Grow for It!

Year-round gardening in metro greenhouses

Robert Clark

Meandering through older Columbia neighborhoods reveals residents’ love of horticulture in the remnants of greenhouses in some backyards. According to John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia, some 19th and early 20th century homeowners operated greenhouses, a fact supported by an 1872 birds-eye map of the city through historic photographs. These quaint, detached spaces were constructed not for looks but to allow gardening and flower arranging year-round — to keep warm and hot weather plants, including exotic tropical fruit trees, alive during winter. 

While some are relatively intact, others are almost unrecognizable due to weeds and neglect. Yet, some devotees are still carrying on family traditions, and hobbyists are also interested in trying out green thumbs year-round inside backyard greenhouses. 

The popularity of renovating and decorating shows has caused a gradual resurgence in greenhouses. Conservatories, in contrast, are greenhouses made of glass that might also offer additional living space. The appeal of greenhouses is multifaceted — they offer architectural beauty, retreat-like space, and plant cultivation. Custom builders mirror the greenhouse design with the home’s design –– or create a look that is distinctly different –– and orderable kits can be constructed DIY or with assistance from a contractor. Pop-up greenhouses are also available for homeowners desiring a space that is small and temporary.

The concept of gardening in a separate house originated centuries ago primarily in Europe for the purpose of growing citrus fruit, which was not readily available. Wealthy Europeans who traveled to Asia experienced oranges, lemons, and mandarins and wanted to serve them at their dining tables and for social events. Greenhouses used for this purpose were even dubbed “orangeries.” The frames of these houses have been and still are constructed of materials ranging from metal to wood to aluminum. Tempered glass, fiberglass, polycarbonate, or plastic form the main structure to collect light, which in turn heats the plants inside, causing a “greenhouse effect.” Thermal energy is stored, creating an ideal environment in which plants can thrive. 

Happy Place

While shown their home on Gervais Street 10 years ago, Mary Gail Chamblee looked out the kitchen window and was repelled by a backyard covered in ivy. The only trees were a few pines. In contrast, Cary, her husband, exclaimed, “Look how wonderful!” He had a vision and a plan, and that included a greenhouse. 

Today, that drab backyard is now an oasis –– Cary’s “happy place” –– where their Boykin Spaniel, Scout, cools himself on slabs of granite in front of an outdoor stone pizza oven and worn brick paths ramble past dozens of annuals and perennials, including roses, hostas, ferns, English ivy, and pots of basil and impatiens. The walkways all lead to a 21-feet by 31-feet traditional English-style greenhouse purchased in 2011 as a kit from BC Greenhouse Builders, Ltd. The package was all-inclusive, with automated gas heating and a cooling system that uses evaporative units made to raise humidity and lower temperature. Cary hired a laborer to help him with assembly. The frame is heavy-gauge aluminum, which should last forever. The roof is made of polycarbonate. The backside that cannot be seen from the house is also polycarbonate, and the visible sides are glass. The polycarbonate material is highly durable — limbs bounce right off.

Cary’s main reason for wanting a greenhouse was to grow camellias. “I had in mind the culture of camellias for camellia shows and flower cutting. I was president of the local camellia society, and both Mary Gail and I are camellia show judges,” he says. “Our winters take a toll on the blooms, and I wanted to have more control over the environment. For two years after construction of the greenhouse, I transported the camellias outside for the spring and summer and back in for the winter. These pots were very heavy, and it became quite a burden. I now grow about 100 varieties of camellias outside.” Eventually, he transitioned into a “lighter” hobby with orchids. 

He and Mary Gail joined the local South Carolina Orchid Society, which meets monthly at Maxcy Gregg Park, as well as The American Orchid Society. There, and through reading and research, he has learned much about growing orchids in greenhouses. 

He purchases orchids from all over, but primarily from Carter & Holmes Orchids in Newberry. “They are internationally known as a quality, reputable resource,” he explains.

The greenhouse does not exceed 85 degrees in the summer and does not fall below 60 in the winter. Six inches of sand under a pea-gravel floor traps excess water and slowly releases humidity. Solar-powered vents open to allow for ventilation and for excess heat to escape. A mist system on a timer provides needed moisture three times a day for two minutes. “Orchids can be easily overwatered,” says Cary. “They need good drainage, constant air movement, the correct temperature range, and adequate bright indirect light. I buy drainage pots that provide more air flow.” During warm months when the orchids are not in the greenhouse, he hangs hundreds of them in an open-air, misting space. 

The main challenge Cary faces is a pest called scale, a minute insect that looks like powder. Many mistake clumps of them as a fungus or disease. Special chemicals must be used to eradicate scale. “I lost some orchids to this disease in the beginning, but I figured it out. Otherwise, orchids are pretty resilient.” 

Cary estimates he has about 1,200 orchids with varieties from such places as Hawaii, the Philippines, Madagascar, and Brazil. His favorites are the Cattleyas, often distinguished by a ruffling effect on one part of the flower. Mary Gail’s favorite? “Every one of them, until the next one comes in the door,” she quips. 

Some are large and majestic, like the hanging purple Vanda, while others are petite and pretty, such as the Dendrobium thrysiflorum. The most common grocery-store variety orchids fall under the category of Phalaenopsis. Cary often doctors orchids that belong to friends, keeping them in his greenhouse until he can get them blooming again. Or, he loans some to friends to enjoy, and they bring them back after blooming. 

