The history of Lincliffe’s green thumb


By Steve Humphrey
Photos by Hartley Botanic & Kathryn Harrington


Charles Edwin and Mary Jo Gheens bought Lincliffe, one of the Country Estates along River Road, in 1941. It was built in 1912 by the Belknap family, of Belknap Hardware fame. C. Edwin owned the Bradas & Gheens Candy Company, which manufactured candy in a factory on South Floyd St. In the years following their marriage in 1927, C. Edwin and Mary Jo lived in an apartment on Cherokee Road. But, Mary Jo was unhappy in an apartment and asked her husband to buy a house. He said he was too busy for such things, but she should find one if she wanted a home. After a week or two, she told him she had found the house she wanted, and did he want to see it? He said, “No, if you want it, you buy it,” so she did. Finally, C. Edwin came to see Lincliffe, with its mansion and 35 acres, and asked his wife, “What have you done, Darling?”

Mary Jo was an avid gardener. During her tenancy, she built three greenhouses; a sunken greenhouse called the “camellia pit,” a lean-to, or half, greenhouse on the back of the carriage house, and a formal greenhouse with potting shed. She loved camellias and would send cut flowers in a custom flower box to shut-ins and people who were ailing. She even won a prize at the New Orleans flower show for her developed camellias. She worked tirelessly in the gardens until she died in 1982.

When Sue and I purchased Lincliffe in 2000, the house and grounds had been neglected for decades. Fortunately, the three greenhouses had survived, though in sad states of disrepair. I was intrigued by the prospect of rehabbing the greenhouses. I had never owned one but could see the possibilities. 

My first efforts at rehabilitation were concentrated on what I came to call my display greenhouse. It had asbestos planting shelves with weeds growing up through the glass roof.

Two greenhouses were joined by a large storage and potting shed, forming an L shape. It took a few years to fix it up and turn it into a lovely greenhouse. I turned the smaller greenhouse into a chicken coop and built a varmint-safe chicken run for my babies to enjoy the outdoors. I currently have seven chickens that produce about five to seven eggs per day. We have Black Stars, Red Stars, Ameraucanas and Buff Orpingtons. 

At one point, I had a chocolate tree (Theobroma Cacao) in a pot with a vanilla orchid growing up the trunk. These can be taken out into the garden during the summer months. We actually got a cocoa pod once but turning that into cocoa powder is more trouble than it is worth, especially for one pod.

At another point, I decided to turn the display greenhouse into a butterfly house and planted things that butterflies like, like passionflower, etc. Unfortunately, whiteflies like everything that butterflies want, so we were soon overrun with whiteflies.

I next took on the challenge of fixing up the lean-to greenhouse on the back of the carriage house, which was fairly easy because of its small size. It is heated by a hot water boiler and pumps that send hot water through pipes to diffusers like in the display greenhouse. Not particularly efficient, but very effective. All of the greenhouses have vents that can be opened when the interior temperature gets too high, some controlled by thermostats, so the operation is automatic.

The camellia pit was in the worst shape, and I held off working on that for years. It is easily the most significant greenhouse on the property and was covered with vines and taxus. We had to hack a path down the steps just to get in. Most of the glass in the roof was broken. Instead of replacing the glass, we took it out and installed polycarbonate. These are two-ply panels with an air gap, which supplies nice insulation. It also blocks about 20% of the incident light. 

There are basically three things I do with my greenhouses. I like to grow and display interesting and rare plants, especially those not hardy here in Kentucky, and show them off in my outdoor gardens. For example, I have two navel orange trees, two Milky Way trees (frangipani), a plumeria (native to Hawaii; the flowers are used to make leis), olive trees, staghorn ferns, hoya vines, ficus shrubs, a popcorn plant (a kind of cassia, native to central and eastern Africa, whose foliage smells like buttered popcorn) and many others. I bring them out as soon as possible, and they thrive outdoors in the Spring, Summer and Fall. But they won’t survive the winters, so I keep them in pots and bring them into the carriage house greenhouse when we start getting freeze warnings.

I also collect tropical and semi-tropical plants which live permanently in my display greenhouse. One of my favorites is a Meyer Lemon tree, which is prolific in producing wonderfully fragrant lemons. I also have a Joy Perfume tree, whose blooms smell like, oddly enough, Joy perfume. I have two vines growing up a trellis which have spectacular flowers. Dragon Fruit Cactus is a night-blooming wonder with an amazing large white and yellow flower. Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) flowers are also stunning, spectacular blooms consisting of dangling clusters of shimmering greenish-blue, claw-shaped flowers. You have to see these to believe them. I also collect bromeliads and tillandsias, epiphytic plants that grow without soil. I have a banana tree that gives me bananas and cycads (one of the oldest plants in the world, dating back to dinosaur days.) I built a Koi tank with a “living wall” suspended above it. It is a vertical structure lined with a planting matrix and plumbed with PVC pipes. A pump brings water from the koi pond to the top of the wall and then drips down through the matrix, watering the plants. Given the organic material generated by the koi, this acts as fertilizer and irrigation. The plants in the wall are very healthy, and we can plant pretty much anything we want in there. I am always looking for rare tropicals to try out in my greenhouse.

Finally, I use the sunken greenhouse for propagating flowers and vegetables to plant in my gardens behind the house. I like to grow tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, spaghetti and butternut squash, sweet potatoes, herbs, etc. I also started flowers like alstroemeria and dahlias. The nice thing about growing in this way is that seeds are cheap, and you can find some really exotic and interesting ones. Going to the nursery in April severely limits your choices.

The sunken greenhouse and the carriage house greenhouse are not used during the hot summer months, so they don’t really have to be cooled, but the display greenhouse is an attraction all year long, so there is a swamp cooler (an evaporative cooler) attached to that one. We can keep the interior temperature at around 80 degrees even on the hottest day. 

Another nice thing about growing things in greenhouses is that pest control is easy and organic. We order beneficial insects from Rincon Vitova in California and release them inside the greenhouses. They eat the scale, mites, etc., and can’t leave the house. 

How it works. Solar energy in the form of photons (light rays) come in through the glass roof and transfer their energy to the air and soil, etc., creating thermal energy, i.e., energetic air molecules. This energy cannot go back out through the glass, at least not all of it, so heat is trapped within the greenhouse. But, especially on cloudy days and at night, thermal energy leaks out faster than solar energy can replace it, which is why supplemental heat is needed in cold winter climes. 

Greenhouses come in all sizes and complexities, from simple cold frames to the enormous glass palaces you see in botanical gardens, like the several found in Kew Gardens in London. There are many places to acquire a greenhouse for your personal use. You can buy kits and build smaller houses yourself, or you can engage a company like Hartley Botanic to create one for you. Once made, they are pretty easy to maintain, especially if built right. All you really need is a source of power (electrical will do) and water. Put in heaters with a thermostat, automatic louvers which open and close as the temperature goes up and down, and a drip irrigation system with a controller, and the system almost takes care of itself. Weeds are less of a problem because weed seeds have trouble blowing into a closed house. After it is built, the owner’s only real job is to choose what to plant and where in the greenhouse to put it. In any greenhouse, you can create microclimates by allowing shade plants to grow up and planting things that like the filtered sunlight underneath. You can also put shade cloth over portions of the roof to protect those plants that would suffer from direct sun. 

Owning a greenhouse can be very rewarding. If you have a green thumb or would like to develop one, I would strongly suggest investigating the possibility of building one for yourself.

Steve Humphrey has a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science, with a specialty in the philosophy of physics. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Email him at Steve@thevoicelouisville.com