By Carol Stocker
When the days grow shorter, I always find myself toying with the idea of adding a greenhouse or sun room full of thriving oxygen producing plants to make winter bearable. If you do, too, you'll be inspired by a new book written by a non-gardener who, starting with zero knowledge and a ridiculously brown thumb, built a lush conservatory onto her Maryland home that became a center for family life, entertaining, and her own revitalization after a bout with cancer.
"Paradise Under Glass; An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden," by Ruth Kassinger is my favorite gardening book of the year. It is actually five books in one. There's the personal uplifting memoir of re-embracing life through a passionate project. Interwoven with this is an actual how-to book of hard won advice on building a functioning plant conservatory. The big bonus is that since the author is also an award winning history and science writer, she has included (perhaps she couldn't stop herself) an amusing history of greenhouses, character sketches of leading American houseplant growers, and up to date scientific information about green industry technology.
Ruth Kassinger had been hit hard by her sister's cancer death at 45, followed closely by her own battle with breast cancer. Seeking a healing retreat, she visited conservatory of the U.S. Botanical Garden on the Washington Mall and decided to build her own private green oasis, "the perfect antidote to the losses and changes of middle age."
She surprised herself as much as her family because she had never before been interested in gardening. In fact she was repelled by the earthworms in the backyard landscape her husband's tended. But the indoor garden she envisioned would be a clean, bright, earthworm and insect-free cocoon for healing.
Kassinger searches out a builder, deals with zoning ordinances and gets houseplant advice from her local nursery. Gradually she expands her horizons, visiting the famous Logee's Greenhouse in Danielson, CT., and other specialty growers in Florida and California to learn what kinds plants will grow best for her lighting conditions with a minimum of care. She learns how to grow butterflies in her conservatory and how to fight less desirable life forms like scale and spider mites. The appearance of bugs in her paradise sets off a frenzied over-reaction triggered by her belief that she and her doctors had been slow to diagnose cancer's attack on her body. But after researching the most toxic insecticides and how to administer a kind of chemo on her greenhouse, she comes to her senses and dials back to organic Neem and the less poisonous Integrated Pest Management.Technique
The narrative also goes backwards and forwards in time as Kassinger intersperses essays about the history of greenhouses, once a status symbol of the incredibly wealthy, and now, thanks to technology, available to everyone. My favorite element is the future looking science writing Kassinger has deftly integrated. Her research is so thorough that her bibliography is seven pages long, though the book unfortunately lacks an index. In the last chapter she writes about why Biosphere 2 failed (it gobbled up expensive energy) and about entrepreneurs such as Glen Kertz of Texas who is farming algae in greenhouses to try to extract its natural oil, and who is also experimenting with vertical farming to produce more food using less space, fertilizer and water.
Kassinger also researches "living walls," one of the hottest new decorative trends in landscape architecture which has been supersized by French horticultural star Patrick Blanc. My jaw dropped when I saw one of his walls in the south of France last year. Blanc had turned the four story side of a concrete parking garage in Avignon from a potential eyesore into a stunning green tourist attraction which loomed over a public square like a jolly green giant. His textured tapestries of thousands of mixed plants camouflage a complex system of growing medium, supporting materials and irrigation. Rather than just being impressed, Kassinger's typically ambitious response was to try to build a small "living wall" in her own greenhouse. Since Blanc's organization was not sharing trade secrets, she proceeded by trial and error, as usual. She includes details, sources and a spec drawing in her appendix in case you, too, want to try this at home.
Though it gets off to slow start, this book sneaks up on you. It gradually builds in technical complexity as well as emotional depth, so that by the time you finish it, you're surprised by how much you've learned. Readers will find this book is an antidote for the blues of a midwinter's day or midlife malaise. But be warned... you might feel a need to start acquiring houseplants, or even a greenhouse.
Kassinger's own epiphany is that nothing in a garden, even an indoor garden, is static. Her original idea of paradise was a green retreat from change and challenges. But after her constant adjustments and experiments to improve her own indoor biosphere project, she happily concludes that paradise is a place where there's always something new to respond to and look forward to.
"Paradise Under Glass; An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden," by Ruth Kassinger (William Morrow, $24.99)
Review by Carol Stocker