Greenhouses offer a warm respite from winter's chills

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Step out of Gene Schurg's finished basement and into his orchid-packed greenhouse, and suddenly all those cravings for spring evaporate.

The air is moist and warm, and the earthy scent of the place is spiced with a sweet fragrance when you sidle up to an orchid in fresh bloom. For the past 10 years in his Vienna home, Schurg has found solace in the jungle of his own making. Deep winter holds no gloom for this avid gardener. The darkest season is just a hazy backdrop to a light-filled sanctuary from life's ills.

"Turn on some music on the radio and zone out all the other things that are happening in the world or at work," he said. Schurg's main interest is orchids; his benches and rafters are packed with nearly 600 0f them. But a greenhouse can also be a place for other tender plants such as citrus, birds of paradise, bananas, begonias, ferns, geraniums and bougainvilleas. And it promises a triumphant jump on spring, with seed flats by March full of baby vegetables, herbs, annuals, perennials and houseplant cuttings.

The price of this paradise, apart from construction costs, which vary widely, is a continuing commitment to the greenhouse and its plants. But for most people who discover the enchantment of this hobby, this is not so much a burden as an enriched way of life.

The glazed sunroom or conservatory off the back of the house is not the same as a greenhouse. A sunroom can be a light-filled and welcoming place for houseplants, but the level of heating and humidity is for the comfort of humans, not exotic flora. Greenhouses, by contrast, are all about creating an environment that is optimal for one's chosen collection of vegetation. This may be cooler and certainly a more moist place, but one where green thumbs find a haven, usually telephone-free.

Greenhouses range in form from plastic covered, do-it-yourself lumber framed structures to glassy, architectural buildings. Seasoned owners offer two basic tips: Stay away from small, single layered houses costing just a few hundred dollars. They will soon become far too small for all the plants you will want to raise, and they are difficult to heat and cool. Second, use a double-skinned covering.

Tom Karasek, president of the Hobby Greenhouse Association, recommends a house at least 8 feet by 12 feet. His self-built house is 7 feet wide, 24 feet long and 9 feet high, framed in 2-by-3-foot timbers, and covered in twin-wall polycarbonate.

Mary Lawrence has an 8-by-14-foot greenhouse where geraniums and citrus trees spend winter nights in the relatively snug upper 40s. Starting next month, it will become a hive of seed-starting activity, for vegetables and summer annuals for her three-acre garden in Jeannette, Pa. The greenhouse is big enough for a chair or two, where she will have lunch, luxuriate in the moist heat and look out to a landscape covered in snow or moistened by cold drizzle. "You have a T-shirt on and you smell the earth and the plants," she said.

An aluminum framed greenhouse kit can be purchased for less than $3,000, but fancy greenhouses can cost 10 times that or more. Karasek, who built his own, spent less than $2,000 on materials. Lawrence estimates she spent about $5,000 to build and equip hers. Schurg's cost $85,000, he said. Half of that cost was in site preparation, which included extensive soil excavation, foundation work and the construction of a 12-foot brick wall that forms the north side. It had to pass muster with his homeowner's association, he said.

The hassle and expense was worth it. For Schurg, the greenhouse has turned the gardening year on its head. Entire midwinter Saturdays are spent checking for bugs and looking for new growth -- in short, doing what all gardeners love: nurturing their beloved plants. The greenhouse, in turn, nurtures them.

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