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Monday, March 14, 2011

La Nina and Victorian Kitchen Gardens (First Installment)

2011   Here’s yet another take on why it is so cold in SoCal this year. It’s basically all from La Nina---global warming is occurring, but not along our California coasts. There's an upwelling of very cold water from the deeps of  the Pacific, which means colder than usual  (by 10 degrees) weather for us.

Well, fine. What can we do about it? 

The people who mastered the art of gardening in a miserable cold climate might give us some ideas. The high Victorians brought kitchen gardening to incredible production. On a typical large estate, 14 people tended the gardens, the household staff numbered 20 or better, house guests up to 30 with their attendant maids and valets were expected on week-ends and the family --and they had big families with various poor relations hanging out in the garrets. 14+20+30+30+10 for the family = 104 people who had to be fed 3 meals a day---and no supermarkets.

The long awaited Victorian Kitchen Garden miniseries (Acorn) having arrived by Royal Mail (6 weeks late),  having acquired its correct DVD player (Phillips), is an education in outwitting cold, grey, rainy weather.

The first weapon was the walled garden. The walls might enclose 6 acres, and be over 12 feet high at some of the great houses like the one at Dunmore in Falkirk, Scotland.

the Dunmore Pineapple

 Falkirk is at the same latitude as Moscow (okay, it is warmed by the Gulf Stream, but still…these gardeners managed to grow peaches, grapes and pineapples.) Lots of them. A fruit house might contain one and 1/2 tons of fruit by the end of the harvest.
The walls were usually brick—sometimes containing fireplaces, so the wall acted as a giant radiator.

Miles of glass houses, warmed by hot water piped through them, produced tropical fruits (pineapples*), melons all year round, peaches, nectarines and grapes--- in enormous quantities for the enormous households.

Glasshouses on North Wall

The Victorian Stable

 Unless you are a hedge fund manager, you probably aren’t going to rush out and set up a heated greenhouse. (If you do, be sure it is solar powered.) Actually the most used solution was very simple—manure.

Well housed
This was still the era of the horse and a large estate produced lots of manure ---and the Victorian gardeners used  tons to great effect to create hot beds which raised the soil temperature . This makes all the difference to plants.   If you live on a, cattle or llama ranch, or ostrich farm, you've got it made.  Pig manure is the cream de la creme but we can't all be lucky.

Cloche from Monticello, Jefferson's garden

A hotbed or forcing bed, heated with a lot of manure can raise the soil temperature by as much as 4 degrees. Or you can use a cloche  or bell.

Modern plastic cloches
  There is nothing wrong with a large (2 gal. or better) plastic bottle with the  top cut off (easy to do with a hot knife) although not as romantic looking, your tomato plants won’t care.
More on Victorian Kitchen Gardens in Installment Two .  Coming soon. 

*My well educated readers already know a pineapple is a bromeliad.

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