Monday, November 23, 2015

Winter Sunroom Dreams

The Yellow Garden, bottom left, under its new white covering.

We got our first snow this past weekend, and it was a significant amount, followed by bitterly cold overnight temperatures barely above 0°F (-17°C).

Winter Is Here. I don't care what the astronomical and meteorological definitions of "winter" are; when it's 0° and six inches of snow is covering the ground, it's winter.

The beginning of winter can be cozy, especially if you don't have to go outside. Since I stay home with my children, during the coldest periods I sometimes don't have to go outside more than once or twice a week, which is just fine with me -- I have a large library with a wood-burning stove to spend cozy evenings reading in.

This is pretty cozy....

However, by the end of January, after the excitement of the holidays is over, I'm ready for spring: for warm sunny days, green grass, growing plants, flowering bulbs and being able to begin work outside on my planned garden improvements for the year.

But winter still looms ahead at that point for another two months (or more, in a bad year), which can be depressing. I've tried coping by heading south to Texas or Florida for five days in warmth and sun, which is heavenly, but the return trip is always a dreadful shock -- it was -5°F when we got off the plane from Orlando two years ago. Shudder....

This past February in the always-temperate rose- and palm-filled courtyard at the very old Menger Hotel in downtown San Antonio, one of our favorite places to go to get away from Iowa winters.

Last month, my family and I visited Council Bluffs, Iowa and we crossed the river to the larger city of Omaha, Nebraska to visit the zoo, the Jocelyn Art Museum and -- of course -- the Omaha Botanical Center. While the rose garden was lovely and several other areas were very enjoyable, my absolute favorite part of the garden was the Temperate House in the new Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory.

The impressive 5,300-square-foot Temperate House at the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory in Omaha, filled with plants that are not quite hardy enough to survive in the Midwest, like live oaks, azaleas and many marginally hardy shrubs. 

And I also love to visit the Missouri Botanical Garden's Shoenberg Temperate House, especially the Moorish walled garden area filled with perfumed plants and lovely flowers. We visit St. Louis at least twice a year, and I always want to sit inside and enjoy the beauty and warmth in that conservatory, especially on our spring visits.

The Moorish walled garden section of the Schoenberg Temperate House at the MOBOT in St. Louis truly is a paradise, as paradise has been imagined for a thousand years. If I won $100 million in the lottery (unlikely, since I don't actually play the lottery), this is what I would splurge on, complete with knowledgeable gardeners to take care of it for me....  

Spending time in all these indoor gardens makes me long for my own modest sun-filled room in which plants will grow. Like many gardeners in winter, I dream of having a sunroom attached to my house, in which I could grow a few of the plants that won't grow outside in my climate, in which I could sit in sunshine during winter surrounded by green plants and fragrant flowers.

I've been reading numerous glorious books about conservatories (mostly from England -- sadly, those glazed roofs just aren't practical in our Midwest climate), sunrooms (more popular in America), growing plants indoors (Tovah Martin's books are great), and even a memoir of a woman who goes through a mid-life crisis and builds a conservatory onto her home (the interwoven history of growing plants indoors is doubly fascinating to someone interested in garden history like me).

This is beautiful, but just not practical for Midwestern dwellers, unless
you have piles of money to burn in order to heat and cool it.
 Seriously, just shovel the dollar bills into the furnace for fuel....

Practically speaking, where could a Midwesterner like me have a sun-filled, plant-filled room in my house?
  • For years I've considered having a sunroom built onto my kitchen, on the east side of my house, but such a room would only receive sunlight in the mornings (which would be great in hot summers, but not so great in winters, which is when I would want to use the room most.
  • Then I considered finishing our attic as a bedroom/sunroom with a south-facing dormer and east-facing skylights. I think it would cost less than having to build an addition with a new foundation, plus there would be plenty of light. But there are some headroom issues in our attic which would require bumping out the roofline, which is expensive. Plus we'd be less likely to walk up two flights of stairs to use the room (not to mention having to carry large pots down those stairs in summer and back up in autumn).
  • However, in the last few weeks, it has occurred to me that we might enclose our front porch to make a sunroom. I've always rejected this suggestion, because I thought it would look inappropriate, but upon reflection, I'm not sure it would necessarily have to ruin the look of our house.

I like our front porch, which we had rebuilt in 2011 when we were having the library added onto our house. It was a screened porch when we bought the house, the screens were ugly, and we never used it because the screens trapped dirt and cobwebs. We discovered that nearly the whole structure was rotten (as old house porches often are) when we had the screens removed, so we had it entirely rebuilt, except for the roof and ceiling. This has greatly improved the curb appeal of our house, in my opinion.

But we don't actually use that part of our porch under the roof very much, choosing instead to sit on the uncovered part of our porch in the sunshine most of the time.

It looks pretty and appropriately old-fashioned in summer, but we only occasionally use the covered part of our porch.

And it's even less useful during the other half of the year. This was the scene Saturday -- I guess it's time to take in the porch cushions and put away the last couple of wicker chairs....

I do have some concerns about enclosing our porch to make a sunroom:
  • As I mentioned, I don't want to ruin the architectural style of our 1924 Arts & Crafts house. However, I think if we used decorative Craftsman-style windows, especially on the front, it might look OK.
My clumsy Photoshop cut-&-paste attempt doesn't actually look as bad as
I thought it would. Perhaps it could look all right with Craftsman-style
windows. What do you think?
  • Also, I'm worried that the resulting sunroom might often be too cold, due to all the windows and the wood porch floor without a full foundation directly under it. However, an electric radiant heat mat under the floor (in addition to running a duct or two from our forced air heater), a thick layer of sealed spray insulation underneath, blown insulation in the ceiling, and the more energy-efficient double-pane windows that are available these days, might make it comfortable during the daylight hours that I would be most likely to use the room, especially on sunny days (and many plants don't mind cooler nighttime temperatures). I'm going to discuss it with my heating contractor and see what he thinks.

Enclosing the porch does have some advantages over my other ideas for making a sunroom in my house:
  • It would have a long expanse of south-facing windows, together with east and west windows too, so it would get sun all day.
  • It probably wouldn't need skylights, since the angle of the sun in winter is so low that it would come in through the south windows, and in summer the overhanging eaves would block the sun and make the room cooler (the plants would probably all be moved outside or to other rooms during the summer months). 
  • It would probably cost about half as much as constructing an addition to the house, since it already has a foundation and a roof, and the porch was solidly rebuilt only a few years ago.

Here's a photo from when the porch was still enclosed with crudely-constructed screens. (The tree beyond the porch is no longer there to shade the room.) This might make a very nice, plant-filled sunroom to escape from winters in.

And look at all that sun! The snow has already completely melted off of our porch, after less than 48 hours. This might be a great place for plants and winter-weary people....

If we do decide to make a sunroom, it probably wouldn't be this coming year, since we're not quite finished paying off the home equity loan on the library addition from 2011 (which was a much more expensive project than this would be).

In the meantime, this winter I'm trying out the idea to see if sitting in a sunny spot surrounded by green plants makes the winter easier. I made a plant-filled sitting area in front of the south-facing windows in my upstairs bedroom. A few trips to Lowe's to buy sale plants, plus a few purchases of matching pots and potting soil, and voila -- I have my Winter Garden:

This is pretty cozy too on sunny days -- Tigger always finds the best spots.
We'll see if this helps banish the winter blahs.
The view from my comfy chair (all plants must be on a table or stand, so Tigger doesn't
munch them). I found the orchids on sale at Lowe's, and they're so lovely! Note the "blue sky"
that I can enjoy even on the grayest days (part of my attempt in early 2014 to combat
the winter blahs). Maybe this will be enough for me and I won't even need a dedicated 

I'm curious how other gardeners use indoor house plants to make winter more bearable. Do you have a sunroom or even a real conservatory in your house? Or a sunny corner like mine, or plants all over your house filling every room?  I'd love to hear about your winter gardens, in the comments or in a post.

