I don’t think I was very clear in what I was trying to get across in my previous post on Victorian Walled Gardens. Clearly, we aren’t going to build twelve foot high walls, vast heated glass houses, huge banks of cold frames or hire a bunch of workers to tend our gardens. At least not in the near future.
This is what I was trying to say: before cheap energy, before the development of the supermarket and a world-wide importation of food in all seasons the head gardeners at the stately mansions in the Victorian era were able to provide a modern supermarket experience for their employers. Using a variety of ingenious techniques and the technology of the day, head gardeners and their crew of pot boys, apprentices and foremen provided a dazzling array of food throughout the year.
They developed techniques to force early growth (peas in May) and retard ripening (grapes in winter). My conclusion from this is that using some of the same ingenuity I should be able to significantly extend my growing and eating season which would allow me to become more self-sufficient. For example, I do have a south facing wall which is now home to a group over over-grown eighties-vintage shrubs. I could pull these out and use the heat sink created by the wall to grow some heat-loving trees (maybe a fig—my favorite fruit) and even espalier some apples or soft fruit.
I can build a greenhouse and maybe even heat it to grow and start plants out of season. Likewise, I could add a few cold frames and use the Victorian techniques of filling them with horse manure and some top soil. (The horse manure provided additional heat to the soil). Lots of gardeners are already doing these things effectively. I’m not. But, reading about the Victorians has inspired me to move ahead.
A second point about reading about the old head gardeners (who on a social scale were equal to or above the butler) is to recognize that they knew a tremendous amount about gardening.
The Victorian Kitchen Garden by Jennifer Davies is the companion piece to the BBC TV series. She provides a lot more detail on the restoration of the garden in the TV series, offers details on a number of head gardeners and gives background on her research. One fact that jumps out is that a tremendous amount of diversity has been lost to us since the nineteenth century. For example, in an 1867 seed catalogue, sixty-seven varieties of peas were offered. Many of these varieties of lost veggies were bred to produce early or late because the head gardener was expected to provide an enormous variety of fresh food year around. In the same way, in the twenty-first century we expect to be able to buy a fresh pineapple or mango if we feel the urge for one.
Today, our food arrives from Mexico, China, and S. America. One hundred plus years ago the Victorian gardener provided the same variety growing it in place in cool, rainy England. Cheap energy (and rising tax rates in Great Britain) put the Victorian gardener out of business. However, if he was able to provide a remarkably diverse diet growing in place then we have the potential to do the same thing if necessity requires.
Many of these historic gardens are being rebuilt. Take a look: