Fruit Walls: Urban Farming in the 1600s

For centuries before modern greenhouse glass, urban farmers harvested solar energy using walls with thermal mass.

  • These pear trees benefit from the warm microclimate created by the brick fruit wall.
    Photo by Flickr/isamiga76
  • An example of an espalier tree against a fruit wall at the West Dean College in Sussex.
    Photo by Flickr/Leonora (Ellie) Enking
  • The practice of espalier, besides taking advantage of a favorable microclimate, promotes fruit production by directing energy away from vertical growth and instead into the production of fruit-bearing lateral branches.
    Photo by Flickr/muffinn
  • The sloped wall was another variation on the linear fruit wall. It was designed by Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier and described in his 1699 book Fruit Walls Improved. A wall built at an incline of 45 degrees and facing south absorbs the sun’s energy for a longer part of the day, increasing plant growth.
    Illustration by Nicolas Fatio de Duillier
  • In Thomery, France, workers commonly used movable scaffolds along the tall fruit walls to aid in the maintenance and cultivation of grapes.
    Illustration by Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images
  • These movable stone blocks control the movement of hot air through a heated fruit wall in Scotland.
    Photo by Roger Griffith
  • The maze of fruit walls in Montreuil, France, provided peaches of renowned quality to the bustling Parisian market, Les Halles, as well as to nobility within France and abroad.
    Photo by Wikimedia/Claude Villetaneuse
  • Still seen today, the winding shape of serpentine walls saves building materials, provides strength and stability, and creates warm microclimates for plants.
    Photo by Flickr/Karen Blaha
  • The cultivators of Thomery developed a remarkable storage system for grapes. The grape bunches were cut to include a portion of the vine. The stem of the vine was submerged in a water-filled bottle, and a piece of charcoal was added to help keep the water pure. These bottles were stored on large wooden racks in the basements or attics of buildings. Some of these storage facilities housed up to 40,000 bottles, each bottle holding one or two bunches of grapes. This storage system allowed the grapes to stay fresh for up to 4 months after harvest so they could be sold for Christmas feasts during the winter months (for a higher price, of course).
    Illustration by Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images
  • A worker tends to grapes growing against a fruit wall in Thomery, France.
    Photo by Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images
  • Greenhouses built against fruit walls, like this one located in Thomery, capture and store heat from the sun even more effectively than fruit walls alone, boosting crop production.
    Photo by Wikimedia/Reinhardhauke

From the 16th to the 20th century, urban farmers in Europe grew Mediterranean fruits and vegetables as far north as England and the Netherlands. They grew these crops by planting them next to massive “fruit walls,” which stored the heat from the sun and released it at night, creating a microclimate that could increase the temperature near the walls by up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit as compared to the surrounding area. Later, greenhouses built against the fruit walls further improved yields by capturing and storing energy from the sun even more effectively.

It was only at the very end of the 19th century that the greenhouse turned into a fully glazed and artificially heated building. Modern glass greenhouses require massive inputs of energy for heating, especially because they’re often located in temperate climates with cold winters, plus many require artificial lighting and humidity control. Heating a building that’s entirely made of glass is very energy-intensive because glass has a limited insulation value. Even if it’s triple-glazed, glass loses much more heat than an insulated wall.

Fruit Wall Technology

The design of the modern greenhouse is strikingly different than the technology it evolved from. Initially, the quest to produce warm-weather crops in temperate regions  (and to extend the growing season of local crops) didn’t involve any glass at all. In 1561 (during the apex of the so-called Little Ice Age, a period of exceptional cold in Europe that lasted from about 1300 to 1850), Swiss botanist Conrad Gesner described the effect of sun-heated walls on the ripening of figs and currants, which matured faster than when they were planted farther from the wall.

Gesner’s observation led to the emergence of fruit walls in Northwestern Europe. By planting fruit trees close to these specially built walls with high thermal mass and southern exposure, a microclimate was created that allowed the cultivation of Mediterranean fruits in temperate climates. The French quickly started to refine the technology by pruning the branches of fruit trees so they could be attached to a wooden frame on the wall. This practice, known as “espalier,” allowed them to optimize the use of available space and to further improve upon the growing conditions.

These fruit walls reflected sunlight during the day. They also absorbed solar energy, which was then slowly released as heat during the night, preventing frost damage. Consequently, a warmer microclimate was created on the southern side of the wall. Fruit walls also protected crops from cold northern winds, and protruding roof tiles or wooden canopies were sometimes used to shield the fruit trees from heavy rain, hail, and bird droppings.

Peach Walls in Paris

Initially, fruit walls appeared in the gardens of the wealthy, such as at the Palace of Versailles in France. However, some French regions later developed an urban farming industry based on fruit walls. The most spectacular example was Montreuil, a suburb of Paris, where peaches were grown on a massive scale. Montreuil had more than 370 miles of fruit walls by the 1870s when the industry reached its peak. The 740-acre maze of jumbled-up walls was so confusing for outsiders that the Prussian army went around Montreuil during the Siege of Paris in 1870.



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