“They’re like my children though,” he maintains. “There are ones I won’t loan out.” 

Mary Gail loves to bring in pots of orchids for parties, clip stems for arrangements, and feature some on window sills. Currently, a few are showcased on a garden tray in front of the outdoor oven. Plus, grandchildren and visitors alike enjoy a stroll to the greenhouse to marvel at the color and beauty. 

“I’m retired now,” Cary shares. “This is such good therapy for me. Even in winter it is like a fairytale with all the different colors of the camellias in the garden and the blooming orchids in the greenhouse.”


Brown House

When Kent Flowers is not selling real estate in the Lexington area, he is in what his 6-year-old granddaughter, Ansleigh, refers to as the “brown house” because –– as she perceptively pointed out –– it is brown, not green. Kent believes that the need to grow things is in his blood, as he grew up on a farm in Hartsville and observed his father with hands in dirt until age 90. 

It was not until 12 years ago that Kent launched into gardening. However, he and Suzanne, his wife, purchased more than two acres of land in 1987 in what was rural Lexington and built in 1989. “Back then, it was practically wilderness,” he explains. “It was all wooded. I started with flat land and a drawing.” He first built an in-law cottage and landscaped around that. He also built a swing and a fire pit. “It’s all maturing now and looks like what I envisioned.” Then, three years ago he achieved certification as a Master Gardener.

As a result, plans evolved in 2010 to include an 8-feet by 8-feet greenhouse. At first, Kent primarily wanted a place to start seeds for heirloom vegetables, which he still grows. A moonlighting woodworker, he constructed the greenhouse frame of wood with translucent fiberglass for the front panels, polycarbonate for the roof, and recycled windows from a friend. Some items he purchased at the local ministry thrift stores called His House.

In the Confederate jasmine and crossvine covered “brown” greenhouse is a wooden countertop with an inset sink and garbage pail. While working in the greenhouse, Kent occupies a metal bar stool covered in a tomato print fabric. He has everything he needs to start seeds and nurture seedlings, including potting soil, fertilizer, pesticide, and seed trays. Hanging outside the greenhouse in moss baskets are ferns; moss window boxes house annuals. 

“There are more than 200 varieties of plants in my garden. I go for color and variation. It’s trial and error. In the greenhouse, I mostly keep tender perennials like my hibiscus and my lime tree, which I put out in the summer. I start seeds in November or later –– depending on what I’ve decided to grow. I start tomatoes in late January or early February.” 

Research led him to understand that ridge vents release excess heat while hydraulic vents open if heat builds up during winter and early spring months. In summer, he keeps the windows open with air allowed in and out of screens. If closed up, the temperature in the greenhouse can exceed 100 degrees.

Rocks on the floor of the greenhouse retain heat during colder winter months. If the temperature is especially cold, he may turn on a small electric heater that is thermostatically controlled. “It never gets below 40. If it ever snows, I especially like to come in here. It’s nice to see the snow falling wherever you look.” 



At 8 a.m. in the summer, Crystal Masterson is often already dripping perspiration from “playing” in her greenhouse and tending to her creative gardens. Dan, her husband, says he might wake up at 5 a.m., realize she is not in the house, and look outside to see a light glowing inside the greenhouse. “It’s my playhouse,” asserts the Master Gardener and retiree from a career as an executive secretary and business owner. “I garden with reckless abandon.”

Seventeen years ago, when Crystal moved into their Irmo home, she says the yard had some azaleas and a few young trees. She has vastly expanded the property’s horticultural offerings since and decided five years ago she needed a greenhouse for growing plants from seeds, nurturing seedlings, doctoring sick plants, and rooting clippings. Dan had already constructed a potting shed area in the backyard, and so they ordered the 8-feet by 10-feet kit online. Directions indicated an estimated eight-hour assembly time; it took Dan and a laborer at least 30 hours. 

Crystal’s greenhouse is a metal frame with Plexiglas panels attached. The floor consists of pavers and mulch. Since the door to the greenhouse is double hung, she leaves the top part open in the summer to avoid heat buildup. Crystal chose the spot for her greenhouse because tree foliage offers some shade in summer, yet bare winter trees allow sunlight to keep the house warm. The temperature does not fall below 40 degrees on the coldest days, and a nearby compost bin supplies nutrient-rich ingredients for her many pots. 

“Everything in the greenhouse was given to me or came out of the yard,” she shares, and these include plants from family in Indiana, plants she is growing to give away, and miscellaneous twigs and clippings that she has challenged herself to root. Succulents flourish in plastic trays, and garden markers keep straight each plant’s name and purpose. 

Crystal is all about clever repurposing and crafty ingenuity in order to keep her garden and greenhouse looking pretty on a budget. Found bricks provide the material for the walkway to the greenhouse, while wisteria forms a natural arch over the walkway. She decoupages water containers; one, in fact, features an entire calendar with photographs of flowers from around the world. Old bowling balls decoupaged and sealed become garden art.

She says Dan does not garden with her, but is amenable to honey-do lists and even wood-worked a sign over a trellis that reads: “Garden More, Work Less.” 

“I have an unpretentious little greenhouse, but I love it, and I am in it every day that I’m here,” she says.