“I’ll trade you my Clarence the Raven painting if you help relocate the greenhouse,” I proposed to my artsy carpenter friend, Warren. He had been renovating a house down the road and discovered an old, dilapidated greenhouse in the back. Warren and I had been biking buddies for years, so he had been on the receiving end of my whining and wishing for a greenhouse for over 23 years.
My partner and I revisited the tired greenhouse covered in rotting leaves. It had a few broken windows and some half-opened windows with old brass handles. Some had loonie-sized holes drilled through their frames for venting, and the door was a mishmash of painted cedar shakes and shutters. Perfect! We carefully took it apart and stacked it in our miniature plywood trailer. The largest piece of glass was the shape of a typical child’s house drawing and about 7 feet tall. It would require more than our four hands to move it intact. Excitement was building as my greenhouse materialized into reality. The price was easily agreed upon: Clarence for the greenhouse. The unexpected obstacle in this arrangement was the rebuild occurring in my own life. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before and had gone through horrific chemotherapy treatment and a face-to-face encounter with death.
Early spring arrived and it was time to build. Warren and I gathered the reclaimed windows. I scavenged around our yard for windows we had salvaged from an abandoned cabin in the forest behind the property, and we started digging. The base was created and we laid beams for side and end supports. The greenhouse would be 5 feet wide by 11 feet long. W’s artistic bent with carpentry and woodwork allowed him to assemble the framed windows of various sizes and the huge sheets of frameless glass for the roof with ease. The weathered windows gave it so much character and were balanced with the found shakes and cedar strips from our yard.
The greenhouse came together in about a week. As the finishing touch, a ceramic fish found a perfect home in the gable against the cedar shakes. We finished the inside with a bench, raised beds around the perimeter, and an 18-inch walkway. The path was filled in with bricks of random shapes and sizes and paving stones, with tiny pebbles and beach stones in between to hold them in place. He also created a sliding bench to go along the edge of the garden box. My greenhouse became my sanctuary. When you finish treatment for breast cancer (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and more meds), you are not “finished.” It is not over. In fact, this is just the beginning of the healing process. It takes time, perseverance and a lot of soul searching. Planting early starters of squash, cucumber, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers and scallopini gave me great joy and time to contemplate my new life. Each morning, I would take my cup of coffee out to the greenhouse to pick and preen at my little seedlings. I’d sit on the bench and just breathe in the smells and soak in the colours; my greenhouse was my haven. Over the summer, some of the plants were moved to the big garden. Flowers were added to the greenhouse for colour and to attract bees when the door was open. The greenhouse became a permanent home to six enormous red, yellow and orange tomato plants. There were big ones, little ones, fat ones, skinny ones — none of which had names, as they were gifts from a friend. I had lemon and apple cucumbers, two Marketmore cucumbers, parsley, basil, celery and catnip. By the middle of the summer, it was an edible jungle.
Having coffee in the greenhouse in the morning was like being enveloped in a tomato-scented cave. It continued to be my place of refuge throughout the season, providing a reliable sense of calmness and a sensory lift. In the still of winter, I can hear the sound of the bees pollinating all the tomato and cucumber flowers, the smell of the tomatoes and various herbs, the colours … oh, the colours! Reds and yellows and oranges and pinks and purples and so many greens! Oh my! As an artist, I found it to be an orchestra of magical colour to tickle the eyes and feed the creative mind. Harvest time was good for the soul too. We had canned tomatoes, frozen tomatoes, canned Nonna sauce (a traditional Italian tomato sauce, with the exception that it was made with orange tomatoes), cucumbers (with everything), parsley, fresh celery, and fresh basil for pesto. What a prize! Not to mention, the cats were thrilled with their “weed” fix and spent many afternoons drooling and rolling over their bouquets of 100 percent local catnip. The little “greenhouse that did” will continue to be a source of sustenance and rejuvenation in our lives. Clarence the Raven found a new home, as did the abandoned greenhouse. The greenhouse provided both the expected and the unexpected: healthy, delicious, organic veggies and a glorious place of transformation, growth and healing.
Denise is a born and raised Vancouver Islander, adventurer, gardener, artist and writer. She has worked in the field of diverse abilities for over thirty-five years with side gigs of freelance writing everything from textbooks to curriculum development to a memoir. She is inspired by her love of nature and outdoor forays. Her recent renewed passion of painting (watercolour and acrylic) has become the favoured creative output. Visit Deni’s Island Art online gallery on Instagram at @deni_island_art