Tag Archives: project

My greenhouse cometh

Recent growth in my plant collection has highlighted the inevitable – I’m going to need a greenhouse sometime in the future.  And that future seems to be quickly approaching.  For quite a while I have thought that a greenhouse might be possible sometime in the future, but we recently decided to go ahead and do it now.

Plants are almost literally growing out of our ears!  We need someplace to put them.  While my wife and I love our little house, it is lacking in the number of windows needed for happy houseplants.  During the winter months, our house stays at 60F most of the day and we only turn it up to 62-63F when we are going to be at home for a while and get cold.  The plants would prefer 80F and 80% humidity.

A greenhouse can provide that kind of growing environment on winter days, by simply taking advantage of the sun’s awesome power.  I intend to take advantage.  On winter nights, a heater is required.

In the next month, we’re going to build a small greenhouse on our back porch.  The area we have to work with is about 8’x12′, so the inner dimensions will likely be about 7’x11′.  This area is pretty heavily shaded during the growing season by our huge Sycamore tree.  When Fall arrives and the temperatures drops, so do the leaves.  At this critical time of the year my greenhouse will receive the most light.

One wall of the greenhouse will be shared with the exterior of our house.  The roof of the greenhouse will adjoin our house roof.

My back patio where the greenhouse is to be built
My back patio where the greenhouse is to be built


I plan to lay 2-3 layers of cinder blocks and then build a simple wooden frame out of 2″x4″s on top of that.  I have experience laying cinder block from house-building mission trips to Mexico.  My father-in-law has built several houses and will be helping with the framing.  The walls and ceiling will be covered with 8mm triple-wall polycarbonate sheets. Twin-walls are a little cheaper and more common, but the cost differential is quickly paid for with reduced heating costs and size of heater needed.

Initial sketch of my greenhouse plans
Initial sketch of my greenhouse plans

The polycarbonate sheets can be attached very easily by nailing/screwing them into the wood frame.  Additionally, you have to seal all joints to avoid leaking the warm, humid air of the greenhouse.

To cover the screws or nails, you cover the polycarbonate joints with trim wood.  I plan on cutting my trim pieces to fit and then staining and sealing my trim pieces before attaching them to the greenhouse.


I will buy a small space heater that will run in the greenhouse during the winter months over night.  During the day, it should stay pretty warm, even when the temperatures outside are cold.  I have used a calculator online to determine the BTU output my heater will need.  Assuming the temperature falls to about 20 F outside and I want my greenhouse to stay at or above 60 F, I will need about 500 BTUs to heat the greenhouse.


I ran some rough numbers and have an estimated cost of the main materials.  Those materials are the lumber, cinder blocks and polycarbonate sheets.  They are the most costly and also the easiest to figure.  For instance, I know almost exactly how many cinder blocks I’ll need, but have no idea how many nails.

My initial estimate doesn’t include all of the fasteners (nails, bolts, etc.), sealers, stain, or bags of mortar and cement.  Other considerations are any extra tools for building (beyond what I already own), the exhaust fan, and a simple fluorescent light fixture.  I plan to find some cheap shelves and build the remaining ones to fill the space inside.

All in all, I figure the total cost won’t be much more than 50% greater than my initial estimate for the base materials.

Room for improvement

Over the years the greenhouse will probably undergo a number of changes.  I’ve already thought a couple of them through.  We would like to add a room onto our house one day.  At that time, we will be ordering bricks to match our house.  I would like to have a professional mason cover over the cinder blocks with the matching red brick, so I will be leaving room on the back porch pad when I lay the cinder blocks.

Another upgrade I foresee is incorporating irrigation in some way.  I’m not sure how I want to do this and I think I will probably have a better idea after the greenhouse is built.  For now I’m going to just drag the hose in through the door or use a watering can.  One potential watering system would simply be to collect rainwater runoff from the roof and route it into a container in the greenhouse.  There are a couple of areas around the house that would benefit from gutters diverting heavy rains to other locations.

Other potential upgrades include improved circulation, ventilation or heating.

There is a good discussion of hobby greenhouses at Thyme for Herbs.

Stay tuned for more posts soon with pictures of the greenhouse in progress and complete with occupants!

See other phases of the project here:


My little Jade Bonsai

Bonsai is one of those plant sub-hobbies that really interests me.  I enjoy the simple, pristine artwork that combines nature and creativity to create something that, in the end, looks like a miniaturized version of nature itself.  Bonsai is a lot like some of the other plant sub-hobbies that I enjoy.  Just as I enjoy setting up terrariums and aquariums, little worlds of life – bonsai mimics nature on a small scale.

