I became the owner of a greenhouse this year for the first time in my life. I should have blogged about it in April and never got round to it, but better late than never.
For me, much of the appeal of greenhouses is the smell. And the memories evoked by it. The aroma of warm tomato foliage takes me straight back to my grandparents' garden in Colchester, Essex, where my grandfather (left) had a magnificent greenhouse in the middle of the back garden, a real focal point and centrepiece. He was a passionate gardener who grew flowers and vegetables and was particularly skilled at growing tomatoes. The garden was laid out in the classic English suburban style with what Alan Titchmarsh calls a "centrifugal lawn" with straight flower borders all around it (edged with geometric precision) and vegetables grown in a separate out-of-the-way area at the bottom end. As conventional as the design may have been, it was entirely his garden. He created it when he bought the house as a new-build in 1928 and nurtured it for the next 50 years.
I was 10 when he died but I never really knew him because he didn't talk much. He was a shy person and communicating with kids was not his forte, so I never really had conversations with him. I mainly knew him through his garden. I remember him showing me how to water plants, and how unimpressed I was when he told me to water the soil around the plants rather than just chucking it all over the foliage, which was a lot more fun. His garden was larger than the one we had at home and provided pleasures I'd never experienced before, such as sticking my hands into a big pile of grass cuttings on the compost heap and marvelling at the warmth inside, and the smell of the shed where his tools were kept, immaculately cleaned, oiled, sharpened and cared for (I wish I'd inherited that gene).
But the most intense memory is the smell of that greenhouse. It was an old-fashioned wooden one on a brick base, and it smelled of warm oiled wood mingled with the tang of tomato plants. I love that smell.
And now through the generosity of my parents I have one of these wonderful things in my own garden.
The site I chose for it was a neglected patch at the bottom of the garden. When I moved here in 2004 the garden was full of overgrown fruit trees and bushes which hadn't been pruned for years. I rejuvenated them (mostly successfully) but didn't know what to do with the piles of dead twigs, so they got dumped in a corner. And there they stayed until I got round to clearing them out and bringing the ground back into cultivation.
Clearing the site ...
And here it is.
I dithered for ages over where to go to get a greenhouse. There are lots of big stores around but I don't like the big chains ... I don't want to encourage them in their vile march towards total market domination. I don't shop at B&Q any more since they built a huge superstore a couple of miles outside town. I'm pissed off at the way these big corporations selfishly feck up the greenbelt with their loathsome warehouses and it's now impossible to get there without a car (the previous store was on the edge of town and within modest walking distance). I also find it a truly hateful shopping experience. The new superstore is vast and daunting and it's really hard to find anything. The staff are mostly hapless shelf-stackers unable to offer much help. Fellow shoppers are stressed out and bad-tempered, and the vast line of checkouts is like being shoved through a cattle market. Or a rugby scrum, when it's busy. What's really ironic is that the range of stuff they sell is not much bigger than it was at the previous shop, it's just bigger stocks of the same stuff, piled up higher on the shelves where you can't reach it anyway. I invariably find myself fighting back tears from the horribleness of it all. So I don't go any more.
I turned to the internet, and found what I wanted. Europa Manor make a 10' x 6' greenhouse which had exactly the spec I wanted and very good value for money. Even better, Europa Manor is a division of Eden Greenhouses which happens to be based within 5 miles of where I live. Buying local didn't make the delivery any cheaper but it did mean I got it in 5 days instead of the usual 2-5 weeks. But the difficult part was finding someone to put it up. Nobody advertises themselves as a putter-upper of greenhouses. If you look in the Yellow Pages you find dozens of companies wanting to flog you a greenhouse and install it at extra cost, but nobody offering to put one up which you've bought elsewhere. We tried several garden maintenance firms but it took a while to find one who would take it on, and it was pretty expensive. But we got there in the end.
The first residents moved in ... mostly tomatoes and peppers, plus a few peas waiting to be planted out. Yes that is a watering can you can see in the background with a bit of hosepipe running down from the guttering. It works a treat when there's overnight rain, it's just nicely filled up by the morning.
So I now have an enormous learning curve ahead of me. I already discovered this year the issue of grey mould. Yuk. That was partly because of something else I was experimenting with, which was allowing the tomatoes to grow freely. I had read that unpruned tomatoes are stronger and less vulnerable to blight. The greenhouse was probably not the best place to try it out, because by the beginning of August they were growing out through the roof and I could no longer get into the greenhouse at all. It also didn't seem to make any difference to the blight. All the greenhouse tomatoes were blighted, but it did spread a lot more slowly. And because the indoor fruits were about a month ahead of the outdoor ones, I got a much bigger and better crop from them anyway.
The frustration I have now, of course, is that the greenhouse is not big enough for more than eight or ten tomato plants, so I have to be ruthlessly selective with whatever I grow in there. Not easy when I have a backlog of Lycopersicon goodies I've collected in the last few years and some of my own breeding projects too.
Last dregs of blighted October tomatoes. The big ones are Copia, a variety I ordered from the US which didn't ripen fully in the climate here but fortunately still looks and tastes excellent when it's slightly unripe. The small round ones are my Marks & Sparks escapee, Green Tiger, which tastes fabulous and also takes this year's prize for blight-free abundance.
It was also a great pleasure to try growing chillis for the first time. One of the highlights was the bright yellow and curiously gnarled Lemon Drop, which is supposed to be lemon-flavoured but to me tasted more like peaches. Hot spicy peaches! It was a treat sliced up in a cheese sandwich and I'll definitely grow that one again.
Ripening Lemon Drop chillis. Hot, but in a fruity and flavoursome way rather than just blowing your head off, and better than anything you can buy in the supermarkets.