Shelburne Farms Greenhouses & Gardens, 1880-2019

“Do the best that you can in the place where you are, and be kind.”

- Scott Nearing

Greenhouses and gardens have been an integral part of Shelburne Farms’ landscape for over 130 years.  Essential greenhouse as well as farm and forest operations were intentionally sited within ½ mile of both the Farm Barn and the main residence (now the Inn at Shelburne Farms). Shelburne Farms’ oldest surviving business ledger confirms the greenhouse operation was established as early as 1888. The leading horticultural architects of the day, including Lord & Burnham Co., Hitchings & Co. and Henry W. Gibbons designed, built or repaired various greenhouses and steam heating systems for Shelburne Farms over the next 20 years, until 1909. 

The current Market Garden site was originally home to garden plots and a range of glass and iron framed, steam-heated greenhouses erected between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This operation grew extensively—and synchronously—with the expansion and growth of Shelburne Farms. Palms, ferns, carnations, violets, grapes, roses, and mushrooms were exclusively grown in their own individual greenhouses where humidity, light and heat could be regulated. These glasshouses allowed a team of gardeners to cultivate exotic flowers such as gardenias, calla lilies, lilies of the valley, roses, and chrysanthemums year round. Flowering and ornamental plants were cultivated for the house’s formal gardens and interiors, special occasions, and for the Shelburne Episcopal church.  Fruit and vegetables like strawberries, artichokes and asparagus were also grown for family, friends, and employees. By 1906 the square footage of the greenhouse building complex was 24,683’ or roughly half the size of a football field. Extensive greenhouse and agricultural operations allowed a country estate to run almost as a self-sufficient, sustaining entity.

Greenhouses were a common feature for country estate properties of the period. Innovations in design and construction created great flexibility and longer lasting structures that appealed to a growing clientele. Prefabricated iron framing and large plate glass, shipped by railcar and assembled on site, coupled with advances in heating and ventilation technology, provided state-of-the-art options for private and public glasshouse construction. The use of rot-resistant cypress wood for interior benches and platforms was also popular. The New York Botanical Garden is a public example of Lord & Burnham’s work and these developments.

The greenhouse operation required significant labor and monetary resources. Naturally, operations were scaled back during World War I and more so following the Great Depression. Owing to disrepair and lack of use, some sections of greenhouses were removed and sold in the 1920s, and then in the early 1940s.  Lila Webb’s death in the summer of 1936, followed two years later by the retirement of Alexander Graham, long-time head of the greenhouses, accelerated the operation’s demise, which was mostly abandoned by the 1940s. After the 1940s, some of the fields were used for grazing sheep and heifers, and the Gardener’s Cottage continued to house farm staff, but gardening was discontinued until the 1970s.  

As a fledgling nonprofit in 1972, Shelburne Farms began two new initiatives: offering its first summer camps on the land in and around the Market Garden, and growing produce again to sell to local farmer’s markets.  Both programs continue to this day!

Early camp director, Robert Kinzel, shared his beliefs for a camper’s experience in a Burlington Free Press article from June of 1975. “The main purpose is to provide outdoor experience for kids… .  Everybody cooks. Because they’ve helped with the gardening the campers are familiar with the vegetables. They get the milk from the milk barn, get to see the working of the farm. On rainy days they make bread.” Encouraging learners to connect to the land and the food we eat has always been a cornerstone of our educational mission.  Today, the Market Garden continues to be a classroom for learners of all ages to directly experience where food comes from, and to begin to understand the food systems of which they’re a part.

Early board of trustees minutes note that Shelburne Farms was participating in Farmers Markets as early as 1972 and growing potatoes, pumpkins, sunflowers, corn, strawberries, asparagus, and blueberries. Two years later, board minutes from 1974 note “Shelburne Farms Resources will run a summer camp and grow a two to three-acre garden with the intention of selling vegetables to raise revenue.”

David Miskell had been working on organic farms in New England and Europe throughout the 1970s and shortly after returning to the United States in 1980 he heard about a possible opportunity at Shelburne Farms. He made inquiries and arranged a visit in 1980. David says Shelburne Farms was magical, however the garden site was a disaster.  His wife Susan asked him “You aren’t going to do this, are you?” David quickly replied “Well if it grows weeds this well, it is certainly going to grow good vegetables.” David and Susan Miskell began living on the property in 1981. They introduced organic farming initiatives and experimented with a variety of greenhouses and crops, before focusing on growing in-ground, organic greenhouse tomatoes on a commercial scale. In addition, they supplied all the produce for the Inn after it opened to the public in 1987. The Miskells continued working the land and living in the Market Garden Cottage until 2006 when they moved to Charlotte, VT where they had already established their own greenhouses and built a new house. 

Today, the seven-acre certified organic Market Garden site has six greenhouse structures. Five hoop houses, totaling 8,440 square feet, help extend the growing season in the early spring and late fall and support crops that prefer a tunnel environment, like cut flowers and trellised tomatoes. The tunnels are also a key tool to help mitigate the risk of climate change. There is also one greenhouse with heat and electricity for seeding and growing transplants in the early spring. Josh Carter said “This year we seeded carrots in mid-March and transplanted tomatoes about the third week in April.”  Our organic growing practices focus on sustaining healthy, fertile soil. Annually, 1.5 acres support perennial fruit, herbs, and flowers, 2.5 acres are actively cultivated, and the remaining 2.5 acres are rested and grow cover crops to improve the soil.

This year, our organic vegetables and fruit are available for sale curbside at our Farm Store.  It is like a daily farmers market! In addition, while the Inn and restaurant are closed to the public for the season, Executive Chef John Patterson and his amazing team are turning the bounty of market garden produce into pre-packaged and prepared meals for sale. Visit our online store to find out what’s available for curbside pickup, and as you enjoy your food, consider the long history of the land that produced it.


NOTE: To protect the health of our staff in these critical areas of the Farm, the Market Garden is currently closed to the public.

Julie Eldridge Edwards

Posted by Julie Eldridge Edwards

August 25, 2020

Comments

Julie - this is a brilliant article! Great job and so refreshing for those who cannot take tours at this time. Thanks for the review but I also learned some new info. I hope folks will continue to give to Shelburne Farms as well as patronize the Farm Store. The food is fantastic!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the history of the farm and viewing the old pics. Hopefully one day when this pandemic is over, I will get to see it in person. I love all these articles! Thank you! Marilyn McKenzie Oakville,Ontario,Canada

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