Getting the garden ready for winter

By Stan Cutler
Posted 10/15/20

The Roman family owned our Highland Avenue twin house from 1924 until we bought it in 2000. The three generations who occupied the place were in the building trades and undertook major improvement …

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Getting the garden ready for winter


The Roman family owned our Highland Avenue twin house from 1924 until we bought it in 2000. The three generations who occupied the place were in the building trades and undertook major improvement projects over the years. In 1932, they built a free-standing, two-car, brick garage facing Meade Street at the back of the long, narrow property. We know when they built it because one of the Romans commemorated their accomplishment. Above the garage door, he spelled out “1932” with chips of tile. On those occasions when we meet people at the back of the property, we explain that our address is not 1932 Meade Street. There is no such address. Don’t send mail.

Valerie, my wife, is a horticulturist. She is a gardener In the warm seasons, someone who spends the daylight hours outdoors tending to plants growing in the soil. In her case, she devotes as much attention to the potted plants she has moved outside for the summer. She keeps long-handled tools in the shed attached to the garage at the back of the long backyard. In the cold months, indoors, she cares for many more potted plants than I have bothered to count - I know I’d miss some. Valerie has turned the inside of our house into a horticultural habitat. Unknowingly, the Romans fueled her obsession with their improvements to the property.

I think the toolshed may have been built first, as a place to store the building materials for the garage. They used metal advertising signs as siding on the shed.  The words on two of the signs had been embossed so that we could read, “Abbot’s Dairy Ice Cream” and “Ballantine’s” under layers of paint.  You can’t see the shed from Meade Street, your view is blocked by the brick garages. In typical Roman fashion, the garages were well-built, with a loft and a strong roof. We keep our wheelbarrow and reel lawnmower there. The mower stands next to the hand truck we use to schlepp some of her heavier plants up and down the stairs of the three-story house. Not that I’m complaining… much.

 The Romans enclosed the front porch. They replaced the pine deck with hardwood and covered the rafters with tongue and groove flooring. Their ceiling is perfect for inserting a lot of screw hooks for hanging plants.  They built a framework around three sides to hold tall windows on hinges. Valerie converted the porch to a conservatory for cool-weather plants. It gets wintertime sun. It has an electrical outlet into which she plugs heaters and sunlamps.  

The Romans’ most ambitious improvement was bumping the back of the house out ten-feet into the yard. They built a two-story extension with a basement behind the kitchen. There are some fortuitous oddities about the extension.  

The basement extension they excavated is too small for much of anything but storage. It connects to the rest of the basement through an open doorway and has a cement stairway leading up to the backyard. It’s Valerie’s potting room. The floor is overcrowded by containers - big trashcans and a bunch of five-gallon pails filled with soils, mulches, stones, pot shards and other stuff, most of it for the orchids.  We installed a fluorescent light to supplement the hanging pull-chain bulb. In the winter and on rainy days, she re-pots orchids at the bench, keeping a propane burner at hand to sterilize the little shears she uses to snip aged air roots, cleaning each healthy root by hand before setting the plant into a sterilized pot with fresh media. She loves it down there.

We guess that the extension was built in two or three stages, over at least as many years. Why would they have paved the floor of the second-story room with cement? Why would they have put a hole and a drainpipe in the back corner? We guess that they built the little basement and the full bathroom and tiled mudroom above it as a one-story addition with a cement roof. At least one year later, they enclosed it as the floor of a second-story room under a tin roof. Soon after we moved, we commissioned removing the wall that separated our bedroom from the cement-floored space.  It is Valerie’s second conservatory and it is part of our bedroom. I like it a lot. The Romans, we guess, intended the cement-floored room as a summer dormitory because it has lots of windows for ventilation. They had eight children.

Valerie is a small person who does not mind ducking through groves of potted plants in the conservatories. Nor does she mind standing for hours at a time tending to her orchids in the potting room. It’s all good for me. Valerie hires a strong young man to provide the muscle required for the semi-annual migration of the houseplants. I get to live in a house with greenery everywhere.


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