16 May 2011



The market gardeners around Boston and most of the large centers of population, depend largely upon hot-beds for starting early vegetables for market and for family use. There seems to be no reason why every farmer should not do the same. They are started and operated at a season of comparative leisure, and so cost but little, either of time or money; while a supply of vegetables, both early and late, does much to keep down the expenses of the table and to promote the health of the family.

The first steps in the preparation of a hot-bed are taken in the fall, by selecting a suitable loam and throwing it into a heap for use in winter or early spring. The construction of a proper frame is usually deferred till the leisure time of winter. To make a frame, two-inch stuff is taken and spiked to corner-posts or joists, making the back side twice as high as the front so as to give the proper inclination to the sashes. The frame may be four or five feet wide and nine or twelve feet long, according to the object in view. For a family supply merely, the smaller size will be sufficient. If the back and front are fastened by screws and iron bolts, the frame can be readily taken to pieces and laid away when not in use, and so made to last a long time.

A bed of nine feet long will require three sashes. A piece of wood three inches wide and two inches thick should be set in where the sashes meet, extending from the front to the back, for them to run upon, and the piece may extend back a foot or two beyond the body of the frame. A south or southeast exposure is best. Dig down a foot, making the hole six inches larger every way than the frame. Drive down joists at the corners, and nail to their outsides two-inch plank, letting the top come up about to the top of the ground, the size of this structure corresponding to that of the frame, so that the latter will sit firmly upon it.

The bed itself is made about the middle of March. Coarse fresh horse-manure from the stable is used for heating material. It is to be shaken up well and thoroughly mixed, then put evenly into the bed and beaten down with the fork, but not trodden upon. Raise it up two feet, the back part a little higher than the front, making the whole about six inches higher than it is intended to have it stand, to allow for settling.

Alternate layers of tan-bark and manure, or a mixture of leaves and manure,  are sometimes used to get a steady and continuous heat. After the bed is formed as indicated above, the sashes are put in, when the heat will begin to rise in two or three days. The sash can then be slightly raised to let any steam pass off, and soon after the loam can be spread over the manure lightly to the depth of six or seven inches. The bed will be ready to receive the seed a day or two after the loam is put on, and this is sown in drills crosswise. If the manure ferments so rapidly as to give out too much heat and steam and to endanger the roots of the plants, it is safer to sow the seed in small flowerpots set into the soil up to the rims, and these can be raised and lowered again when the heat moderates. A large stick, thrust down into the bed in several places and withdrawn, has the effect to lessen the heat. Constant watchfulness is needed to secure sufficient ventilation, to prevent overheating and a feeble growth, and the frames should be opened for the purpose whenever it is safe to do it, but the external air is to be let in cautiously, when the air is not too cold.

Cucumbers and similar plants are sometimes sown upon pieces of inverted sod in the bed, and they can be removed to the garden without injury as soon as the season admits of it. In the same way cabbages, cauliflowers, tomatoes, melons, celery, lettuce, potatoes, peppers, and many other plants can be started in the hot-bed to be transplanted as soon as the spring is sufficiently advanced.

Though some experience may be required to inspire complete success, the object to be gained is important enough to warrant it.

This deluxe modern-day cold frame is well made and equipped with counterbalance weights on a pulley to make opening easier. It looks deep enough that it could also be used as a hot-bed frame. Just add horse manure—fresh, coarse, mixed, and beaten down (but not trodden upon).


I have a neighbor with horses. In past years he has brought me a few loads of horse manure for my garden. He brings it in a small manure spreader, backs it into place, and the spreader flings the load into a pile. All that flinging mixes the manure and straw bedding real well. A couple days later the pile is steaming hot.

These days many growers use electric heat mats to get their garden seeds off to an early start in a favorable environment. But the old-timers didn't need heat mats and electricity. They had lots of horse manure. 

Today's excerpt is just another fine example of economy, resourcefulness, and sustainable agriculture, all of which was everyday practice when America was an Agrarian Nation.


One more thing....I think the idea of sowing seeds on inverted pieces of sod, instead of in containers, is simply brilliant.


The next installment of Agrarian Nation will feature excerpts about Corn from farm almanacs of 1859, 1883 & 1889.

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Anonymous said...

I have wanted to take measures to extend my growing season for some time now. I must try this--with the help of hubby's carpentry skills, of course.

With all the talk lately about cold frames, I haven't heard the term hot-bed for years. I didn't realize the difference but now I see that it's simply the addition of horse manure that makes a hot-bed HOT, is that correct?


Sal from SRF said...

I have been experimenting this year, sowing squash and watermelon seeds in piles of composting horse manure outside when it is still too cold to grow them otherwise. It works great. They have sprouted with outside temperatures of 8-10 celsius (46-50 f.) and are growing.

Jim Janknegt said...

I was wondering if in your perusals of the almanacs you have come across the methods old timers used to fight termites. This is a perennial problem in the south and one I have yet to find a way to deal with without having to call in the pest control company. I would like to be self sufficient in this area also. If you run across anything I would appreciate you reporting on it.
Many thanks and keep up the good work!