Our Green Heritage: Heirlooms & Hothouses
Winter is a dangerous time of year for a gardener. The catalogs feature rediscovered heirloom seeds with gorgeous sounding names: Dragon’s Tongue beans, Crimson Curtain and Banana Leg tomatoes, Painted Serpent cucumbers, King of the North peppers. They sound like legends and poetry. The herbs sound like characters from old fairy tales with names like feverfew, sneezewort, wormwood, and heartsease. I want them all.
It’s easy to order those seed packets like candy, forgetting about the garden beds that will need digging, the soil amendments required, the weeding, the watering, the staking, and the harvesting—forgetting that we do have limited room.
Smaller than the summer garden we dream about, is our winter greenhouse garden.
My husband got the idea from Eliot Coleman, a gardener in Maine who wrote Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. In his books he talks about how in the late 1800’s, in Paris, market gardeners grew winter vegetables using horse manure from the streets to heat the greenhouses. They got the idea from methods used at Versailles in the 1670’s. It makes me wonder if this history of fresh produce didn’t form the French way of cooking, those luscious dishes that celebrate the foods and their flavors.
When my husband first starting talking about building this tall hoop tunnel for winter gardening, I could not see it working. We live in Colorado, in a semi-arid climate, at over 6,000 feet above sea level. We’ve been known to have -20 Fahrenheit days and winds of 80 mph, and blizzards. And even if I did go scrape our streets, I wouldn’t find horse manure.
I’d forgotten about the sun. In between those bitter cloudy days, which are few here, we have gloriously intense sunshine. The solar energy warms the soil and the air in the greenhouse. Simple. Almost magical. No electricity required. I’m amazed at how warm the sun makes the inside, it’s a whole different climate—a microclimate. The air inside is thick with humidity and rich with the smell of soil and growing plants. We step inside and sigh with relief. It’s a vacation from winter.
Amazingly enough, the microclimate works, though stomping through crunchy snow to go pick a salad for dinner doesn’t seem real somehow. But our winter grown lettuces, carrots, chard, and micro-greens taste amazing. The greenhouse extends our gardening season too. We are able to plant in warm soil before the rest of the garden thaws. We get tomatoes before anyone around, and we have an extra month or so in the fall for the green ones to mature.
I am amazed at this source of power, this source of growing that has been too long ignored. Sometimes it makes me angry. People as far back as the Romans had greenhouses, two thousand years ago. Where did this knowledge disappear to for so long, what happened that it isn’t standard practice for all of our houses to have a solar room to heat us in the winter and grow food for our tables? Why is considered normal and easier to haul vegetables half way across the country to our supermarkets?
Our non-gardening friends ask us if something is wrong with our orange and yellow tomatoes and our purple carrots. They’ve never seen anything like them. We’ve lost so many varieties, along with all that knowledge—in the name of progress, of transportation sturdiness, of convenience.
I’m encouraged though, by how many young people are taking up gardening and by all the backyard gardens and community gardens I see sprouting up all over the country. And I’m delighted at all the varieties of vegetables that are being brought back from near-extinction. I don’t know whose hands saved all these seeds, planting and harvesting them, year after year. I wish I could meet them, and say thanks, and show off our garden, because I’m so grateful to grow these amazing, delicious treasures.
Even as we live in the information age, we are losing wisdom as heirloom plants and long-time gardeners die off. Some treasures and knowledge are being saved, but not enough. Planting heirlooms can help keep this heritage alive. I would encourage you to buy seeds and grow a tomato bred for taste instead of transport, to plant purple carrots this coming spring. Share these treasures with friends and children. Keep a record of what you are learning as a gardener and pass that knowledge on. Ask those with more experience to show you how to put up the harvest for winter, or stake pole beans, or build a trellis.
I think of this quiet revolution, reclaiming a bit of our backyards along with our agricultural heritage, as I visit my winter greenhouse. Snowflakes fall outside as I pick greens that glow in the late afternoon light. As I pull a few crisp carrots for our salad out of the still-soft ground I marvel at what we can accomplish and how much more can be done.
When she’s not in the garden, Lauri Griffin writes fiction and essays, manages a non-profit literacy program, and raises her children on homegrown vegetables. Please feel free to visit her blog at www.laurireflections.blogspot.com.