Hope your transition to winter is going well as snow arrives. Thanks for reading! -Beth


  1. Oh my, your snow covered garden is lovely! We are finally getting a taste of fall weather in Central Florida, not enough to slow the garden down yet. I hope our first frost is still weeks away.
    Even though our down time for gardening is not as lengthy as in Iowa, I too yearn for spring soon after my garden hibernates. During the slow months, I'm contemplating changes for the new year.
    Your library is just gorgeous...looks so inviting!

    1. Hi Janice, I'm glad you are finally enjoying cool weather down in Florida, and I'm sure your winter changes your gardens greatly too -- we all look forward to the newness of spring. Thanks so much for your kind comment, and for stopping by! -Beth

  2. I like the look of the photo shopped enclosed porch. My sister and her husband did that several years ago. They had a south facing porch. Nice to have a sunny room with lots of greenery.

    1. Hi Roses, I'm so glad you think the enclosed porch looks OK -- I'm uncertain and it helps to have your opinion. I hope your sister enjoys her enclosed porch and would like to know if she would do it again? Thanks for reading! -Beth

  3. Hi Beth, my you're much colder than we are here in Wisconsin, but I know we're on borrowed time. No snow here yet, but we've had over an inch of rain tonight that could very easily have been the white stuff. I love the idea of a sunroom, it would indeed make winter easier to bear. Your house is gorgeous!

    1. Hi Karen. I'm surprised you haven't had snow there yet, as you're north of us. Ours has all melted off already, since temperatures have been in the 50s the last few days. I'm glad you approve of my sunroom idea. Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving! -Beth

  4. Hi Beth! This was such an interesting post because coming from England I absolutely love conservatories and sun rooms which are so popular there. My grandmother had a lovely old house with an attached conservatory and one of my earliest memories is helping her water all her plants in there! I was really interested to read about the lovely conservatory in Omaha and the Missouri Botanical Garden too - both gorgeous! I think your idea about enclosing the porch is fantastic and I really think it will look beautiful! Your house is so charming that it will only enhance it! I love having flowers and plants in the house. Florida weather is beautiful right now and all my orchids are just starting to bloom on the lanai so I am really enjoying those. It will be so interesting to see what plans you come up with!


    1. Hi Kate, I'm so glad to hear that you think enclosing my front porch might look nice and make a good sunroom. As an English person I'm sure you have seen many very beautiful conservatories, and living in Florida you're undoubtedly surrounded by exotic plants even outside. I'm happy that the weather is so enjoyable right now in Florida and not too hot as in summer. Thanks so much for reading, and for your encouraging words! -Beth

  5. Oh I would love a glass enclosed conservatory for winter...only a dusting of snow here so far. I have plants all over that I bring in or start like amaryllis.

    1. Donna, it's lovely to have plants all over the house, and amaryllis are so beautiful. I think all we gardeners dream of having a plant-fill conservatory for winter.... Thanks for reading! -Beth

  6. I love the idea of your plans for a sun room on your lovely porch and your green sunny plant corner is lovely too. I used to have a conservatory on my previous house and I loved it. It wouldn' t look right on this higgledy- piggledy Tudor house. They didn' t have conservatories when this was built in 1500. I do have plants everywhere though. My husband sometimes gets exasperated by the jungle in every room. Like you I have a library which is a help on the darkest days. I would really like a conservatory like the temperate house in your picture. That or the Palm House at Kew Gardens would do me.

    1. Hi Chloris, Yes, I'd be pretty happy with any of those huge conservatories too! :-) That's wonderful that you've had a conservatory in the past -- I bet you could add one to your current house, since the Victorians added them on to any style house in the past. Houses are supposed to look like they've been added on to over the centuries. Anyway, thanks for reading. -Beth