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History of Winter Gardening: The 17th Century French Garden System

For a slew of reasons, we’ve come to believe in this culture that growing vegetables through the snowy winter months is impossible. The common arguments are that the weather is too cold, or that the days are too dark. Eliot Coleman, author of The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses, has proven us all wrong. By learning from—and building upon—16th and 17th century techniques, Eliot is able to grow amazing amounts of organic vegetable all year-round at his farm in Harborside, Maine.

In his book, Eliot discusses the history of winter gardening and the innovative techniques that, as Eliot points out, were nearly lost for all time.

The following is an excerpt from The Winter Harvest Handbook, in which Eliot points out the benefits of a nearly-ancient method of urban food production.

If year-round production of fresh local vegetables is your goal, and you like the idea of being small-scale and space efficient, then you will find no model more inspiring than that of the Parisian growers of 150 years ago. La culture maraîchère (market gardening) in Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century was the impressive result of years of improvement in both protected and outdoor vegetable production. The earliest developments in season extension (using primitive predecessors of the cold frame) had begun in the royal potager (vegetable garden) at Versailles under the celebrated head gardener La Quintinie in the 1670s and ’80s. Those early beginnings reached their impressive climax in the hands of the Parisian maraîchers (market gardeners) between 1850 and 1900.

The “French garden system” (as it was called in English) was impressive for reasons that sound very up-to-date today.

  • It was as local as you can get, taking place in and around an urban area. The cultivated land of the Parisian growers covered up to one-sixteenth (six percent) of all the land within the city limits of Paris. The Parisian street addresses given for some of these nineteenth-century “gardens” are the twenty-first-century addresses of office and apartment buildings. The city of Paris, once self-sufficient in fresh vegetables, must now import produce from far away.
  • The selection of produce was excellent. This system fed Paris all year round with the widest variety of both in-season and out-of-season fruits and vegetables. Hotbeds heated with decomposing horse manure and covered with glass frames allowed the growers to defy the cold and produce fresh salads in January and early cucumbers and melons in May and June.
  • The system was sustainable. Both the heat for winter production of vegetables in hotbeds and the amendments to maintain the fertility of the soil were by-products of composting another by-product—the horse manure mixed with straw that came from the city stables. This recycling of the “transportation wastes” of the day was so successful and so extensive that the soil increased in fertility from year to year despite the high level of production.
  • A final impressive factor was the amazing productivity of the system as evidenced by the quantity of vegetables grown. In addition to feeding the inhabitants of Paris, the growers also exported vegetables to England. Growers averaged at least four and usually up to eight harvests per year from the same piece of ground. It was a successful system both practically and economically.
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