I haven’t really had much experience with bonsai, but I do have a couple of empty bonsai dishes.  Those containers are reminders of gifts that didn’t work out.  Twice I have received small Gardenias that were formed like bonsais and I lost them both.  I decided I simply don’t have the right growing conditions for Gardenias. Having these great shallow pots, I decided to try starting a bonsai myself.  After reading through a really informative, short book (Bonsai: 101 Essential Tips by Harry Tomlinson) with lots of pictures for inspiration, I thought I would like to try a small cotoneaster.  I knew that the local Lowe’s store carried these during the growing year.  I bought the smallest cotoneaster I could find in the fall of 2006.  I think it was in October, maybe.  I cut back the limbs and roots as I had been instructed in the book I read and potted the cotoneaster in my bonsai container.  Unfortunately, I think the little plant had already gone dormant and it was really not a good time to be doing any pruning.  I didn’t ever see any life out of him.

I decided the next time I try a bonsai, it will be from a seedling or a very young plant that is healthy.  Either that, or I will purchase a bonsai that has already been started.

So, when my mother-in-law gave me a handful of Jade plant pieces that could be rooted, I knew that I had a good candidate.  I chose the smallest little piece and potted him very carefully  in one of my bonsai containers.

My little Jade bonsai start
My little Jade bonsai start

I have seen some really nice Jade bonsai trees in books and on the internet.  I hope to gradually learn more about the art of bonsai as this Jade plant slowly grows to size.  I can shape and prune the plant carefully and hopefully end up with a strong, thick-trunked little Jade bonsai tree in the future.

Jade bonsai inspiration - from bonsai4me.com
Jade bonsai inspiration - from bonsai4me.com


Hypertufa pots

About a year and a half ago, I bought some supplies for making my own potting soil and I also bought a bag of cement so that I could try my hand at making some hypertufa pots.  There is quite a bit of information on making hypertufa pots out there on the internet.  And there are quite a few recipes, as well.

Why make your own pots?
Let me count the reasons…  There are quite a few reasons for making your own pots.
1. They aren’t expensive to make.  And pots can be expensive to buy.
2.  It’s a fun project, if you have the time.
3.  Hypertufa pots act a little differently than clay or plastic.  They can soak up water from a tray.  Also, if you want, you can get moss and lichen to grow on the pot, itself.

I took on the hypertufa pots for the fun of the project.

What do you need?
There are three main ingredients: (Sphagnum) Peat Moss, Vermiculite and (Portland) Cement.  I use approximately equal parts of each to make my pots.  I use a little more cement than the other ingredients.  [For those who might already have peat moss and cement on hand, but don’t want to go and buy vermiculite, I’ve heard that sand is a good substitute.]  And you will need some sort of container for mixing your ingredients.  I use an empty 5 gallon paint bucket and a paint stir stick for mixing.

You will also need some items for making molds for your pots.  Here is where you can be very creative – or not.  I have heard that cardboard boxes of varying sizes make good molds.  [Make sure that you use a sturdy cardboard, not the thin paperboard that is used for items like cereal boxes.]  You can place one cardboard box inside of another one and fill the space between to make your pot.  Or you can use pots of varying sizes.  Another method is to fill some large container with sand and make a mold with the sand.  Then you can pour your mixture into the sand, using some other container (maybe a bowl or pot) to act as the inner barrier.  Sounds rather vague, doesn’t it?  Hopefully you get the idea.

Sometimes it is hard to remove the finished product from the mold, so I suggest using materials that you don’t mind cutting apart when all is said and done, in order to retrieve your pot.  This is one of the reasons for using the sand mold method.  Also the sand mold gives you much more flexibility in shape and size of the pot you want to make.

Shapes and sizes
Most of the hypertufa containers I have seen are normal small to medium pot sizes.  However, I have seen some larger planters and in one case a sort of fountain that had attached pots.  I have considered sculpting some interesting shapes, and I have tried one very ambitious project – but it failed miserably.  That will probably be the subject of a future post.  If you need inspiration, do a google search on “hypertufa pots” and you are likely to find quite a few pictures.

How do you do it?
First, you’ll want to make sure you have the 3 necessary ingredients, a container for mixing them (I suggest a 5 gallon bucket), a mixing stick (paint stir stick will do) and your mold containers.  Also, most people would tell you to use gloves.  If you don’t use gloves the cement will prune your fingers in a matter of seconds and you’ll be rather dried out when you’re finished.  I have also had some peeling fingers a couple of days after working with hypertufa, which my wife finally linked to not using gloves.  I don’t really mind it and I mind gloves a lot more, so I don’t use gloves.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Combine the ingredients and be sure the peat moss is broken up before adding water.  Add water and mix to a smooth but not runny consistency.  The amount of water is pretty easy to gauge.  If the consistency is crumbly, add water.  If the mixture is really runny, you’ve got too much water and need to add some more of each of the 3 ingredients (or just let it sit and dry out for a little bit).  Then you can just go for it, pressing or pouring your mixture into the mold.  Make sure that there are no air pockets.

