Southeast BY RAM BAGGETT/ Cedar Grove, North Carolina, Zone 7
My Hothouse Winter
I’M CONVINCED that a miscalculation landed me in North Carolina at birth. A late-summer storm must have blown my tropics-bound stork off course, and I’ve been stranded ever since in temperate North America, where all but the staunchest plants spend winter in stony silence. Craving hot Caribbean colors, I set out to surround myself with a dramatic winter jungle.
My first greenhouse was a 16-by-22-foot redwood rafter-and-glass structure. Hand-built, I’m proud to say, of Lord and Burnham parts painstakingly salvaged from a venerable retiring greenhouse operation. Seen from the frozen garden, it seemed like a wild parrot party was going on behind glass, a toucan convention. But as any greenhouse owner will tell you, it was too small almost from the day it was built. Inspired by our success, my partner and I built our first 96-by-22-foot plastic-covered hoophouses and opened our nursery in 1998.
In greenhouses kept above 48°F at night (and sun-warmed to tropic temperatures during the day), flowers abound, even in the low light levels of early January. Towering angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens) blooms in successive flushes during winter, filling the greenhouse with powder-sweet perfume. At its feet, firecracker plant (Cuphea ignea) produces hundreds of tiny tubular blossoms in eye-popping tangerine, fleshy peach, or cream. Even daintier is Cuphea cyanea, which bears petite, bright pink and yellow blooms. Salvias and lantanas, pentas and Petunia integrifolia also carry on as if summer never ended. All can be dug from the garden or rooted from cuttings in fall, then potted up to do winter duty in the hothouse.
On cold, rainy days, chartreuse-leaved plants offer a therapeutic dose of sunshine—the soft glow of Solenostemon (a.k.a. Coleus) ‘Golda’, fine as white gold; the deeper hum of Duranta erecta ‘Aurea’; delicate, delectable Sedum ‘Ogon’, barely two inches tall, its tiny leaves like smooth, buttery pebbles. Many of the most cheerful plants in the greenhouse are grown for their colorful foliage—the metallic purple of Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) looks handsome all winter, while Acalypha wilkesiana ‘Obovata” startles the eye with glossy, chocolate leaves edged in hot coral. Oblivious to the icy drizzle outside, the bananas (Musa spp.) and elephant ears (Colocasia and Alocasia spp.) look so lush you can almost forget it’s sleeting.
If your budget (or your taste) doesn’t run to overwintered tropicals and their high heating bills, don’t despair and abandon your greenhouse until spring. In fall, pot up or purchase carpeting phlox, hellebores, lamiums, lungworts, and tiarellas. Overwintered at temperatures just above freezing at night, most spring-flowering, cold-hardy perennials will bloom several weeks earlier than they do in the garden. I prefer my hothouse beauties, but not all of us were meant to be born in the tropics.
To do in the greenhouse
Begin taking cuttings of tender tropicals for fresh new garden plants in spring.
Scout weekly for aphids, spider mites, and mealy bugs. Avoid using horticultural oils on most tropicals; insecticidal soaps are generally safe.
Turn up the wattage of your garden color this season, for a more dynamic display in the hot southern sun. For ideas, see Bold Visions for the Garden (Fulcrum, 2001), by Richard Hartlage, and Hot Plants for Cool Climates (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), by Susan A. Roth and Dennis Schrader.
Gold vein plant Sanchezia speciosa
Native to Ecuador and Peru, Sanchezia speciosa pairs brilliant ruby stems with waxy green foliage etched in lemon yellow. Individual leaves can grow up to ten inches long. Unpruned plants reach eight feet tall over several seasons; three feet is likely the first year. Container care is easy, indoors or out, but watch out for black aphids at the stem tips in winter. Sources, page 84.