Every fall, before the frost came, Scarlett Phelps, Jenkintown, Pa., used to spend days digging up and carrying into the house, her begonias, echeverias, geraniums and other plants that needed Winter protection.
“If only I had a little home greenhouse, or some space that could be converted into a hothouse…” she remarked one day while her daughter and son-in-law were visiting.
“How about a small greenhouse built onto the back corner of the house? You hardly ever use that outside cellar entrance…” and Bill Pyle, her son-in-law, began to draw on a scrap of paper a plan for the kind of greenhouse he had in mind. Mrs. Phelps agreed that it was a good idea, and so the project was started.
The vertical cellar door was removed, and the rickety, steep wooden stairs which had always seemed hazardous anyway, were thrown out. The frame of the greenhouse was built around that former doorway with 2″” x 4″” lumber, measuring 9 feet in width, three feet in height against the wall of the house, and diagonally forward the length of a regulation coldframe sash, which is six feet. The most expensive purchase the Phelps made were the three regulation coldframe sashes, equipped with small panes of glass that slide in and out easily.
With the frame and foundation of the greenhouse completed, the three glass sashes were fitted into place, and the two end sashes were nailed fast. The middle glass sash was put on hinges so that it opens up and outward.
Wooden shingles were nailed around the frames of the sashes, making the entire top of the greenhouse weatherproof. The right side of the greenhouse used the chimney for a wall, and where it extended beyond the chimney, the shingles were nailed solidly into place to cover the corner completely.
The left side of the greenhouse was shingled too, except for a space 29″” wide and 31″” high. A removable window-frame was built for this space (29″” x 31″”), and fitted with a pane of window glass. After the cat broke this window on a cold night when he tried to get into the cellar, chicken wiring was put on this removable window when it was repaired. Roofing compound was poured into all crevices and cracks, especially where the shingles of the greenhouse met the stone wall of the house, making the greenhouse completely watertight.
The inside of the greenhouse has three wooden shelves, each measuring eight feet in length and 24 inches in width. On the top shelf are kept all the succulents and begonias. The middle shelf is used by this gardener for potting and as a working shelf. Mrs. Phelps calls the bottom shelf, “the sleeping shelf,” for here are the geraniums and the amaryllis, dahlia, gladiolus and canna bulbs, as well as other plants like the mandevilla plant that sleep all Winter.
The Phelps’s old stone house has a hot-air heating system so that the cellar is just as warm and often warmer than the rest of the house.
“It’s amazing how much warmth that Winter sun radiates through those panes of glass,” Mrs. phlelps tells friends when they ask how she keeps the greenhouse warm enough all Winter without any special heating system. The thermometer registers 50 to 55 degrees all Winter long.
An old goose-neck lamp which Mrs. Phelps painted white so that it is easily seen, is the only additional heat used in the greenhouse, and that only in 12 degrees to zero weather. The bulb in this lamp is the regular infrared type, familiarly called a sunlamp. When the temperature in the greenhouse drops, Mrs. Phelps lights the lamp (which she puts on a stepladder) so that the bulb faces up toward the windows of the greenhouse, and then the heat reflects downward.
This greenhouse has good humidity, for the cellar wall is stone, and when it is wet down with a water hose, this wall throws off the necessary moisture so hard to achieve in the rest of the house during the Winter months. Because this part of the cellar floor had never been finished off with cement, cinders were spread over the old dirt floor.
“That greenhouse takes a terrific beating from Winter weather,” Mrs. Phelps explains when people say they couldn’t have a similar arrangement because their homes do not face in the “proper direction”. The Phelps house faces southeast, and with the greenhouse built against the back corner of the house, northwestern winds have fall play. While the greenhouse does get some afternoon sun, it also gets a large share of North winds and Pennsylvania Winter weather. That’s why there are always some extra panes of window glass stored in the Phelps household. Falling icicles often cause breakage, and as long as the little glass panes are on hand, it’s an easy matter to slip them into place when needed.
With the return of Spring and warm weather, the plants, bulbs and foliage Are taken out of doors and the greenhouse is fumigated. Mrs. Phelps hangs a bed sheet in the opening that leads from the greenhouse to the rest of the cellar, thus closing off the fumes. The greenhouse is sprayed with a chemical to kill all fungi, and is aired during the Summer by leaving the middle and side windows open.
“The most wonderful part of having such a greenhouse is the fact that you have foliage all Winter long for indoor arrangements.” Mrs. Phelps says.