Monday, December 26, 2011

French Market Gardens - La Culture Maraîchère

The Russian anarchist writer Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote several books outlining the philosophy of anarchism. Among the principles he espoused were local economies and self-determination. In his 1899 book, Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin looked extensively at how local communities could become thriving, self-sufficient communities with no coercive leaders or taxes, with voluntary associations and mutual aid providing the bonds of a functional society.

In that book, Kroptkin takes a close look at agriculture and industry at the end of the nineteenth century with the idea of creating such local communities. In Paris, he was especially impressed with how gardeners were able to produce enough vegetables for Paris in the city itself for much of the year:
The above examples are striking enough, and yet those afforded by the market-gardening culture are still more striking. I mean the culture carried on in the neighbourhood of big cities, and more especially the culture maraichere round Paris. In that culture each plant is treated according to its age. The seeds germinate and the seedlings develop their first four leaflets in especially favourable conditions of soil and temperature ; then the best seedlings are picked out and transplanted into a bed of fine loam, under a frame or in the open air, where they freely develop their rootlets and, gathered on a limited space, receive more than usual care ; and only after that preliminary training are they bedded in the open ground, where they grow till ripe. In such a culture the primitive condition of the soil is of little account, because loam is made out of the old forcing beds. The seeds are carefully tried, the seedlings receive proper attention, and there is no fear of drought, because of the variety of crops, the liberal watering with the help of a steam engine, and the stock of plants always kept ready to replace the weakest individuals. Almost each plant is treated individually.

There prevails, however, with regard to market-gardening, a misunderstanding which it would be well to remove. It is generally supposed that what chiefly attracts market-gardening to the great centres of population is the market. It must have been so ; and so it may be still, but to some extent only. A great number of the Paris maraichers, even of those who have their gardens within the walls of the city and whose main crop consists of vegetables in season, export the whole of their produce to England. What chiefly attracts the gardener to the great cities is stable manure ; and this is not wanted so much for increasing the richness of the soil — one-tenth part of the manure used by the French gardeners would do for that purpose — but for keeping the soil at a certain temperature. Early vegetables pay best, and in order to obtain early produce not only the air but the soil as well must be warmed ; and that is done by putting great quantities of properly mixed manure into the soil ; its fermentation heats it. But it is evident that with the present development of industrial skill, the heating of the soil could be obtained more economically and more easily by hot-water pipes. Consequently, the French gardeners begin more and more to make use of portable pipes, or thermosifhons, provisionally established in the cool frames. This new improvement becomes of general use, and we have the authority of Barral's Dictionnaire d' Agriculture to affirm that it gives excellent results.

As to the different degrees of fertility of the soil — always the stumbling--block of those who write about agriculture — the fact is that in market-gardening the soil is always made, whatever it originally may have been. Consequently — we are told by Prof. Dybowski, in the article " Maraichers " in Barral's Dictionnaire d Agriculture — it is now a usual stipulation of the renting contracts of the Paris maraichers that the gardener may carry away his soil, down to a certain depth, when he quits his tenancy. He himself makes it, and when he moves to another plot he carts his soil away, together with his frames, his water-pipes, and his other belongings.

I could not relate here all the marvels achieved in market-gardening ; so that I must refer the reader to works — most interesting works — especially devoted to the subject, and give only a few illustrations.[1]
La culture maraîchère referred to the intensive methods of gardening developed in the urban areas of Paris from about 1850 to 1900, and often referred to in English as "French intensive gardening." It was a series of techniques developed over the years by experimentation for gardeners to produce large quantities of fresh vegetables for city dwellers. It also dealt with a major urban problem at the time - what to do with all the manure from the horses used for transportation. French intensive gardening was designed to grow the maximum amount of vegetables on the minimum area possible, since urban plots were invariably small and noncontinuous. Techniques of season-extension begun at the royal potager at Versailles under the celebrated head gardener La Quintiie in the 1670s and 80s were extended and enhanced such that urban gardens could provide fresh vegetables for much of the year in Paris.

The average Parisian market garden was between one and two acres in size, with plants grown on eighteen-inch beds of combined straw and horse manure from the stables. Although the plots were relatively small, the techniques used to attend to them were highly detail-oriented and labor intensive. In the words of one grower, "always tend the smallest amount of land possible, but tend it exceptionally well." In order to get the maximum amount of produce from a small area, many techniques were used in concert. Crops were planted so close together that when the plants were mature, their leaves would barely touch. The close spacing provided a mini-climate and a living mulch that reduced weed growth and helped hold moisture in the soil. Companion planting was used - growing certain plants together that enhance each other. For example, strawberries and green beans produce better when grown together; whereas onions stunt the growth of green beans. In addition to companion planting, gardeners developed an elaborate schedule of succession planting to get the most from the land throughout the growing season. Timing was key:
For example, an early spring hotbed would be sown with radish and carrot seed broadcast and then transplanted with lettuces at the same time. The radishes would be harvested first, making more room for the carrots growing between the lettuces. The carrot tops would stick out from around the lettuces until the lettuces were harvested, which gave the carrots enough light and space to complete their growth. But as soon as the lettuces were harvested, young cauliflower transplants would be set out among the carrots. Once the carrots were pulled the cauliflowers had the frame to themselves until they were harvested and the ground was prepared for the next crops. [2]
Gardeners grew up to nine crops each year and could even grow melon plants during the winter.

