What can we learn from 19th-century French market gardeners? 

by Constance Wylie

Always tend the smallest amount of land possible, but tend it exceptionally well.
unknown market gardener, Paris, 1800s

HISTORICAL PRECEDENTS

I grew up on a horse farm in North Saanich that produced upwards of 100 tonnes of manure each year. As a child, I had a miniature plastic blue wheelbarrow with red handles and spokes. I trotted behind my parents every morning, in and out of stables, and collected droppings for the steaming pile of manure we tossed into an old dump truck. Every few weeks, when it was full, my father would rumble off to a field or corner of the property that could use the fertile material.

Horse manure, for those who don’t know, is an innocuous mix of hay and grass fibre, almost sweet smelling, and resembles an oversized chocolate Timbit—sugared not glazed. Six years ago, memories of manure lured me home when I abandoned an almost-completed university degree—and the prospect of a desk-job career path—and returned to my family farm. I wanted to become a market gardener.

Last winter, while I was planning for the growing season, a local market-gardening guru gave me a copy of The Winter Harvest Handbook. Author Eliot Coleman is an internationally respected experimental market gardener, owner of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, and has published several books on vegetable growing. Ripe with knowledge, the book introduced me to the Paris foodscape of 150 years ago in a short chapter titled “Historical Inspiration.”

The Parisian maraîchiers (market gardeners) used horse manure to supply their city with fresh produce year round. I’d practically been born playing in horse manure and was now growing food for a living, so I couldn’t help but be captivated. To summarize: from 1850 to 1900, Paris produced an exceptional amount of food using fine-tuned growing techniques developed over generations of maraîchiers. These urban farmers intensively cultivated one- to two-acre lots. They had to. In this 50-year period, Paris grew from 1.2 million to more than two million residents.

As the population ballooned, six per cent of the city area—more than 1,500 acres—provided the people with vegetables. Excess greens were exported to London—in winter, no less—prompting Englishmen such as John Weathers to visit the city and learn the growers’ secrets. He published French MarketGardening to disseminate their craft.

Reflecting on this historic example of urban farming, I had a few epiphanies. Firstly, urban farming—often presented as an innovative concept—is nothing new. Rather this ancient practice is what enabled humans to form cities in the first place.

I also realized that modern growers have the advantage of time-saving technologies, such as automated watering systems and computer-controlled greenhouses, over our predecessors. And yet the culture around food production and self-sufficiency has changed. Nowhere is this clearer than here on Vancouver Island, where we have plenty of viable agricultural land and a population of less than one million but we still import the majority of our food.

Finally, I knew the climate of southern Vancouver Island was similar to that of Paris. With my nearly unlimited access to horse manure, I had to experiment with the growing techniques of these 19th-century French urban farmers. What can we learn, I wondered, from the maraîchiers?

GLASS GARDENS

The maraîchiers’ success relied on three key ingredients: protection from the elements, intensive planting, and a lot of manure. Late last winter and early spring I experimented with all three—with encouraging results.

In colder months, the gardens of Paris looked like a sea of glass. Rather than the tall greenhouse mega-farms of today, rows of small bell-shaped glass covers called cloches and four-foot-wide cold frames hugged the ground. Beneath these thrived leafy greens.

On chilly nights, maraîchiers rolled reed matts across the glass as an extra layer of protection. On warm days, they propped up each cloche on little sticks to ventilate and prevent overheating; in the evening, bent double, they scuttled from one cloche to the next and removed the sticks. Some maraîchiers managed thousands of cloches. 

In my garden, I used floating row crop cover—a fine, lightweight mesh material that allows light and water in while creating an insulating layer to bring the soil temperature up by a few degrees. It only takes a few minutes to cover the crops and is easily pulled back to expose an entire row. Aesthetically, row cover is no match for the beauty of curved glass cloches sparkling in the sun, but it wins for practicality. Prompted by Coleman’s suggestion, I tried a combination of row crop cover and a plastic covered hoop house to give my seedlings extra protection. They thrived. 

In addition to using direct protection, the Parisian gardens were often enclosed behind a stone wall to reduce wind damage. According to Weather’s observations, beds would be aligned “East and West, so that the frames shall slope towards the South … to secure as much light and heat as possible from the sun for the plants.” Following these instructions, I took advantage of a south-facing barn wall to grow early crops in beds running east-west. 

Modern glass cloches and cold frames. Photo: definingfrance.com

TURNING UP THE HEAT

The Parisian growing system depended on transforming refuse into resources. The vast quantities of horse manure produced in the city–a by-product of 19th-century transportation–drove the city’s gardening success. 

The average horse produces about eight tonnes of manure per year, supplemented by carbon-rich bedding (straw or shavings) and nitrogen-rich urine. According to Coleman, horse manure and bedding form the best compost for vegetable growing. My mother, who introduced me to gardening, would agree. She has always used copious amounts of manure, a practice that I incorporated when I planted my first market garden. Learning about the maraîchiers gave me direction on how to use it. 

