Winter Gardening Throughout the Ages

Winter gardening, and the practice of utilizing solar heat, was a common practice in botanical gardens hundreds of years ago.

| January 7, 2014

  • From John Perlin, "Let It Shine" illustrates that humanity has been utilizing solar energy for thousands of years, from winter gardening and indoor horticulture to creating portable hot-boxes.
    Cover courtesy New World Library
  • To aid in winter gardening, canvas curtains were used for nightime insulation in this eighteenth-century Dutch Greenhouse. The Dutch also used double-paned glass to help control heat loss.
    Illustration courtesy New World Library
  • Greenhouse on the roof of a London apartment building.
    Illustration courtesy New World Library
  • Architect Humphry Repton argued that a dull interior could be transformed into a vibrant home by adding an attached conservatory.
    Illustration courtesy New World Library
  • The solar-heated air of another attached conservatory added to the enjoyment of playing billiards.
    Illustration courtesy New World Library

As climate change and energy scarcity bring solar energy back to the forefront of public discussion, Let It Shine (New World Library, 2013) shows that this is not just a present-day concern. John Perlin offers the world’s only comprehensive history of humanity’s use of solar heat. From using the sun’s energy to facilitate winter gardening to stone-age Chinese building techniques, this work profiles fascinating characters and devices that helped make the solar revolution possible today. This selection, excerpted from “Heat for Horticulture,” details a fascinating history of winter gardening, from innovative greenhouse designs to a burgeoning understanding of solar heat.

Timeless Tales of Winter Gardening

Collecting solar heat for indoor horticulture enjoyed a revival during the sixteenth century. The tide of empirical science had begun to break the bonds of church dogma, and the growing wealth and stability of Europe contributed to an atmosphere that favored scientific exploration. With discovery and trade came an increased flow of money and an appetite for more comfortable living. Ships were now returning from Asia, Africa, and the New World with beautiful flowers, such as African violets, and delicious fruits, such as bananas, pineapples, and coffee. People wanted to grow these exotics at home and enjoy native fruits and vegetables in all seasons — just as the Roman emperor Tiberius had satisfied his year-round craving for cucumbers by raising them in glazed cold frames more than a thousand years before.

The Dutch and Flemish were the first modern northern Europeans to develop horticulture to a level equaling or surpassing that of the Romans. Perhaps their early independence from the authority of the church encouraged their pioneering efforts in the field of scientific gardening. Certainly their great success in world trade helped to provide the new bourgeois merchant class with the means to take up such gentlemanly pursuits as raising exotic plants. J. C. Loudon, a late-eighteenth-century horticulturist, observed that “horticulture . . . was in great repute in all the low countries during the seventeenth century.”

The French and English followed suit, trying to grow plants from the warmer regions of the world in the inhospitable climate of northern Europe. They also sought to improve the yield of native crops and to grow them out of season. Experts wrote books for the amateur gardener on how to accomplish this.

The unusually short growing seasons during this era were a major problem for gardeners. The period from the year 1550 to about 1850 has been called the “Little Ice Age” because Europe suffered extremely short summers and severe winters. In England, for example, the average temperature from 1680 to 1719 ranged from 58.6°F in summer to 37.9°F in winter. The cold was so extreme that on thirteen occasions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the ice on the Thames could support the weight of people — a rare occurrence during the previous five centuries. Only if “nature was assisted by art,” as one gardening book put it, could a lover of plants “cure this great evil and dangerous enemy,” the cold. Solar energy became a favorite tool in this battle. Its power was extolled by Joseph Carpenter in 1717: The sun by its heat dissipates the cold and gross humours of the earth; it renders it more refin’d and easier for the vegetation of seed and fruit trees. Tis by the influence of this noble planet that the sap rises up between the wood and bark, producing the first buds, then the leaves and fruits; its beams serve not only to ripen the fruit, but it makes it large, beautiful to the eye, and pleasant to the taste.

The art of harnessing solar heat, of learning how to enhance its beneficent effects, was evolving once again.

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