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Gardening Under Cover

 

Today, we take for granted the ability to stop by the supermarket and pick up vegetables, fruit, and citrus at any time of the year.  If it is out of season, it might cost a little more, but it is available.  This has not always been the case.  Gardeners began tackling this problem in the days of the Roman Emperors. 

 

One of the first interesting tidbits that Wesley Greene, Garden Historian for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, relates this week in his Gardening Under Cover is the way in which gardeners first were able to supply a vegetable out of season. 

 

Kitchen-gardeners for the Roman Emperor Tiberius raised his favorite vegetable, cucumber (or was it melon?), year-round by mounting the cucumber beds on wheels.  In this way, they were able to bring the plants outdoors on sunny days and move them into a protected area during nights and cold days.

 

I have taken to doing this myself, to get a jump-start on the season with seedlings started indoors.  I put them on a garden cart when they are ready to be hardened for outdoor planting.  In this way, I can move them outdoors on sunny days and then back into the garage during nights and cold spells.  I don' take credit for this idea, however.  A friend started using his pickup truck in the same way, years ago, to follow the sun with his plants in his driveway. 

 

Journey along with Greene as he traces the history of orangery', greenhouses, and other ways of growing 'under cover'.  What' old is new again as history repeats itself.

--- Anne K Moore March 27, 2009 ---
Photos by Anne K Moore ---

 

GARDENING UNDER COVER

by Wesley Greene
Garden Historian, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The early history of agriculture is largely a history of grain and legumes; wheat and peas in Mesopotamia, rice and soybeans in ancient China, corn and kidney beans in Mesoamerica.  It was a reliable food source gave all three major centers of civilization the leisure to pursue the advancement of society and the human condition. 

 

Meat, grain and legumes were still the greatest part of the 18th century diet in colonial America and many of the vegetables that crowd the produce isles at the market today were considered luxury items then.  A gentleman in 18th century Williamsburg who could serve a perfectly blanched cauliflower or a well-formed artichoke from the produce of his own garden was a generous host indeed. 

 

It was the even rarer host who could serve fruits or vegetables out of their natural season or natural climate.  The first person I can find to eat a vegetable out of its natural season was the Roman emperor Tiberius who ruled between 14 and 37 CE**.  Pliny records in the Natural History (circa 72 CE), that the cucumber was, 'a delicacy for which the emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality; in fact there was never a day on which he was not supplied with it, as his kitchen-gardeners had cucumber beds mounted on wheels which they moved out into the sun and then on wintry days withdrew under the cover of frames glazed with transparent stone.'

 

All of the methods developed for growing fruits and vegetables out of season seem to revolve around four fruits: the orange, cucumber, melon and pineapple.  We will look first at the orange, which is responsible for the development or the orangery, stove house and eventually, the greenhouse that we are familiar with today.

 

The first orange in Europe was the bitter orange (Citrus aurantium).  This appears to be a native of India, which was acquired by Arabic people at a very early date.  This is not the sweet orange we know today.  Only the rind is used for perfume, seasoning and medicine.  A variety of the sour orange known as the Seville Orange is best known for its use in marmalade and the Bergamot variety of sour Orange is what gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavor.  The Romans apparently did not grow the orange themselves but acquired it from the Arabs and it was the Arabs who first brought orange culture to Europe in Moorish Spain where it is first recorded by Caliph al-Mansur in 976 CE at Cordoba.

 

Legend has it that the first sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) was brought from India by Portuguese traders in the 15th century and the culture of the sweet orange quickly replaced the sour orange in southern Europe.  It was not long after this that northern nobility began devising methods of growing this luscious tropical fruit at their own estates.  The first Englishman to raise, successfully, an orange tree was Lord Carew who accomplished the feat at his estate at Beddington sometime in the middle of the 16th century.  John Evelyn visited Beddington, then in decline, in 1700 and recorded that it was, Theretofore adorned with ample gardens, and the first orange-trees that had been seen in England, planted in the open ground, and secured in winter only by a tabernacle of boards and stoves.   In a 1561 letter written by Lord Burghley via his son to Lord Carew, who was staying in France, he requests, I have already an orange tree, and if the price be not much, I pray you procure for me a lemon.  It was probably in France that Carew saw his first orangery and apparently constructed a crude form of an orangery at Beddington.  By the 17th century, the largest orangery in Europe was found at Versailles where, by 1685, gardeners to Louis XIV were housing 1200 orange trees and 300 specimens of other tropical fruit.

 

The orangery was not a greenhouse as we think of one today.  They were long narrow structures with tall south facing windows that were meant to house exotic fruit for the winter, which were then brought back outside for the summer months.  The containers developed to grow the orange trees in were fashioned with handles that accepted poles allowing two men to move them about. 

 

Originally, orangery' relied exclusively on insulation to keep out the winter cold but it was not long before experiments in providing artificial heat were attempted.  The first attempts were made with charcoal braziers that were set around the floors or hung from the ceilings.  The problem with these braziers was that the fumes from the charcoal could do as much damage as the cold, as well as creating a hazardous environment for the gardener.  By the 17th century, wood or coal burning stoves were added to the orangery but they created their own set of problems.  As anyone who has heated with a wood stove knows, these devices severely dry out the environment which provides an ideal habitat for spider mites, one of the most serious pests on citrus.  John Evelyn wrote of this problem in 1668: stoves absolutely destroy our conservatories, but if they could be lined with cork I believe it would better secure them from the cold and moisture of the walls, than either mattresses or reeds with which we commonly cover them.

 

The solution came in the next century with the development of the stove house.  These structures employed a thick central wall that contained one or more fireboxes and a flue that doubled back on itself several times.  In this manner, the wall itself was heated and provided an indirect heat to the room housing the oranges.  These structures also employed a glass roof and sides and looked much more like the modern greenhouse.  The potted plants within the stove house were plunged into beds filled with tanbark.  This not only provided warmth from the composting tanbark but also moisture from the evaporation of the composting of the bark beds.  Stove houses were built at nearly all of the grand estates of England but they were much more uncommon in the colonies.  Perhaps the first was built by William Byrd II at Westover, his estate on the James River in Virginia.  On a visit to Westover in 1738, John Bartram observes 'a little greenhouse with two or three orange trees with fruit on them.'   While never numerous, several greenhouses were built on 18th century Virginia estates such as Mt. Airy and Mt. Vernon. 

 

At the same time that gardeners were devising methods for growing tropical fruits in northern climates, advances were being made in the kitchen garden that allowed the preservation of tender vegetables or the production of vegetables out of season.  The simplest method is using straw as mulch or a cover.  It is possible that strawberries get their name from this practice but is more likely that strawberry is a corruption of the medieval name of strewberries, from their sprawling growth habit.  In either case, straw is an excellent insulation material.  Thomas Tusser recommends a more elaborate straw cover that we build each fall at the Colonial Garden at Colonial Williamsburg to cover our broad beans.  This table like structure, made from sticks, comes from Tusser' Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1573):

 

      If frost should continue, take this for a law

              The strawberries look to be covered with straw

    Layed over trim, on crotches and boughs

And after uncovered as weather allows

 

A little more protection is offered by paper frames.  John Randolph, the last royal Attorney General of the colony of Virginia writes in the Treatise on Gardening, likely written in the 1760', that for melons, 'The early sowing should be covered with oil paper' and tells us 'Many use lathes in imitation of covered wagons.'   Randolph' Treatise is a very close plagiarism of Philip Miller' The Gardeners Dictionary.  The 1757 edition of The Gardeners Dictionary has an illustration of two sorts of melon frames, one of them constructed of hoops 'in imitation of covered wagons.'   The paper is glued to the frame with hide glue and then painted with linseed oil.  The frames prove to be remarkably durable and we typically get six months use from them.

 

These paper frames were often used over hotbeds, piles of fermenting manure, which generates a bottom heat for young seedlings.  The first record of hotbeds comes in 1085 from Ibn Bassal, gardener to the Sultan of Toledo 'we use soft, slightly dried out mule or horse-dung free of all foreign bodies. '  He is using the hotbeds for starting melons and eggplants; and in the evening or in cold weather, he covers the bed with cabbage leaves.  The first English reference to hotbeds is found in Thomas Hill' The Gardeners Labyrinth (1577) but he does not give instructions for their use.  Gerard' Herball (1597) contains the first detailed instructions for hotbeds used for growing cucumbers: 'In the middle of April or somewhat sooner...you shall cause to be made a bed or banke of hot and new horse dung taken forth of the stable...which bank you shall cover with hoops or poles, that you may the more conveniently cover the whole bed or bank with mats, old painted cloth, straw or such like, to keep it from the injury of the cold frostie nights.' 

 

Cucumbers are native to India where it has been cultivated since at least 2000 BCE**.  All of the ancient Roman writers on agriculture mention the cucumber.  Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE) gives the Latin name of Curvimur for the cucumber, referring to the curvature of the fruit.  The Greek name for cucumber is sikys, meaning the plant has no aphrodisiac qualities, hence the Greek proverb, Let a woman weaving a cloak eat a cucumber; because female weavers, if we believe Aristotle, are unchaste, and eager for love making.  It was introduced to England during the reign of Edward III but was lost during the mayhem of the Hundreds Year War and reintroduced during the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century. 

