I have friends who have mastered the art of overwintering plants in our quixotic Pacific Northwest climate. They carefully plot and have a plan for protecting their tender lovelies with temporary structures and great migrations indoors where sturdy shelving and proper lighting awaits. I am not like that. As the first of the winter holidays approaches, my container collection of somewhat tender plants sits in an open-air shelter in the back garden where they are protected from prodigious Pacific Northwest rains, yet subject to freezing temperatures that may or may not arrive.
This year the existential juggling of a weather forecast, the relative hardiness of my collection, and available indoor space is further complicated by the fact that I just had back surgery. Thus, all heavy lifting (anything over 5 pounds!!!) for the foreseeable future falls to the good nature of my mostly willing husband. All this has me longing for a greenhouse.
An Old School Approach
In 1829 Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered, quite by accident, that plant life could survive nearly untouched beneath glass. Ward, a London physician and ardent naturalist, collected a Sphinx moth chrysalis while on a walk and sealed it in a glass bottle with some damp earth. A short while later, the good doctor discovered a fern spore that had germinated and was thriving in the contained atmosphere. This led to further experiments growing plants in “glazed cases.” Twenty years later, when Ward exhibited his discovery at an industrial exhibition in Birmingham, the original fern was still thriving in its sealed interior.
By the late 19th century plant hunters used glass enclosures, then known as Wardian cases to preserve plant specimens during their expeditions, which often involved long boat journeys. In the hands of the Victorians, these simple glass cases became elaborate replicas of ornate green houses. Fashionable parlors proudly displayed a delicate fern or an exotic orchid in a Wardian case as a testament to the household’s connection to the world of science and exploration, the domain of the not-so-idle rich at the dawn of the 20th century.
How I Roll…
When temperatures drop, my container plants are shuffled into our unheated garage — usually at the last minute. Truth be told, hauling in snowstorms may have happened a time, or three. Borderline tender plants in the ground are subjected to an undignified wrapping with cut sheaves of ornamental grass and draped bedlinens. I’ve come to believe is it even winter without a mad scramble?
I used to have a greenhouse — it’s a lot of work, to say nothing of the question, where would I put it in today’s garden? And while I love the history and provenance of a Wardian case, the actuality is a bit twee for me and, unlike certain Victorian households, I don’t have the leisure time or staff to tend to them.
Where is this rambling post headed? Honestly, I don’t know. Winter is for wandering thoughts and ill-conceived plans that with any luck will have passed in a fever dream by the time spring arrives. In my more sensible moments, I’m thinking about building a cold frame, and by “building a cold frame” I mean talking my husband into building it for me.