Leave your project in the sun to dry for at least a day.  The curing process actually takes a couple of days, but it will be firm enough after about a day to remove the moldings around the pot and allow better air circulation to all surfaces.  If you are not able to easily remove the moldings by hand, carefully cut them away so that you don’t put much stress on the newly created pot.  It will need to sit outside of the mold for another day to dry out a little more and become more solid.  IMPORTANT: Don’t forget to make some drainage holes in your pot.  For a couple of mine, I was using pots as molds, so I was able to create drainage holes by poking through the drainage holes of my molds while my hypertufa was still in the mold.  For other projects, just carefully create the holes as soon as you remove the pot from its mold.  It should still be soft enough to use a toothpick.  If you forget, you can always use a drill later – carefully.  Whether a toothpick or a drill, be careful not to shatter your creation!

My Pots

small hypertufa pot I made
small hypertufa pot I made

For the small pot above, I used two “disposable” square plastic pots that I had on hand.  I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to remove the pot once it was dry, so I lined the inside of the larger pot with a plastic grocery bag first.  It turns out, that step was very helpful when it comes to removing the pot from the mold.  However, the drawback is that you can see all the little wrinkles from the sack on the side of the pot.  I guess it could be considered an artistic touch – if I said that I had intended the effect.  You decide whether you like it or not.

slightly larger hypertufa pot - and David
slightly larger hypertufa pot - and David

You might notice the pot above has considerably smoother sides than my first pot.  For this one, I just used two square pots and did not do any lining.  Unfortunately I actually had to cut the outer pot into pieces to remove it from my finished pot.  I “broke the mold.”  I guess if I ever wanted to make a matching pot it wouldn’t be hard to find an identical mold.

My round hypertufa pot with pebbled edge
My round hypertufa pot with pebbled edge

The most creative I got in my original batch of hypertufa pots was to add some pebbles to the edge of this round pot.  It’s kind of sloppy looking, but it has character, so I like it.

And beyond…

My future plans include a rectangular planter (maybe 20″ by 30″ and 12-15″ high).  These are often called “troughs.”  I will probably use two cardboard boxes as the mold for this.

It seems that there are a lot of creative plant people.  And the really creative ones have done all sorts of neat things with hypertufa.

I have heard that you can get moss and/or lichen to grow on the side of your hypertufa pots by coating them in a mixture of one ground moss and one of the following: beer, buttermilk or yogurt.  Before you try too hard, consider whether moss grows in your area of the country at all.  If it doesn’t you’re going to have a hard time getting moss to grow on your hypertufa.   If you really want to do this, it can happen.  If you live in the Pacific Northwest, it will happen – whether you want it to or not.  (so I’m told)

Another cool thing you can do with hypertufa is imprint the side of your pots with leaves (or other objects of your choosing).  To make this work, a fine mixture of hypertufa is needed.  You probably need to use sand in place of vermiculite and also really strain the peat moss so that no chunks make it into the mixture.  Before water is added the mixture should be powder-like.  And it helps to use leaves with big veins, which will show up clearly in an imprint.  I think I’m going to have to try this soon!

Want more information on hypertufa?  There is an entire forum dedicated to Hypertufa on GardenWeb.  There are people that frequent that forum with a lot of experience and helpful advice.  Also, doing a google search on “hypertufa” will result in about 75,000 hits!  That should give you enough to read for a while.


Planty Resolutions

At this time of the year, everyone is making resolutions.  So I guess I will talk about what I plan to do for this next year.  More than resolutions, these are my goals.  The first four goals apply to this blog directly and the last five apply to me and my plants.

