Phyllis Schwitzer

Phyllis Schwitzer in her greenhouse. Photo by James Kellar

Even on cold midwinter mornings, Phyllis Schwitzer can “pluck an orange” from her tree for breakfast, because that tree and a variety of other trees and plants are thriving year-round in the greenhouse attached to her home.

At 20-by-20 feet, Schwitzer’s greenhouse is larger than most home greenhouses and, in addition to the plants, has room for a small table and chair where she frequently eats lunch at any time of year.

Like most greenhouses, it originally contained only tables for potted plants. But Schwitzer removed some tables, dug out the gravel floor, added compost and topsoil, and planted directly into the ground. Now orange, lime, banana, and fig trees are flourishing there, along with calla lilies, birds of paradise, and camellias.

Among the potted plants, hibiscus blooms all year, and its red flowers look especially festive at holiday time. January through March, large orange blossoms appear on the popular clivia plants. The greenhouse also has shelves for her orchid pots.

Schwitzer collects Rex begonias, with their exquisitely shaped leaves, and exotic ferns, including a climbing fern and staghorn ferns with bromeliads inside their cups. Some potted plants, such as the heavily scented night-blooming cereus, summer outdoors and are brought into the greenhouse when the weather turns cold.

An experienced gardener, Schwitzer knows the importance of diversity even in a small-scale ecosystem and, therefore, encourages a “menagerie of greenhouse creatures,” including a big toad, a little garter snake, and four types of tree frogs with throats that swell as they sing. She also rescued a lizard—a skink that had lost its tail to her cats. Installed in the greenhouse, the skink regrew its tail and is now gobbling insects and slugs. Schwitzer buys crickets as a treat for the toad and has watched him lick a line of ants off a flower pot. “I could hear his tongue hit the pot,” she recalls with delight.

The temperature in the greenhouse is set at 60 degrees, “but when the sun is shining,” Schwitzer says, “it is a pleasant 70,” making it a perfect setting for a quiet winter lunch. “Being among my plants,” she says, “always calms my spirit.”