Landmarks learn about Madison’s ‘pit gardens’

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By Patrick Yost

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On Sunday, February 17th, a large and enthusiastic audience was treated to a survey and discussion of Madison’s historic “pit gardens,” otherwise known as “green houses” or “hot houses.” The presentation, given by Rick Crown and Richard Simpson, included photos of existing “pit gardens” that go back over a hundred years. Some of the current owners of the gardens were in the audience – Mike and Ruth Bracewell, Jack and Nancy Miles and Carol Winslow, ready to share information about their current use.

Anne-Marie Walsh, Vice-President and Program Director of Landmarks, gave an interesting introduction to the two men by bringing up the age-old conflict between “nurture’ and “nature.”

On the “nurture” side, she pointed out that Richard Simpson received his love of plants and their craft through a university education in undergraduate horticulture and landscape architecture Receiving a degree in both of these disciplines has afforded him the “ability to have a “Macro” eye for the concept of placing plants in the landscape, developing hardscapes and maintaining the vegetation.”

On the “nature” side, Rick Crown received his love of flora from his earliest childhood experiences with his grandmother, a floral judge and hobby horticulturalist. For many years, Rick has developed a wonderful eye for finding wild growing things on the highways and byways, along RR’s and fences, adding these to floral pieces to give them unique texture and interest.

The presentation was accompanied by photos, some new, some from many years ago, that showed how the “pit gardens” were used. Richard pointed out that this project was an adventure in looking back in time when greenhouses were abundant, when the fashion was to use lush tropical plants in one’s garden and in pots decorating the porches and other outside areas.

The purpose of these special houses was to provide a place where palms and other tropical plants could “over-winter” without freezing. They were below ground level, with a dirt floor and glass windows or doorway to provide sunlight. 

There was no set formula for how deep the floor should be, but in many instances, the choice was 2 feet 8 inches below ground level. It had to be deep enough to keep the earth from freezing – the deeper the warmer – but not too deep or the pit would flood. 

In 1997, June Harrell, landscape architect of Madison, did an inventory of “pit houses” with tropical plants kept year-round. She found that because Main Street runs on a ridge crest, which provides good drainage, many “pit houses” clustered around Main. 

Almost but one of these houses were set on the southwest side of the main house. This provided more warmth and probably better drainage. 

The question of where the plants came from was asked. Rick reminded us that there was no Walmart or Lowes 100 years ago, so plants were obtained either by mail order or by the custom of “pass-along” from friend to friend.  Another source might have been merchants passing through town with plants for sale.

Rick read some selected writings from the Madisonian. One, from the January 30, 1914 edition described palms and mid-winter flowers being used to decorate a home for a social gathering. Another was a flowery poem, published in 1907, which described the smells of the lovely tropical plants as “sheer heaven.” 

After this wonderful program, the Landmarks members and guests left with a glimpse of the “sheer heaven” those plants, over-wintered in the “pit houses,” provided Madison.

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