  1. Continue posting at the rate of 2-3 times per week.  I started this blog a year and a half ago, but only began posting at regular (frequent) intervals a couple of months ago.  So far I have not had trouble coming up with at least 2 posts a week.  I hope to keep that trend throughout the year.
  2. Review about 1 plant book a month.  Even if I don’t read one new plant book each month, I have a backlog that should last me the full year – all I need to do is write the review.
  3. Write a “trip report” about once a month.  This will be a little trickier, as I don’t know off the top of my head 12 different places to visit and write about.  But I will give it a shot.  More than likely this will become more of a quarterly post, or just as they occur.  I won’t hold myself to the month interval, since my vacations tend to be distributed more heavily towards Spring and Summer.
  4. Write a “project” post once a month.  I have written three posts that I tagged and categorized as “projects.”  I foresee more of these in the future, as I plan to write about my successes and failures of making hypertufa pots and terrariums.  We’ll see what else I get my hands into.
  5. Start a collection of Asarums (Wild Ginger).  I have had just one species of Asarums in the past, but I’ve been saving up some money so that I can order 2 or 3 varieties from Asiatica Nursery and begin a real collection.  [I’m not sure if I want to start the collection in the Spring or wait until the Fall, since they will thrive in my cool, dark house overwinter.]  I received a collector’s book on Asarums for Christmas that I will be posting about soon – stay tuned!
  6. Grow some of my own food.  During the summer of 2008, we grew about 5 tomatoes (maybe less) and 3 limes.  For the summer of 2009 I have some ambitious plans to grow: tomatoes, potatoes, kiwi (will not have fruit this year), and broccoli.  Last year I tried broccoli, but the plants kept getting eaten by some caterpillars.  I don’t have a lot of room for gardening in the sun, but I am going to try growing the tomatoes and broccoli in pots this year, so that I can move them into the appropriate full sun locations and save my ground space for potatoes and kiwi.  The kiwi will take a couple of years before fruiting, but I want to get them in the ground this year.  The potatoes (my favorite vegetable) will also be a new venture for me.  Wish me luck!
  7. Vigorously plant front figure 8 bed.  We have a wonderful front flowerbed in the shape of a figure 8 that is filled with red and white tulips in the Spring.  The rest of the growing season it gets invaded by grass.  We have tried putting down tarp and covering with mulch after the tulips are finished, but that’s just not very pretty.  Last year we planted potato vine, which was great.  The only problem is that we didn’t plant enough.  This year I want to plant sooner (while the tulips are just finishing their blooming) and plant about twice as much.  If I stay on top of watering them at first, they should really fill out the bed nicely and keep the grass out.
  8. Fertilize. I have never fertilized any of my own plants before.  Some of my plants have not bloomed for me – ever.  Are these two items coincidental?  I think not.  I was very happy not fertilizing my plants, but I have committed to fertilizing regularly starting this spring.  Maybe I will get my Walking Iris, Shell Ginger and Bougainvillea to bloom this year!
  9. Recreate the corner garden.  Two years ago we started a beautiful little corner garden in our backyard.  At the time it was a shade garden.  After the ice storm in December 2007, it became a full/part sun garden, since the trees hanging over the garden were destroyed.  To make matters worse, the small cherry tree we had planted in front of the garden has since died, so we can’t hope for it to one day shade the garden.  And I can’t count on my tiny Japanese Maple to provide shade anytime soon.  This last summer the garden suffered because I had planted it with shade perennials (hostas and coral bells, mostly).  Now I need to either rethink the garden or plant a new shade tree so that this garden can return to form.  I’ve been thinking about planting a ginkgo tree ever since I saw one last fall that was a beautiful solid shade of yellow.  What do you think?

Well, that does it for now.  Those all seem like doable goals.  And each one of them will probably result in a couple of posts.  I’ll keep you updated.


Great piece of bark – what should I do with it?

I was driving home from work a couple weeks ago when I noticed a huge piece of bark on the side of the road.  It had fallen off the side of a large tree that had been cut down.  The tree had been chopped off at the height of the fence (about 6′) and the bark slid off the tree several years later

Like a football scout (it is that season), I looked at it and all I could see was potential.  I came back that evening and loaded it up in my wife’s SUV.  Now it’s sitting on my back porch waiting to be put to good use.  The bark measures about 6 feet x 2.5 feet.  You should be able to see from the picture how big it is.  It also has really good character.

Me holding up the prized piece of bark.  Look how big!
Me holding up the prized piece of bark. Look how big!

The only problem is deciding what to do with it.  I have a couple of ideas, but haven’t acted on anything yet.  Mainly my ideas focus on climbing plants.

1. I could construct a sort of stand and mount the bark on it, holding it upright.  Then I could start to train some of my climbers to attach to it.  I have a lot of good plant candidates (mostly Aroids) for this.  I have just begun to train a couple of my Aroids to climb up some stakes I made.  These are Philodendron microstictum and Scindapsus pictus (one of my favorite plants).

Clippings of Scindapsus pictus that I have staked for climbing.
Clippings of Scindapsus pictus that I have staked for climbing.

2. One of the most common uses for bark among “planty” people is for mounting orchids.  However, I am kind of out of my orchid swing right now.  I have had as many as 5 orchids in the past, but I only have one right now and it has moved to my mother-in-law’s house because it wasn’t doing very well under my care.  This huge piece of bark would look amazing covered in orchids, but if I decide to use it in that manner I’ll be putting it on hold for now.  I’m also not sure if this bark would be most appropriate for mounting orchids.  I suppose it couldn’t hurt.  But orchid-mounting bark usually is more porous and can be soaked in water.  This piece of bark would not be a good fit for that kind of use due to its size, as well as its texture.

Do you have any ideas about how this great piece of bark could be used?