Greenhouse Living

After a few years of deepening our “crack gardening” addiction to cacti and succulents, Taylor decided last fall it was time for us to dramatically up our game. When we moved into our house a couple of years ago, we lost quite a bit of window space for our plants, all of which are hungry for heat and harsh sun. In September, Taylor gifted me a 6x6x7-foot greenhouse for my 30th birthday. Today we have evolved into succulent savants, and our plants look bigger and better than ever.

The greenhouse itself, made entirely of aluminum and corrugated plastic panes, came in two flat boxes. It almost seemed so lightweight as to be useless in windy, stormy Nebraska. However, as we put it together, we found the frame light but sturdy. The opaque panes seem so durable that I doubt anything other than a tree limb or tennis-ball size hail could do much damage.

We “enhanced” the greenhouse with a wooden base of 4x4s, ensuring it’s anchored to something heavy just in case. We also added black paver base to the floor, which acts as both insulation and a heating element, soaking up the sun and reflecting heat back into the greenhouse. As a plus, it keeps most insects and small critters out.

We spent about six hours one October weekend putting the greenhouse together, and with a few cheap shelving units from Amazon, we maximized the space and light distribution. Today, we could fit a hundred or so potted plants inside.

We put our most hardy plants in the greenhouse last fall, just as the days were getting shorter and colder. This simulated a more natural environment for a cactus, and it helped them more easily go into hibernation. As the temperatures dropped, we added a small heating unit and sealed the edges with a special insulating plastic tape. This kept the greenhouse from going below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We admittedly were lucky to have a mild winter. However, even on our coldest days in December and January – when the wind chills hit -10 degrees – the greenhouse never dipped below 40, and the heater only added about $10 to our electric bill.

With minimal care and once-a-month watering from November through March, we lost not a single plant. Some of the plants even continued to bloom throughout the winter! As spring arrived, many a cactus started to wake up. Unlike anything we’ve seen before, the greenhouse plants started to sprout and bloom. Here’s a sampling of the show we witnessed:

This cactus had never bloomed before the greenhouse. What a surprise when these popped out. This sempervivum is now in our rock garden outdoors, but it was hardened off in the greenhouse and turned this brilliant shade of purple. The half-inch cacti grew from surprise dropped seeds. The cold and dry greenhouse allowed them to germinate.
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This sempervivum is now in our rock garden outdoors, but it was hardened off in the greenhouse and turned this brilliant shade of purple.

Now that summer’s here, the greenhouse can get up to 120 degrees. That’s too hot for my liking, but for a cactus it must be pretty pleasant. The greenhouse has a vented roof, so we’ve kept that open almost all summer to regulate the temp and keep it around 100. This also helps with air circulation and fighting off any pests or rot. Essentially, we’re simulating a year-round natural environment for these plants – hot, bright and dry in the summer; cool, dark and bone-dry in the winter.

The greenhouse has proven to be one of our better investments and one of our more successful experiments, although it does seem to deepen our addiction. We’re hoping in a year or two it will pay for itself when we start winning all that lucrative metro-area cactus show prize money. Watch out, Kathy from Papillion.

BONUS: Last summer I posted about the cold-weather cactus garden I planted in our backyard. I did not know whether some of the plants would survive the winter. I covered the garden with two inches of dead leaves to insulate. But as it turned out, my fears were realized. Two of the cacti did not survive. However, the prickly pears took a beating, but now are thriving in our hot and dry Midwestern summer. In fact, a pad broke off one of the plants, so after the broken end hardened off I stuck it back in the dirt. Today it’s growing pads of its own. This is why cacti are so amazing!

Puggle Vision

Check out a day in the life of our dog, Newman. He’s a one-year-old puggle, and he doesn’t sit still for very long. I think this footage proves that. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to be Newman. Judging by this video, if I were my dog I’d be motion sick like 90 percent of the time.

The footage is from a GoPro-esque camera I bought for our trip to Machu Picchu and Galapagos this summer. However, I thought it needed to experience some more challenging assignments. I strapped it to the back of Newman’s walking harness. He seemed comfortable enough, and it seemed stable enough (barely) so we took it for a spin around the block:

Sadly I don’t believe Newman’s career aspirations as a cameradog will pan out. Maybe for a Jason Bourne movie or something, though.

You can follow Newman’s adventures on Instagram. He has a larger social media following than I do (unsurprisingly). But at least most of my audience is human…

House Painting: Before and After

We had the house painted this summer. House painting makes you sweat a little bit – you’re never sure how it will turn out. After some research, we settled on navy because we thought it would contrast well with the brick facade. The painters gave us a funny look when we gave them the color. However, I think we got lucky.

Naturally I took before and after photos to compare. Sadly I didn’t get “before” photos with our broken, striped cloth window awnings and the ugly satellite cables running down the front of the house. Well, maybe not sadly.

Honestly I think the back looks even better than the front, probably because there’s more depth. But it all looks good! If you look really closely, we also trimmed the hedges and did some minimal landscaping, too. Exciting!

It’s been a busy summer, but I’m glad we got this done. The house looks updated and a lot less dingy. It feels like home now. Plus, the new color really makes the cactus garden pop. On to the next project, I guess…

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Cold-Weather Cactus Garden

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Grass is terrible. It’s needy, it grows fast and needs frequent mowing, and it sucks up gallons of water. Now that we’re a homeowner, I have an even more acrimonious relationship with grass. I’ve spent time on most of my summer weekends either reseeding, cutting, weeding or watering my front lawn. I only do this so the neighbors don’t think I’m a derelict slob (which I am).

Ever since we started collecting succulents and cacti a few years back, I’ve dreamed of a xeriscaped landscape instead of a turfed lawn. But I live in hot and humid/cold and biting Nebraska, so that option doesn’t make much sense. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost!

I’ve started an experiment this summer. Taylor and I hit the River City Cactus and Succulent Society show back in May. While there, we met a vendor from Oklahoma who offered a variety of cold-weather cacti. “Why not?” I thought. Cacti grow primarily in hot, dry climates, but the real key word is dry. You can find cactus varieties in the wild in the United States from the southwest to as far north as eastern Montana. You can find some of the most amazing cactus and succulent gardens in the country in cold, snowy Colorado, even.

On a whim, I bought four plants: two opuntia humifusa (pricky pear), an echinocerus reichenbacchi (lace hedgehog cactus), and an echinocerus viridiflorus (nylon hedgehog cactus). Each is about 6-12 inches tall and maybe a year or so old. All of these varieties bloom big, bright flowers once they emerge from hibernation when the ground begins to thaw. I’m hoping mine live up to their reputation come spring 2017.

However, I still had the challenge of getting them into the ground. I live in Hardiness Zone 5 (at least until the zones get revised up thanks to climate change). Plants must be able to survive temperatures as low as -15ºF here. All of mine should survive if planted right and protected over the cold winter. But it will take a little work.

Last year, Taylor gifted me Leo Chance’s “Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates“, and I’ve been digesting it ever since, waiting for my chance to plant a cold-weather cactus garden. Therefore, when I bought my plants, I was more than ready. Here are the steps I took to prepare the rich, loess-y soil in my backyard for my spartan spiny friends.

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Home Improvement (starring Taylor)

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My wife is a multi-talented woman. However, before we bought our new house, I had no idea those talents include home improvement extraordinaire. The following is a before-and-after comparison of our bathroom remodel, a project in which I had no part whatsoever. This was all Taylor, and this update alone modernized the interior by about 40 years.

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