Down & Dirty Under Glass


Y'all please welcome Ruth Kassinger, author of Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden.  We're giving away a copy of her book to the commenter with the best conservatory story or conservatory fantasy.  Enjoy!


I do all my gardening indoors, in the glass-filtered light of a conservatory nestled into the crook of our L-shaped house in suburban Maryland. No outdoor gardening, with its hammering heat, mosquitoes, and horrible hundred-legged beasties, for me. My soil comes, bug-less, in plastic bags. Water––into which I carefully measure half-teaspoons of fertilizer––comes from the spout of a watering can. 

None of my potted plants are native. They all hail from well south of here, and that is my challenge: nurturing a tropical paradise where none has a right to be. The pleasures, though, are equal to the difficulties. This past February when snow piled up waist high in the backyard and the three-foot-long icicles hung from the eaves, I saw it through a scrim of palm fronds. When outdoor gardeners were reduced to reading seed catalogs, I was harvesting bright-red coffee cherries, Meyer lemons, and Meiwa kumquats.

It’s not dirty in my conservatory, which is just as well since this is where we eat all our meals and have come to live our lives, but it’s real and it’s definitely chaotic. Tall Alocasia bend over the Victorian wirework dining table, and a strawberry guava and three Bird-of-Paradise reach for the skylights. Pots of peace lilies hoisting graceful white spathes, pink-veined prayer plants, and variegated Dracaena cluster on the floor. My vertical garden––a hydroponic version I invented––covers one wall and is filled with marbled Pothos, red-leaved Fittonia, creeping fig, various ivies, and flashy bromeliads. The Pothos, to my delight, are now sending runners across the ceiling.

But give me Anthurium for creating the spirit of the tropics. These South American natives have large, heart-shaped leaves on long stems, and their flowers (spathes, actually) look like shiny, plastic plates that warped in the midday sun. I have varieties in every color on the L’Oreal nail polish display: traffic-cone orange, stoplight red, hot peach, sultry magenta, you name it. Best of all, these beauties are easy to care for, and they keep their colors for weeks and sometimes months.

My husband is not so fond of Anthurium as I am. They make him uncomfortable. I know why: rising from the glistening spathes are five-inch-long, cylindrical spadices that look for all the world like erect penises. Catch Anthurium in bloom and you seem to have caught them in flagrante delicto. In these summer days, it feels like we’re eating breakfast in a bordello. I don’t get messy or sweat-streaked in the conservatory, but here among the aroids, we’re definitely getting down and dirty.

I’m intrigued by the fact that Europeans didn’t understand that flowers are all about sex until about 1700. Instead, flowers were symbols of purity and the Virgin. I suppose that if the flowers you knew were violets, cornflowers, lilies, roses, daisies, and other modest and sexually discreet species, you could be forgiven for such naiveté. I’m certain, though, that if my vulgar companions had evolved in northern climates, the secret would have come out long ago.

Ruth has events coming up at Northshire Books in Manchester, Vermont on July 10 and at Politics & Prose in
Washington, D.C. on July 17. Check her website for more.


  1. Give me outside gardening, please. My houseplants are just there to tide me over until I can get outside in the spring. The conservatory sounds like a lovely place to be in the winter, but I prefer breakfast on the porch with a soft breeze on my face in the summer.

  2. My fantasy: Ms. Kassinger’s conservatory minus the westie. I’ll take a cairn terrier instead.

  3. Ok, I kind of liked the part about eating breakfast in a bordello, and admittedly I have had fantasies involving spending the night with someone in the Conservatory at Longwood, but otherwise, this sounds like a whole lot of elitist crap. I’ll keep my non-sterile outdoor gardens, with their bugs and their dirt, and I’ll continue to get “messy and sweat-streaked” in my non-Chanel gardening clothes. Thanks.

  4. Wow, vitriol.

    Here’s my conservatory story.

    When I was 10, my family moved into a new house that had a little back “hallway” facing south. It had a sink, and a counter, and full windows. (I didn’t know it, as a ten year old, but the “hallway” was a “bar.” My parents didn’t drink, so they didn’t use it for that.

    Well, nature abhors a vacuum, so, one week, while visiting my Grandma in Boonville, we stopped at the 5 & 10 and I bought ten packets of seeds to take home. And then, I commenced finding every container I could in the house, dug up dirt from the backyard, and planted myself a little “conservatory” garden-of marigolds, zinnias, coleus, and basil–inside.

    What started as a few pots, grew to be quite an enterprise. I got into orchids, haunting the Hoosier Orchid Company until I moved away to college. (And was sad to hear that it has since closed.) I bought plants in the grocery, at Smith & Hawken, at the hardware store. I took starts off my friend’s spider plant, and pinches off my Grandma’s garden plants.

    Where a mini fridge could have gone in the “bar,” I stored pots, potting soil, watering cans, orchid bark, and plant stakes.

    I had four plant stands.

    I had plants everywhere.

    It drove my mother nuts! When I went to college, she made me take everything with me. My dorm room was affectionately called “the jungle” and nobody ever knew if I was “home” or not, because sometimes I left the lights on for my plants.

    Those indoor plants, my “elitist plants” kept me company when I was away from home and desperately homesick. They gave me something to take care of that wasn’t a fish with water than needed to be changed.

    Today, my husband manages the indoor plants, and I manage the outdoor plants. I wish our house had more space for indoor plants. That’s my conservatory fantasy.

    To me, a house is not a home without plants.

  5. My fantasy is that we’ll get through the winter without a power failure during freezing weather where all the blooming wonders curl up and die.

    I do love to peek into the glasshouses of others, particularly where anthuriums bloom.

