Home & Design

Green Acre #68: A Winter Garden (Almost)

The Mark Twain House conservatory in Hartford, Connecticut, a solarium to aspire to. / Photo by John Groo for The Mark Twain House & Museum.

MY PRINCE is at the precipice of building a new solarium this fall. He guarantees it will be completed before the first frost nips the Bird of Paradise and shrivels the hibiscus.

Keep in mind that we’ve been without a ceiling light in the master bedroom for the past three months. He’s getting to it. Meanwhile I dress in the closet, and look it.

Also keep in mind that he’s 70 years old, a fact he reminds me of whenever I look askance at one of his uncompleted projects, some from last century. “I just don’t have the same energy,” he moans, though as I type this he’s doing something enormously energetic and loud in the basement, with accompanying language that would give Scaramucci a run for his money (I wish).

To return to the subject at hand. The existing solarium was temporary, five, six, seven years ago, a sky box hovering above the open lower porch where stairs lead down to the garden. And so I have complete and total confidence that the solarium can be completed. Operative word: can.

In the beginning, the upper back porch spanned half the width of our row house on Washington’s Capitol Hill. Opening off my office, it was,

The Cavanaugh conservatory, thus far. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

in the early decades, a summery spot for a hammock and a book. But as the years passed and my collection of tropical plants grew, a winter place other than the kitchen counter needed to be found.

While it was a juggling act to make hamburgers, I actually didn’t much mind my quiet companions. There’d be snow outside and jasmine tickling my nose.

But The Prince disliked the clutter. Knowing him, this is hugely amusing. There is not a spot in his designated areas, which include the garage, the attic, the basement and the second largest of our three bedrooms that he has commandeered as his office, that is not massed with his detritus. His office is so crowded, as a rule, with boxes of this and that and loose papers, that he’s forever sitting feet-up at my desk, stroking his bald spot and yakking on the phone.

And I can’t have a stinking dozen or so plants in my kitchen, a space he is endlessly rearranging so that I can’t find the measuring spoons? Always kept in the silverware drawer, now relocated to the lazy susan in a corner cabinet. Really?

Do I mess with his tools?

Approximately half of the above paragraphs are neither here nor there.

The little greenhouse he built ended up delighting me, and contrary to my fear that he’d take the space apart and that is how it would stay for a year or 10, it was built in a week. One of maybe two times I can recall that our spasms of home-improvement enthusiasm coincided. Oh, wait, I just recalled a third.  Sorry, that’s another aside.

He is a genius at finding reasonably perfect parts—cheap—at Community Forklift in Hyattsville, Maryland. CommFork, as he lovingly calls it, is a vast warehouse of new construction scrap such as boxes of excess bath tile and slightly chipped marble counters, donations from renovations like kitchen cabinets and super-scaled fridges and vintage items currently out of favor, such as coal stoves and baronial mantelpieces.

And there is a vast collection of doors and windows, some reclaimed, some new. For the original solarium, a single trip yielded a set of French doors and sidelights to run across the back of the house, and four enormous double-paned windows for the sides. Since this was temporary (sigh), only one door opened and none of the windows, which left the space rather stuffy in the August heat, but in winter it’s a pleasantly hot little box where tropicals thrive as long as I remember to water them.

Since it was meant to be temporary, maybe one year was the (don’t-hold-your-breath) promise, it was never quite finished. Painted white on the inside but several shades of this and that on the outside—where we didn’t have to look at it; various crevices are filled with little hemorrhoidal burbles of foam—and a don’t-worry-I’ll-cover-it section of insulation has been staring at me from below the skylight for two years. Not that I keep count.

Suddenly! Progress has been made.

An architect is finishing plans for the extended space. The porch will span the entire back of the house, with the two rear bedrooms opening onto it.  For less than $400, My Prince grabbed up five seven-foot-tall double-hung windows with arched tops at CommFork. Set side by side, they will completely fill the wall overlooking the garden.

Inside will be an Edwardian fantasy of black-and-white-tiled floors, wicker furniture, a ceiling fan and masses of parlor palms, lemons and limes, hibiscus and jasmine. It will have the feel of the conservatory in Mark Twain’s Hartford mansion—while looking nothing at all like it. That’s a fantasy for my next lifetime.

Meanwhile, the new windows are stacked in the neighbor’s garage. We’re plum out of space in our own.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about gardening and The Prince every week. To read earlier Green Acre columns, type Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the screen.

One thought on “Green Acre #68: A Winter Garden (Almost)

  1. Maggie says:

    Mark Twain’s job will have nothing on yours…..

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