Archive for October, 2009

The heating problem is solved.

The new furnace is an Eskabe, a non-electric, gas-powered heater, with a thermostat and an outside vent, manufactured in Argentina and distributed through several vendors in the U.S.

Two of my orchid-growing friends who live in a small lake community outside Lawrence, Kansas, recommended the furnace. Their problem with winter electric blackouts occurs considerably more often than mine in KC. They have two non-electric furnaces, one in the orchid room and an older one in an artist’s large studio. On more than one occasion, the two heaters have provided the only reliable heat source for the couple’s two-story house.

The Eskabe comes in three sizes based on the generated BTUs:

  • 17,000 BTUs for 425 sq. ft.
  • 11,000 BTUs for 275 sq. ft.
  • 8,000 BTUs for 200 sq. ft. [This smallest size does not have an automatic thermostat.]

I bought the middle sized unit. Although the square footage of my greenhouse is less than 275, I calculated that the Lexan and glass walls are significantly less insulated than most rooms in a house. I also wanted the auto-thermostat.

Installing the new heater was just one step in winterizing the greenhouse against the oncoming Missouri winter. I also covered the louvered windows and glass door with a product called “Shrink & Seal”® by M-D Building Products. It’s the plastic sheeting that is taped along the window/door frame and then shrunk to fit using a hair dryer.  The “Shrink & Seal” product works great once it’s installed, but it is a labor intensive process in a greenhouse because installation must wait until the metal framework is bone dry before the tape will stick.

phal (fred auction)

View of greenhouse's frame

Prior to installation, I shut off the misting system temporarily. Luckily last weekend the condensation that normally builds up in the greenhouse on cool nights abated when the temperatures outside and inside the greenhouse reached an equilibrium. After fitting and shrinking the plastic on the frame, I reinforced the M-D tape, which isn’t substantial enough to withstand any moisture, with FarmTek’s “Greenhouse Premium Repair Tape.” Although the Repair Tape must also be applied while the frame is dry, it is much better than the M-D tape at resisting the inevitable build up of moisture during the winter.

With the greenhouse now sealed and the little Eskabe humming away in the corner, my tropical-paradise bubble can now hunker down for those negative-Fahrenheit nights in Zone 5.

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A Dead Furnace

My greenhouse, given to me about four years ago, is a used 8-foot x 16-foot Lord and Burnham attached to the house. The frame sits on a knee wall and has four large louvered windows, each separated by a panel of double-walled Lexan, running the length of the east side. The south wall is also Lexan, as is the pitched ceiling except for its 16-foot-long glass vent.

The building, which was originally owned by St. Louis growers, is probably more than 20 years old. The gas furnace is also vintage…well, WAS vintage. It finally conked out when I tried to start it this fall.

I’ve no doubt that in its salad days the small Dynavent furnace was a dynamo – the reliable little engine that could. Even last winter, the Dynavent was a toasty powerhouse, as long as it kept running without interruption.

Unfortunately, two years ago, the furnace became increasingly temperamental. It had a hard time starting on its own when the thermostat told the “flame sensing probe” to fire up. A call to the manufacturer proved fruitless – parts for the old furnace were long ago discontinued.


South end of greenhouse, location of old furnace

Unreliability in a furnace can lead to sleepless nights. Fortunately, the greenhouse’s temperature-sensing alarm was reliable — it went off two or three times each winter, usually in the middle of the night.

Unreliability can also keep you very close to home during those long, frigid winter months – no vacations, no out-of-town weekends. 

But then, I can’t blame everything on the little furnace. Actually, Kansas City winters often bring ice and snow storms that can snap giant tree branches and sever electric and telephone power lines. Hardly a winter goes by that the power isn’t shut down for at least a few hours – and often for longer. In fact, during the last decade, we’ve had three power outages that lasted for days. 

Next step…find a furnace that can stand up to Missouri winters.

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The Challenge

I raise orchids in Kansas City, Missouri – located in Zone 5 on the Hardiness Map. The challenge of this addictive hobby is not that orchids aren’t native to the Midwest. Almost every region on Earth, including Iceland, can boast of its native orchids. Missouri is home to several types of orchids, including the exquisite little Cypripedium calceolus.

The challenge is that I don’t raise Cypripedium calceolus or other Missouri orchids.

I prefer the big, flashy varieties – the cattleyas, cycnoches and vandas. True, my 115+ – plant collection has some diminutive bloomers – a mexipedium, a few miniature phalaenopsis and mounted pleurothallis – but the majority of my orchids is comprised of in-your-face divas that seem to unfurl their blossoms to a sassy chorus of “I’m an ORCHID and you’re NOT.” These bold-colored beauties call places like Belize, Brazil and Borneo home.

lc drumbeat

Laeliacattleya Drumbeat 'Heritage' HCC/AOS

So that’s the challenge. How to make a small pocket of Zone 5 into a tropical Eden for a bunch of sun- and humidity-loving orchids.

Through the coming months, I’ll write about what’s going on in my collection, report on the vagaries of weather and conditions inside and outside the greenhouse. I’ll brag about the successes and lament the failures. I’ll include culture tips, plant recommendations, helpful links and resources.

Most orchids really aren’t a challenge to raise. They are surprisingly vigorous plants – although not always reliable bloomers. The challenge for Zone 5 and parts north is providing and maintaining the proper balance of environmental elements – temperature, light, atmosphere, fertilizer and growing medium – to create an orchid paradise.

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