Dec 1, 2011

Falling into Winter

I don't know why I've been so reluctant to embrace winter this year. I have been in full denial of its surely imminent arrival since September. In the face of a predicted snowfall two weeks ago, I managed to lay down a base layer of bark mulch in the chicken day spa, and purchase a new heated waterer to replace the one that died after one short winter season, last spring. I stapled plastic sheeting to the outside of their secure runs, to reduce wind and keep the snow out. At least the girls are ready.

In the garden, though, I have been slow and laggardly in preparing for winter. In early October, I did get the massive tomato harvest picked, much of it still green, and consigned to trays, dishes, baking pans, colanders and other flattish containers spread over every empty surface in house, shop and garage, to gradually ripen. I dried huge numbers of cherry tomatoes in my ancient food dryer, and more are still ripening as the weeks pass.

Only a small part of the tomato harvest:

But the greenhouse is crammed full of my usual wintering-over container plants, and I am in a guilty quandary over what to do with most of them. Normally I let the many bowls with flowering annuals do their thing, protected from severe cold, until supremely short days in January cause them to dwindle to nothing. At that point I shove them under the greenhouse benches and let them die. A few toughies, like petunias and lobelia, actually survive and resume growing and blooming in quite early spring, if I keep them watered and unfrozen through use of a small radiant heater. Same with geraniums, some not-super hardy miniature roses, and a few odds and ends like agapanthus and tender sages.

Scene from a previous, better organized fall:

Part of my reluctance to let things go (planters with still-beautiful coleus, tuberous begonias, zinnias and fuchsia) comes from my feelings of having been robbed of a full season of bloom, due to the very late spring we had. Part comes from a few special favorites that were so amazingly beautiful -- individual varieties, or just spectacular color combinations never before achieved -- and I don't want to let them go just yet.

I plant a lot of these annual color bowls, and I pride myself on their variety and carefully matched hues. I hate those 'red, white and blue' generic planters you find everywhere in big box stores. I imagine mine to be far more subtle and tasteful, but a lot is impossible to duplicate from year to year, since I mainly buy starts where I can at local nurseries, and what is available varies from year to year.

Here is a sampling of what I start with:

and the final result, arranged on the back deck:

The guilt comes from an earlier decision I made to NOT provide extra heat in the greenhouse this winter, in order to conserve electricity and lower our power bills. The purely financial aspect of this is obvious -- saving money is good. There is, however, an additional psychological aspect to things this year that is new.

In mid-August, we attended a presentation on 'yes, you can afford a solar power system for your home or business' offered through our local Sierra Club chapter. We have wistfully thought about having some kind of solar system for decades, but solar anything has always been super expensive and impractical, and we haven't given it serious thought. But the Sierra Club is partnering with various local installation companies around the country, and it sounded interesting, so we showed up. And were amazed to learn that, due to state and federal incentives and new financing options, we actually could afford a pretty cool little system that would provide potentially 30+% of our electric usage for very little money. As in, payback in 3-4 years on a system warranteed for 25 years.

We went home and looked at our power bills, did some research, talked to our bank, and sprang for it. But even before we got our system, we found ourselves determined to reduce our overall electricity usage, so that when we did get our system, the percentage it generated would be as high as possible.

Turning off light switches and unplugging phone chargers when not in use is fine, and all those little kilowatts do add up. But let's face it: heating a greenhouse in our cold winter climate, even at the minimal level I do it (thermostat set to go on only when temps hover around 35 F), uses up a lot of juice. Ow. In the early, heady days of proud solar panel ownership, I vowed to abandon my greenhouse darlings. Practice triage. Hoard only the very dearest and best tender plants in the protected sun porch attached to our house, and good down to 7 F without opening the door into the dining room.

No problem. Conservation is our middle name. Goodbye, annuals. See you, reincarnated, at the nurseries next spring.

Uh huh. Bold promises, easy to make when the sun is shining and the days are long and warm. Not so happy, now that the reality of snow and freezation are upon us. So far I haven't had to make the final decision. Lows have stayed in the low 20's to high teens, and so far have coincided with times I was drying tomatoes in the greenhouse, which kept the temperature warm enough on its own.

But tomato drying is ending, real winter is on the horizon, and soon I must face saying goodbye to the remnants of my glorious summer garden, or ... guiltily plugging in that little heater.


  1. Something is wrongwith the world when you can grow a bumper crop of tomatoes in frostland -BEND OREGON, and I can only manage 6 crummy tomatoes in Sedgwick, Kansas. Wah.

  2. It is definitely warmer than it was when I started gardening here in 1974. Global warming/climate change is quite tangible in cold winter-short growing season places like Bend. Possibly not so good for Kansas. Come on out anytime -- lots of nice houses for sale and lots of quilters everywhere you look.

  3. Oh, your green thumb is so amazing, Li'l Ned! Your bounty of tomatoes caused me to swoon. Surely the universe recognizes your lifelong efforts at conservation and will not begrudge you a few watts to keep your glorious plants alive? The plants themselves certainly appreciate the extended chance to live in the warmth and glow of your appreciation of their efforts to grow and bloom in one season... Congratulations on your solar installation! Please keep your readers posted on how well that works. The entire state of Kansas should have been made into one giant solar panel this year...