Tag Archives: solar energy

in the greenhouse, or, the dictator's wife

greenhouse-euphorbia-outsideI was in the greenhouse Friday morning, watering some pots of seedlings. It seemed funny for a second, because outside the greenhouse it was raining. If I hadn’t gone in there with the hose that morning, the seedlings would have died in the desert for lack of water.

(Left, a Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii outside the greenhouse, blooming away in the rain.)

I used to grow and breed phalaenopsis orchids in the greenhouse. It was gonzo amounts of work to keep up with repotting hundreds of plants. And trying to concoct an environment that would fool the orchids into thinking that they were in the lowlands of the Philippines instead of the flats of Southern California wasn’t that easy either. In addition to all the work, the greenhouse was an energy pig, taking as much natural gas to heat as the entire house.

So, end of orchid obsession. End of heating the outdoors and wasting all that energy. (The New York Times has a recent piece on a couple who decided to build themselves a greenhouse. Their heater hasn’t arrived yet, but they’re already way over budget.)


Now that the tropical orchid episode of my life has ended the greenhouse is only heated by the sun via the greenhouse effect. At this time of year it’s handy to have a spot that will help give young plants a head start on spring. That’s pretty much how I use the greenhouse now.

greenhouseclutterAnd, um, yes, for a place to store garden clutter. Sort of a garden shed with windows…

greenhouselookinginFortunately the windows are an opaque fiberglass, so all the mess inside is obscured. Maybe even a little mysterious and poetic. Here are some potted plants as seen from the outside.

As I was watering the plants in my little artificial outdoor desert I thought back to the 1980s. One the stories from the news that has stuck in my brain all these years was a report on Michèle Bennett, the wife of Haiti’s dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier. The couple was bad news all around, and one of Michèle’s vices was that she’d refrigerate a part of the palace so that she and her friends could strut about in the fur coats that they collected. (Compared to her husband’s brutal ways, it all seems pretty minor, of course.)

Mink and fox and chinchilla coats in Haiti. About as rational as a greenhouse full of warm tropical orchids in San Diego, I thought.

I guess we all want a little of of what doesn’t come easily or naturally. But in an age of a growing awareness of the need to live greener it’s good to stand back and see what we really need.

garden lanterns

Here are a couple cool wedding presents that we’re enamored with, a pair of solar-powered garden lanterns, a square bronze-colored one and a moss-toned teardrop shape.

During the daytime, they’re beautiful garden ornaments with their traditional silhouettes and delicate colors. They soak up the sun’s rays to charge their batteries, and then at night they let off a gentle bluish-white glow that lights up the lantern’s graceful outline. Turns out one of the gifters, Sheila, an avid gardener that we hadn’t seen for years, now is involved with the website Isabella, where they’re available.

Here they are in the garden. I didn’t spend the hours to set up a catalog shot, but I think you can get an idea of how great they look. The first shot is right before dusk showing the lanterns, the second after dusk, after the lanterns have turned themselves on. The last image is the official catalog shot.

Lanterns during the day

Lanterns after dark

Lanterns in catalog


Note that this blog isn’t a way to get you to click over to Amazon or other retailers to buy stuff. We genuinely liked this product. If they look cool to you and you’re having trouble deciding which style to pick, my recommendation would be to go for the rounded shape if you have a lot of wind since it’s more aerodynamic. In a light breeze or a sheltered location both would be good choices, and it actually adds to the effect as they sway gently.


a cool idea for garden shade

Maybe a year ago I was reading about a parking lot in town, at the local Kyocera corporate headquarters, where they’d installed what they were calling “Solar Trees.” (They actually trademarked the name, but really aren’t all trees solar?) The Kyocera species of trees were steel poles that supported big canopies made up of solar panels. They provided shade to the cars below, and at the same time they generated power. By the corporation’s estimate, one 30 by 40 foot solar tree would reduce as much greenhouse gases as a small grove of real trees.

Solar trees in parking lot

Installations like this are starting to appear in various places, including a couple of parking structures at UCSD where they’re installing rooftop arrays over this summer.

I’ve thought about doing more with active solar devices, but where to put the panels was always an issue since the house has some pretty wacked roof angles, most of which don’t face south. Some sort of solar structure in the garden might be an interesting solution, maybe something combining a patio cover function with power generation.

The Kyocera trees seem to be slanted more to corporate environments, and besides I find them more than a little monolithic and overwhelming. Would you want these in your garden? But something along these lines could be practical, good for the environment and attractive. Sounds like a job for an artist or designer instead of an engineer…

That these trees sprouted here in town left me wondering if there was any sort of link between them and Jim Bell, a local self-proclaimed “environmental designer” who, among other things, has run for mayor (unsuccessfully) twice, and once for City Council (also unsuccessfully). I met him at a book signing circa 2003, and he was hot on the idea of covering all the roofs and parking lots with solar panels. His web site has an interesting statistic:

In the San Diego/Tijuana region, where I live, 20 percent coverage of our buildings and parking lots with solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, coupled with efficiency improvements, would generate enough electricity to replace all forms of energy (electricity, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel) currently used in the region.

That idea was probably not his originally, either. But it speaks to a movement that’s in the air. Maybe the movement could begin right at home, in our back yards…