 

The next innovation comes in the material used to cover the hotbed and in this case is used for the culture of melons.  Melons have a confusing history because they went by the same name as the cucumber in Roman writings.  This confusion lasts for hundreds of years.  Thomas Hill writes in The Gardeners Labyrinth (1577): 'The ancient, both of the Greek and Latine writers of Husbandrie, attributed the Pompons and Mellons, to a kinde of Cucumbers which they confessed, very neer to agree with them, in that the Cucumbers, in their growth have been seene, to be changed into Pompons, and Mellon Pompons.'  Pompons or Pumpkins was the term used by the Romans for the largest kinds of Cucumbers.  However, Pliny does describes a new type of 'cucumber' in the Natural History (73 CE): 'Curious to say, just recently a new form of cucumber has been produced in CampaniaÉCucumbers of this kind do not hang from the plant but grow of a round shape lying on the ground; they have a golden color.  A remarkable thing about them, besides their color, shape and smell, is that when they have ripenedÉthey at once separate from the stalk.'  A characteristic of muskmelons is that once they are ripe the stem 'slips' from the fruit so this new cucumber Pliny speaks of is almost certainly a melon.

 

This newest innovation in hotbed coverings for melons is found in Parkinson' Paradisi in Sol (1629): 'then having prepared a hot bed of dung in April, set your seeds therein to raise them up, and cover them, and order them with as great care or greater then CowcumbersÉ some use great hollow glasses like unto bell heads.'  This becomes known as the bell jar, bell glass or simply glasses after this time.  The use of bell glasses for plants seems to originate in France in the middle of the 16th century.  They call them cloches.

For larger plants, frames were used over plants covered with glass sashes known as 'lights.'  Busoni, who was the Chaplain to the Venetian Ambassador in London records in 1618 that market gardeners were growing artichokes on hotbeds ten months out of the year.  Artichokes are large plants and would require much larger coverings than bell glasses afford.  Most hotbeds were built on piles of manure above ground.  At the Colonial Garden we use below ground hotbeds such as those described by John Reid in the Scots Gard'er (1683).  'As for making the hotbed for raising early and tender plants, dig a pit (4 foot deep, and of length and breadth, as you have occasion) in a convenient and warme place, lying well to the Sun and sheltered from the windsÉthis pit will be so much more excellent, if lyn' round at the sides with brick.'

 

In early January, we gather fresh dung from the pastures, throw it into a pile in the orchard, and cover it with a tarp.  Generally within three of four days it begins to heat up and then we turn it and load it into the hotbeds, 'beating it down close with a fork,' as recommended by Philip Miller (The Gardeners Dictionary, 1754).  About a week later, we will have a temperature anywhere between 120 and 140 degrees on top of the pile.  At this time, we cover it over with about four inches of a very fine soil and about three days after this, we will have a 70-degree soil temperature.  On this, we sow our spring crops, most of which are moved to the garden in March.  We also sow a crop of peas that we harvest from the frame, generally the second week of April!

 

The final innovation in hotbed technology enables the growing of the pineapple.  The pineapple is a New World crop, probably originating in coastal Venezuela but it was being grown throughout the West Indies by the time of European contact.  The first Spanish description comes in 1535, it was known in France by 1570 and Johnson' edition of Gerards Herbal (1633) lists the 'pine thistle' in the appendix.  It was first successfully grown in northern Europe in Holland by one Agnes Block around 1687.  Who the first Englishman to grow the pineapple was is the subject of much debate.  A painting, which shows John Rose, gardener to Charles II, presenting the king with a pineapple, has been taken by some to be the first proof of pineapple culture in England.  However, scholars have pointed out that one of the buildings pictured in the background of this painting was not constructed until after Charles'death and he would have had very little use for a pineapple at that time!  Some point to the stove house at Hampton Court constructed around 1693 as the site of the first pineapple grown in England.  Richard Bradley, in Dictionarium Botanicum (1728) gives 1721 as the date; 'Henry Tellende, who was the first that brought it to rejoice in our climate, in Sir Matthew Decker' fine gardens at Richmond.'

 

The innovation that Tellende brings to the hotbed is that he replaces the manure with tanbark.  Tanbark, the waste product of tanning leather, has the advantage over manure in that it will maintain its heat for a much longer time; some records say up to five months.

 

The various devices for protecting plants in the kitchen seem to be fairly common in colonial Virginia.  Bell glass fragments have been found at many sites in Williamsburg and most of the Virginia gentry write of various glasses, lights or frames.  All of these devices were luxuries found almost exclusively at the homes of the wealthy.  The rest of us have to wait for the development of the market gardens that grew up around the major cities in the next century to enjoy the luxury of consuming vegetables and fruits out of season and far from their natural climate.

 

** (Note:  CE stands for Common Era, taking the place of AD.  BCE stands for Before

   Common Era, taking the place of BC.)

 

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