Sunday, April 20, 2008

In praise of propagators

    There is something magical about stepping into  a greenhouse on a cold day. That warm fug with its earthy whiff of healthy growth. A place apart, where the seasons are tricked, and we can grow what nature denies us.   
    This year is the first time I have an enclosed growing space (apart from the conservatory) for a long time. Not since I had polytunnels on my nursery, which was years ago now. As a teenager I shared a greenhouse with my father, of which I have very clear memories, especially of a Humex Big Top propagator, which I ended up taking with me to the nursery.
    Propagators have certainly come on – an interesting illustration of how technological advance lets us get away with using far fewer resources. The Big Top was a great deep tray of fibre-glass which had to be filled with sand in which soil warming cables were buried; its top was aluminium and sheets of (all too easily broken) glass. The one I have just bought is simply some aluminium hoops covered in a PVC sheet with zips. Seed trays sit on a foil sheet, in which heating cables are enmeshed. The whole thing struck me at first as rather flimsy, but actually it is well designed, and quite robust, and provides a very good heat. Everything the Big Top would have done at a fraction of the weight.And you can pack it all up at the end of the spring and put it away in a drawer. The Big Top just sat there taking up an awful lot of space.
    There is something deeply fascinating about a propagator. A bit like one of those perspex boxes they put premature babies in, a plastic bubble which generates new life. I love the sensation of opening it up in the morning, the thrill of seeing what has germinated, the excitement of watching the almost hourly advances in the growth of tomato and pepper seedlings. The draught of humid green-smelling air of the greenhouse within the greenhouse.
    It isn’t even a proper greenhouse, but a Belgian Filclair Serren PVC polytunnel, superior to polyethylene, but designed with some rather irritating draught gaps at the bottom – so some additional work needed. The growth rate on salad crops sown in January has been very impressive – but soon to be replaced by tomatoes, aubergines and peppers.
    Glasshouses in some ways are dinosaurs – all that heavy, fragile and energy-hungry material. Polytunnels have replaced them to all intents and purposes for unheated or minimally-heated work. Its common to hear people say that they don’t look so nice. True. But then isn’t that just nostalgia to some extent?

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