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GARDENING : Building a Steamy House of Till Repute

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it comes to gardening, people have been trying to fool Mother Nature for thousands of years.

One of the earliest known greenhouses was built around AD 30 to grow cucumbers for the Emperor Tiberius. Since glass had not yet been invented, who but an emperor could afford to have window painstaking constructed out of bits of translucent mica?

The French built orangeries in the 17th Century to produce oranges and other citrus fruit, and George Washington had a greenhouse pinery built at Mt. Vernon to satisfy his craving for pineapples.

“The reason most people want a greenhouse is because you can create a tropical environment and raise types of plants that aren’t California natives,” says Jerry Simpson, a former production manager at California Greenhouse Controls in El Monte, which sells and installs prefabricated greenhouses. “People are generally raising anything from vegetables to orchids and other types of tropical plants, as well as reviving houseplants.”

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South Coast Orchid Society president Philip Plocher of Alamitos Heights grows orchids that “15 years ago orchid nursery people said wouldn’t grow outside. But a lot of us tried and did it anyway.” He dabbles in cymbidiums, paphiopedilums, cattleyas, some members of the odontoglossum family and various crosses in his back yard.

“More people are growing more and more things out in the garden,” says Paul Brecht of Brecht Orchid Gardens in Costa Mesa, “because we have an ideal air-conditioned climate here (along the coastline) which is pretty much frost-free, except for last winter when it froze.”

If the slope of the land faces the ocean--west of the Santa Ana Mountains, for example--the climate is temperate. But from the top down the east side of the mountains, facing away from the ocean, it’s not frost free.

“The more inland they live, the more necessary a greenhouse,” Brecht says.

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Almost anyone who lives between the ocean and the coastal mountains can find some kind of orchid that will grow in their yard. For outdoor growing, Brecht suggests cymbidium, paphiopedilum (lady’s slipper) and epidendrum orchids.

Between November and April, Chuck Nickerson is a popular guy. Not that he wouldn’t be anyway, but the 100 or so white and lavender cattleya orchids he passes out during that time can’t hurt. “Pretty much all of your major flower-giving holidays fall during that time,” he says, “Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter.”

Nickerson has been growing orchids for five years but didn’t get a greenhouse until he moved from “the flatlands” of Orange to the hills. “There’s a lot of wind,” he says, “I had trouble keeping the orchids as humid as necessary. They were starting to suffer, so I really did need the greenhouse.”

Greenhouses range all the way from small do-it-yourself projects to prefabricated models and pricey architect-designed house additions.

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At California Greenhouse Controls, prices start at $1,600 for a prefabricated bare 6-by-8 -foot greenhouse. A 16-by-30-foot model with all the options would be about $18,000 with another $3,500 to have it installed.

Simpson says it would take a do-it-yourselfer, “someone fairly skilled at home improvement,” 60 to 80 hours to erect a prefabricated model.

“The only advice I consistently got was, ‘Get a bigger greenhouse than you think you need, because in five years it’ll be full anyway,’ ” Nickerson says.

But a structure does not a greenhouse make.

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“A lot of people have the misconception about greenhouses that they can have a structure in their back yard and start raising whatever they want, but without any controls or shade it’s basically just an oven,” says Simpson. “Most of our greenhouses are kept at temperatures from 60 to 80 degrees and generally around 60% relative humidity.”

Greenhouse plants need air circulation, light, humidity, water, nutrients and protection from extreme temperatures.

Watering can be accomplished two ways.

“You can spray water from above and drench everything in the greenhouse,” says Simpson, a method he doesn’t recommend because “you’re putting city water on top of your foliage and as time goes by you’re going to start having calcium buildup on the entire inside of your greenhouse.”

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A second way is to use an injector, which feeds fertilizer into the watering line and nourishes each plant.

Shade may be provided my woven material bridged over the top, the tighter the weave the more the shade. “It generally ranges from 30% to 90% light transmission, depending on the individual hobby,” Simpson says.

Lath or strips of redwood can also be used, spaced from 3/4 to 1 1/4 inches apart. Polycarbonate windows have built-in shade factors. Least expensive but least appealing is painting the outside with water-based shade paint.

Swamp coolers are favored for cooling because they are the most energy efficient. They also provide some humidity, “although they are not completely effective in humidifying, so you need to have a humidity system as well,” Simpson says.

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Designing your own greenhouse can be a creative challenge.

Don Fraser of Whittier converted a free-standing back-yard playroom into a greenhouse to grow prize-winning cattleya orchids, as well as to shelter bonsai in summer and cacti in winter.

“The wood was falling apart so I took all that down,” he says. He built members, attached them onto the concrete and “because we don’t see too many frosts here I just used fiberglass” instead of glass.

He created an evaporative cooler and installed a small, radiant space heater with a fan. The greenhouse has removable doors on two sides to help ventilate. He has a drip-mist system for watering and says the resulting calcium deposits can be easily wiped away with a paper towel dipped in nonfat milk.

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