rounds, thinking about August 11, 2022 when my friend Heather F (another one who's tuned in) looked up into a low-sweeping persimmon branch and asked, "Well, what's THIS?" and started this whole devilish ball rolling. 

Well, would you look at the's about that time. 

The twin flowers on my Creole Ladies turned violet and yellow, and rolled up closed that evening.

And the moths were flying free.

Magic, it is, to know they're out there, beating five-inch wingspans, seeking each other out, clattering against the leaves in their hurry to mate and leave more, ever more.

Long may the Royal Walnut Air Force fly. 

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