Replicating a 19th Century Pit House for a Historic Home
Gardening in the 18th Century was often a gentleman's responsibility. We think of George Washington at Mt. Vernon and certainly Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Both – men of means and of travel, returning from England, France and Italy with classical designs captured in their memory and often drawn off on paper. Bringing home seeds and cuttings was commonplace. Then there was John Bartram who traveled North America finding and labeling all native plants he saw, also gathering seeds and taking cuttings to share for research and for pleasure.
As America grew, more and more people became interested in plants and growing beautiful specimens. It was no longer a hobby for men of privilege. By the 19th century gardening became very common among all classes. Over the decades many ideas came into being as to how to extend the growing season. One of the early ideas came in the mid 19th century and it was a pit garden. The idea was to dig a hole 3 to 6 feet deep and to create sides but leaving a dirt floor. Over the top of the pit you would place glass panels or sometimes a fabric. You entered the pit through the roof.
The beauty of this pit garden allowed you to winter over pot plants and cuttings, you could start seeds ahead of season to get a jump start on your garden and there were many vegetables you could grow all year round because the pit provided warmth from the earth and the sun and cut out all winter winds. The pit enabled you to have and propagate rare and sensitive plants. You could also set pot plants in there to escape severe heat in the summer because the pit was often as much as 20 degrees cooler in summer.
The problem with a pit garden was partly up to the way it was constructed. If it were not properly dug and supported, and if you used a cloth or a rug as cover in a rain storm, the pit would flood. A flooded pit would ruin whatever plants were inside. Pits with glass covers did not do well in hail storms. Also, there are many accounts of people and animals unwittingly falling into the pit which caused serious damage and there are documented cases of toddlers falling in to a flooded pit and drowning. Obviously, changes needed to be made.
By the late 19th century, a new form arose – it was a Pit House. This was a beautiful addition to any home, a real status symbol. The pit was still the main component or idea but this time a short greenhouse structure became the necessary element. The pit still was about 3 feet deep and then, at ground level, sides were built, 2 to 3 feet high. It had a roof and a door with steps to enter. The sides, the door and the roof could all have glass windows and these little greenhouse always faced south or southeast.
A newspaper article, Gardening for Pleasure” from the late 1800s, states that a pit house is a sort of small cellar in which plants can be placed for protection from frost. The article goes on to say,
“the location chosen should be one that is well drained. The depth of the pit will have to be settled by the size of the plants to be placed in it. A good depth for ordinary plants is about three feet. The earth should be excavated exactly as if you were making a cellar. It is a little more expensive to wall it up with brick than with plank, but a brick walled pit is good for a life time...” He goes on to say, “If I were making a pit for the best results, I would make the wall double, that is, with two courses of brick laid up independently, with the space of an inch between the walls. This air-chamber is very useful in keeping out the cold.”
For the customer who is wanting a historic look in their greenhouse, this idea can come to life by purchasing an 8 X 10 or the 8 X 12 greenhouse from Grassroots Greenhouses. That much length would be needed to incorporate steps down to the greenhouse floor. This Pit House would have a historic look and also would be sustainable receiving its warmth and light from the earth and sun.