During his time in Paris, Weathers also observed that “from October till the end of March hot-beds [were] in constant use for the production of early crops.” Essentially, a thick layer of moistened, well-compacted manure is buried under about a foot of soil. Decomposition creates heat and warms the soil above. By using a hotbed in conjunction with cold frames, the maraîchiers provided a friendly growing environment to encourage early production. This allowed them to harvest salad crops in the depths of winter and melons and cucumber in early June. 

One cold February day I got digging, motivated by the prospect of extra early fresh picked spring salads. I removed one-and-a-half feet of dirt in three-square-foot- sections at a time, and then filled the void with the stable’s morning supply of fresh manure. The wheelbarrow I used as a child was long gone, replaced by a Smart Cart wheelbarrow, but still blue plastic. The hotbed progressed as I flipped the dirt from a new hole, shovel by shovel, to bury the adjacent manure. It formed a rectangle roughly 15 by 20 feet. I stomped out narrow paths between three-foot-wide beds. Below the surface, the manure began generating heat. 

Rich, manure-fed soil combined with intercropping enabled the maraîchiers to achieve four to eight harvests per bed per year. Between 16 and 30 tonnes of manure were used per acre annually. The diversion of manure from stables and streets to the city’s gardens led to a net increase in soil fertility, even with intensive production. In contrast, today’s industrial agriculture system depletes our soils 10 to 40 times faster then the natural rate of soil formation. As the maraîchiers knew, food for the masses does not need to equate to degraded soil. 

COMME DES PARISIENS

In any urban environment, space is a scarce resource. Remember Paris’s 19th-century population boom? We could draw a parallel to modern Greater Victoria. Competition between farmers and developers is an age-old problem. “As the ground in Paris is exceedingly dear … French growers cannot afford to waste any space,” noted Weathers, so they used an “ingenious system of intercropping, by means of which the ground is covered with plants in all stages of growth, and one crop succeeds another as if by magic.” They worked their plots by foot on paths of a slight nine to 12 inches. Men transformed into human wheelbarrows by donning hand-woven basket backpacks with extensions above the head. They loaded the baskets with manure, walked to destination, bowed forward, and—perhaps with a little shake—out fell the essential ingredient of their success. 

Into my own hot bed, I scattered radish and carrot seed and added lettuce transplants, mimicking an intensive planting combination the maraîchiers used. The radishes would mature first. Once they were harvested, lettuce would fill the void, finally giving way to carrots. As a further experiment, I transplanted scallions, in bunches of 12 for easy harvest, between rows of transplanted beets. I transplanted peas along the border fence—a pre-existing trellis—and sowed a row of radish seed at the base for good measure. To finish, I blanketed the beds with floating row crop cover. Nature would take care of the watering. Then it started to snow.   

Concerned about irreversible damage to the tender transplants, I erected an impromptu greenhouse using metal fence panels and sheet plastic. Then I closed the garden gate, fed my animals their evening rations, and went inside to take off my boots. Snow created extra work that I was later thankful for. It forced me to provide the plants with two layers of protection, which achieved better heat retention overall.  

On sunnier days, I pulled back the plastic to let in more light and airflow, and was thankful I didn’t have dozens of glass cloches to prop up. Radish sprouts appeared, followed by the delicate, almost invisible hair-like leaves of carrots. Peas slowly twined their way up the fence and the lettuce leafed out. Beets fattened and sent vibrant green and purple leaves up. The scallions suddenly were no longer like immature blades of grass but the size of pencils, widening and growing tall, standing straight between the rows of beets. 

When the first farmers’ market opened, all the extra effort of building a hotbed and taking a risk on intensive planting paid off. Whether growing for yourself or for market, it helps to be brave and try new things to get the most out of your growing space.

A row of harvested beets, radishes, and carrots.
Vegetables harvested from a hot bed. Photo: Constance Wylie

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

With today’s expanding knowledge and technology, combined with the increasing demand for local, fresh, organic food, our cities need to step up their growing game. We are no longer limited by square footage: vertical growers think in cubic dimensions. Space is not the problem; innovation is our limitation. Imagine what the maraîchiers could have done with Excel spreadsheets? Free templates are available online to plan and achieve your production goals. 

Granted, we are long past the era of horse-powered city travel—along with the rich growing medium found underfoot—but we now have other resources. A few examples: Victoria-based Chris Hildreth, owner of Topsoil, uses compost generated by the restaurants that serve his vegetables. Farmers around the world report fantastic results from applying compost tea to their crops. Aquaponics nourishes plants by waters fertilized by fish excrement; humans harvest both the plants and fish. 

The lessons from the maraîchiers can be applied as easily to an apartment window as they can to a full-fledged urban farm. A four-litre milk jug or two-litre pop bottle with the top cut off can shelter a few veggie starts in a pot on your balcony. Old window frames or skylights propped up on a few bricks can create a mini-greenhouse in your garden. 

Studying the Parisian maraîchiers reminds us that the practice of growing food intensively year round in a similar climate has been done before—often better then we are doing today. Urban farming has become an international movement—at the grassroots level as well as with real-estate developers incorporating rooftop gardens and farms into building designs. I would like to leave you with this thought: cities only exist because citizens learned how to plant a seed. Over time we have forgotten that fact. Now in the 21st century, we are regaining the “new” idea of growing food in the city. It’s an idea with deeper roots than we give it credit for.

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