The Walled Kitchen Garden
The pineapple first made its way from South America to Europe in the 16th century, having lost much of its flavour along the way. Being a tropical plant originally from Brazil, its successful cultivation in Europe had to wait for the appropriate technology to be developed.
Attempts to grow this exotic fruit were first carried out in Holland in the late 17th century, and a suitable hothouse was developed around 1685 (Dixon-Hunt & de Jong, p.279). It is generally agreed that the first person to grow and ripen a pineapple successfully was a Dutch woman known as Agnes Block (Dixon-Hunt & de Jong, p. 277).
By the 18th century the technology had transferred to Britain, and the ability to grow pineapples became a signifier of status - one needed a deep purse and a skilful gardener, since a pineapple took at least two years to mature, requiring heat ranging from 70-80°F. The first person to grow one successfully in this country was Sir Matthew Decker, a Dutchman, as was his gardener. He was so proud of his achievement that he had a ‘portrait' painted of his pineapple in 1720.
The pineapple pit was essentially a development of the hot-bed, but set into the ground for greater insulation and roofed in glass. The brick-lined pits were filled with waste tanners' bark, which ferments to create a higher and more even temperature than manure.
The pineapples were grown in pots plunged into the bark. Heat could be augmented by heated flues or by fermenting horse manure laid outside the pit. Later in the 19th century the pits were heated by hot water boilers.
The use of pits was extended to grow other crops, in particular melons and cucumbers, and also used for forcing asparagus, potatoes and strawberries (Campbell 1999, p.23).
The pineapple made a magnificent table display, and great care was taken to show it off to its best advantage, as Richard Bradley describes in A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening (1724): ‘It is commonly cut from the Plant with a long Stalk, so that it may be set upright in a Tube of Glass, to crown the Top of a Pyramid of Fruit; and whosoever once tastes of it, will undoubtedly allow, that it deserves a Place above all other Fruits...' (Sherman, p.56).