To extend the growing season as much as possible, glass-covered frames were placed over the plants which acted as mini-greenhouses. Heat for the cold frames was provided by the decomposing manure. Once the manure was thoroughly decomposed and no longer hot, it was shoveled out as compost and used as a soil amendment. Additional protection for cold nights was provided by one-inch thick mats made of rye straw rolled over the glass covers for extra insulation. One distinctive technique was to place bell-shaped jars 16-3/4" in diameter called cloches over the growing plants. Photographs of French urban gardens sometimes show hundreds of these bell-shaped jars. They were used to keep seedlings warm, as well as to protect mature plants like lettuce. On sunny days, a small notched stick was used to vent the cloche. The cloches could also be covered with straw mats during cold conditions. The microclimate of the city also helped protect from harsh weather. Decomposing manure was also used on the paths between the glass-covered hotbeds to help boost the heat. Paths were only ten inches wide to maximize growing space. Because these paths were too narrow for a wheelbarrow, gardeners wore woven willow backpacks called hottes. These were designed as a basket carried on the back with a spigot that extended over the head of the wearer so he or she could lean forward and deposit the merde onto the beds.

Pesticides and chemicals were avoided ("pompously labelled and unworthy drugs" in the words of Kropotkin). Large amounts of compost, crop rotation, diversity, companion planting and plant protection were enough to prevent most diseases and pest outbreaks. It was felt that pests attacked only sick and weak plants; healthy plants in healthy soil would not need extraordinary measures. Again, the fact that the gardens were in a city helped control pests, as well as the fact that small plots with diverse plantings did not allow for pests to multiply the way monocultures do.
Labour-intensive it was, most emphatically; yet it had outstanding merit in in calling for far less capital investment in glasshouses and heating systems, and the high productivity of small plots was barely credible. Delicate green vegetables were grown in winter, including a most successful cabbage lettuce; cauliflowers sewn under frames, and then moved under bell glasses at the end of February, were ready for market in six weeks; mustard and cress (for which there was great demand in London) was grown on bass mats and so cut clean. [3]
French intensive gardening methods was so effective that French master gardeners were able to supply nearly all the vegetable produce required for the city of Paris and its environs, and do it nearly year-round. They were even able to export greens to England even in fall and winter. Britain first began to take notice of the French methods as a way to help unemployed factory workers be more self-supporting on land. Market gardening was introduced to England by C. M. McKay, a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, who led an expedition to Paris to see the techniques in 1905. A number of how-to books were published for English audiences, including a popular one by McKay himself. The techniques became quite popular, although they never quite achieved the level of sophistication seen in Paris. In the 1920s and 1930s, English gardener and dramatist Alan Chadwick experimented extensively with the French intensive techniques, combining them with techniques from Austrian Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic method to form the French Intensive-Biodynamic method of gardening.

Such techniques were not unique to France. Similar techniques existed in Asia. Agronomist F.H. King noted Japanese techniques of growing produce urban areas in his book Farmers of Forty Centuries published in 1909:
How closely the ground itself may be crowded with plants is seen in Fig. 16, where a young peach orchard, whose tree tops were six feet through, planted in rows twenty-two feet apart, had also ten rows of cabbage, two rows of large windsor beans and a row of garden peas. Thirteen rows of vegetables in 22 feet, all luxuriant and strong, and note the judgment shown in placing the tallest plants, needing the most sun, in the center between the trees. But these old people, used to crowding and to being crowded, and long ago capable of making four blades of grass grow where Nature grew but one, have also learned how to double the acreage where a crop needs more elbow than it does standing room, as seen in Fig.17. This man's garden had an area of but 63 by 68 feet and two square rods of this was held sacred to the family grave mound, and yet his statement of yields, number of crops and prices made his earning $100 a year on less than one-tenth of an acre. [3]
After the First World War, la culture maraichere began to wane in France and England. Land values soared, and empty lots were developed or became too valuable for gardens. More importantly, cars replaced horses on city streets, and the straw and manure that had been so important disappeared. In the 1960s, Alan Chadwick brought his techniques to America on a 4-acre organic student garden at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. Starting with a hilly area of poor, clayey soil, Chadwick was able to eventually produce healthy topsoil and yields four times that of conventional agricultural methods. Chadwick grew his crops on rounded raised mounds and used the "double dig" method - removing the top soil layer, exposing the subsoil or hardpan beneath, breaking it up, adding organic matter, and replacing the topsoil that was initially removed. This provided greater drainage and aeration. The techniques were studied by John Jeavons of Ecology Action, who wrote a popular book promoting these methods under the name GROW-BIOINTENSIVE. Jeavons' book, How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine (usually abbreviated to just the first five words), first published in the 1974, helped to revive and extend the French Intensive Methods for a new generation in a new country. Others also wrote about the techniques. Many organic farmers and urban gardeners have been inspired by French Intesive Gardening, and there is hope that the culture of urban gardening which reached such heights at the end of the 1800's can be revived to put people to work and provide fresh local food for hungry cities for much of the year.