  6. My conservatory fantasy is simple: melons. All I want in life is a conservatory with a precise, measured Victorian-esque system of melon vines hanging above me, with careful nets supporting the developing fruits. And a head gardener (I don’t care if he’s the only one, his title is still “head”) with a handlebar moustache to tend to them while I breeze through holding a gimlet in a tea cup. And possibly also cucumbers from above carefully trussed with long glass bottles to make sure they grow straight. No crooked cucumbers in my tea sandwiches, if you please.

  7. At the flower show, every year, I gaze longingly at the purple metal and class conservatory….it’d look so awesome in the middle of my suburban Seattle back yard. It’d be a ray of light and warmth during the dull gray of November through March (or this year, through now, pray for sun this weekend!). My conservatory dream has shining glass windows (unlike my house windows, which have cat nose prints all over them); lush, tropical plants–anthyriums, bananas, ferns that are taller than my husband, and fresh, sweet citrus; a comfty spot to curl up and read (garden books, of course) and no phone. “Where’s Meg?”, “Out in the conservatory”. Sigh. I can dream.

  8. You are a pioneer! Harvesting Meyer lemons before they became chic. I love Meyer lemons. Sometimes they’re hard to find. But they are worth the wait.

    Where I live we don’t have easy access to fresh Meyer lemons. But I’ve figured out a solution. What I do is just go online ( ) and order directly from growers that pick them right off the trees and ship them direct — a tip I learned from my cousin in Canada. This way I get fresh Meyer lemons picked from the tree without all the time sitting in cartons, trucks and warehouses on their way to market where they lose their freshness.

  9. I’m lucky in that for years and years I had friends that lived in the Caribbean. No matter how poor I was I could usually come up with the plane fare and spend a portion of my winter relaxing in a hammock with rainforest smells wafting in through the open windows of the small farmhouse they rented high in the mountains of Puerto Rico. The guest room was a modified porch off the back of the house that jutted out over a deep ravine with a small waterfall surrounded by a dense grove of very tall tree ferns.

    I’ve traveled a bit in my long life and I appreciate everything from prairie grasslands to arctic tundra but there’s something about tree ferns that gets to me. It could be the fact that they were here when dinosaurs ruled the earth or something about the artsy-ness of their giant fronds unfurling – they always take me back to the those vacations and that magical farmhouse.

    Now I’ve bought an old farmhouse fixer-upper that includes an abandoned basketball court. When friends visit and ask me what I plan to do about the massive slab of asphalt, a ‘conservatory’ is the first thing I suggest. They struggle with the vision until I show them my extensive collection of potted citrus, orchids and tree ferns that have outgrown the patio and need a year round greenhouse to live in. I’ve already got the plants and the site for the conservatory, now all I need is a book to show me how to put it all together.

  10. I love Katie’s story !

    My own conservatory fantasy has much less to do with anthuriums than tomatoes in winter. See, my winter is mild enough to grow the green part of my salad and even some flowers to brighten it. But by the time I have even the smallest green tomatoes on the vines, the lettuce has long-since bolted. I can’t have a complete ( in my opinion) homegrown salad ever. How lovely it would be to have my own romaine salad with my own tomatoes !

    And I’d probably plant some anthuriums just to keep my husband uncomfortable enough to stay out.

  11. ahh Katie,you just took me back to that hallway with you,thanks.What a sweet story.
    My gardening takes place mostly outside.I have some orchids that ,amazingly,I remember to dunk in water every ten days.But a conservatory would be nice in the winter…..

  12. Elitist? Oh, for crying out loud! What the heck is elitist about having a small greenhouse attached to one’s house? About growing tropical plants in the winter? We are hardly talking about rows and rows of “serres” with gardeners, both head and junior, and hundreds of pots of giant orchids, bananas, plumerias, bougainevilleas! Sometimes the comments on this site astonish me!

    I have a lovely sunroom — no skylights though, sadly, because there is a room above — with large windows on three sides. It was originally a screened porch which we enclosed years ago to give us a place to sit in the winter. In there I grow brugmannsias, orchids, jasmine, gardenias, Meyer lemons, kumquats (although the last incumbent kumquat bit the dust a year or so ago, victim of scale); I also start my seeds there on a hot mat with a light. I don’t feel in the least little bit like Marie Antoinette. But so far I haven’t had the nerve to try a plumeria — are they hard to grow indoors?

  13. I was just envisioning myself in that lovely jungle with my squirmy spouse nearby eyeing those erect anthuriums.

    Years ago we did an 18 month sojourn in downtown Boston. We were on the 39th floor in a southeast facing corner apartment with 12″ deep windowsills. All together I had 46 square feet of sills and I took advantage of every inch. Logee’s was not far and with their help along with internet sources I managed to create my own jungle in the sky. There were huge begonias, bananas and bat taccas whose flowers creeped out guests. Of course there was that requisite Meyer Lemon with it’s awesome perfume along with a kumquat and a satsuma which really did not care for being indoors. If a plant had interesting foliage or was a good bloomer like the tropical hibiscus there was always enough room for it on those windowsills. Ferns and other shade lovers sat on the floors creating a leafy glade.

    Early in my career I worked for a wholesale grower and learned a few tricks about packing plants so when it was time to return home I was ready. Today many of those Boston windowsill plants live happily outside in the real jungle at our southern sea island home.

    Sometimes a few of those plants have to come indoors like when a storm threatens or there is an unusual cold spell and then the scent of the moist foliage and soil brings back memories of those months in our sky jungle.

  14. My fantasy conservatory includes lots of orchids, gardenias, jasmine, and so many other glorious bloomers. Though to be honest if I had a conservatory, I’d also be stretching the season there with tomatoes and peppers as well because I just couldn’t help myself. Who says we can’t have it both ways – wild and dirty outside and a bit neater and more controlled under glass?

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