Today, history seems to repeat itself. After a manic century of economic growth, once again weed-filled empty lots are now common in urban areas, this time in the United States, and land that was once too valuable to garden now lies empty. Once again, unemployed factory workers are the vanguard of an crisis of unemployed and underutilized labor. Unlike the nineteenth century, however, the supplies of fossil fuels that engendered exponential economic growth and allowed local economies to wither in place of elaborate food supply systems are running out. It is generally recognized that food trucked in from miles away year-round is not only inefficient from a resource standpoint, it is increasingly questionable from a health standpoint, as such food is often grown in poor-quality degraded soils. At the same time, low-capital activities are needed to provide meaningful work for the legions of unemployed that haunt America's cities that the globalized, corporatized economy has abandoned.

This conflagration of circumstances - a surfeit of labor, a need to relocalize economic activity, vacant lots in cities, so-called food 'deserts' in urban areas, increasingly costly fossil fuels, and an awareness of the nutritional value of fresh local food - seem to make French intensive gardening to be an ideal answer to all these problems. The labor-intensive nature of French intensive gardening, a drawback in the corporate model of agriculture, is actually desirable under such circumstances. And, as is often the case in agriculture, labor intensive techniques are sustainable, healthy, and help enhance the environment. It also allows a degree of self-reliance that has been absent from the economy for a long time. Of course, the straw and manure that made French intensive gardening possible in cities are no longer available, horses having long ago been replaced by cars. In place, composting programs that transform agricultural waste into soil may be substituted.

Today, urban gardening is in the midst of a renaissance. The techniques that were so refined at the turn of the twentieth century should be revived and revitalized for the turn of the twenty-first. Increasingly, Pete Kropotkin's ideas of local economies centered around mutual aid is being embraced as a way out of an increasingly dire social and economic situation. French Market Gardening is just one way to help remake a more just and healthy urban economy.

[1] Peter Kropotkin. Fields, Factories and Workshops. p. 61-62
[1] Eliot Coleman. The Winter Harvest Handbook. p. 15.
[2] Joan Thirsk. Alternative Agriculture: A History. .p. 184
[3] F.H. King. Farmers of Forty Centuries.


An excellent article on urban gardening as distinct from agriculture by John Michael Greer:

Two Agricultures, Not One (Reality Sandwich)



AN urban farm off the East River. Artisanal food and crafts sold out of recycled shipping containers at the Dekalb Market. Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea on the Williamsburg waterfront.

Diners flocked to Smorgasburg on the Brooklyn waterfront last summer. It is to return in April.

They all share a hipper-than-thou aesthetic. They also share a pedigree: they were all set up to breathe some life into vacant lots.

In an unlikely convergence of interests, it is the real estate executives who have invited the vendors to set up shop on their stalled construction sites. The owners, after all, get what they want: foot traffic to their neighborhood, which they hope will translate into good business or quicker apartment sales when they finally put a building up on the lot. And the vendors get cheap, sometimes free, space.

Many of these popular spots are remaining open through the winter or are planning to return in the spring and summer. Other undeveloped lots have also been optioned for interim duty as a food-truck lot and a kind of time-share backyard; some will even play host to various art exhibits.

These are happy solutions to an economic problem. The sluggish market has effectively turned off the spigot for construction financing, so there are more than 600 stalled construction sites in New York City, according to a recent count by the city. 

Temporary Tenants Bring Life To Stalled Construction Sites (New York Times)

Across the street I have my strawberry lot. I try to plant by lot. I have a collard green lot, a kale lot, an okra lot, an eggplant lot, green bean lot. I had a corn lot, but it didn't work so well. Right now I have a garlic lot, I had a tomato lot, cucumber lot, squash, cabbage, broccoli, watermelon, cantaloupe. I like flowers, so I planted some of them. I had potatoes, mustard greens, turnip greens.

The New Agtivist: Edith Floyd is making a Detroit urban farm, empty lot by empty lot. (Grist)

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