The Garden Gate: Snow, ice good for spring, summer gardens

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Snow and ice add their own touches of beauty to a winter garden.

We have had more snow and ice in recent weeks than we want to cope with, creating driving perils, canceled appointments and high heating bills. But as ice and snow melt, they add many nutrients to the soil. Those nutrients will help fertilize a summer garden to come.

Harvesting ice is still a wintertime industry in some of the most northern states. There, the whine of power saws can be heard over frozen lakes, where they cut 14-inch-thick cubes of ice.

Many thousands of workers, mainly in New England, were employed this way ever winter prior to the beginning of the 20th century. Old-fashioned ice houses are still used in some remote areas, and for a few summer cottages in lakeside locales.

Ice has also been elevated to the realm of art in some northern states. Winter ice festivals with beautiful and elaborate ice sculptures compete for prizes and attract thousands of visitors.

Many restaurants and hotels have chefs who specialize in creating ice sculptures of great beauty. This art requires years of training and much skill, as well as an ability to work in a cold environment.

There have even been resort hotels built of ice. Guests are forbidden to bring portable heaters into the rooms for obvious reasons, and small signs warn against chipping bits off the walls to add to drinks.

When July comes, ice will become a useful and appreciated commodity. According to biblical accounts, Solomon drank wine cooled by ice brought from the high mountains.

Hippocrates firmly believed that ice-cooled drinks were unhealthy.

“It is dangerous to heat or cool or make sudden commotion in the body, because anything that is excessive is an enemy to nature,” he wrote, “but, for all this men will not take warning and would not run the hazard to their health than be deprived of drinks cooled with ice.”

Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman naturalist, distrusted iced drinks for sanitary reasons. To prevent contamination, his method was to put beverages in jars and bury them in chopped ice or snow to chill them.

The Roman philosopher Seneca also disapproved of adding ice to chill foods or drinks because of the great expense and luxury that only the rich could afford.

The Italians discovered in the 16th century that boiled water in a snow-packed container would quickly turn into ice. Experiments in ice making became quite common by the 17th century.

It was commonly believed that Francis Bacon, one of the first great English experimental scientists, died in 1620 as a direct result of a cold he caught while stuffing fowls with snow to preserve them.

Ice was used and stored in America from colonial days in the northern areas of the country, where it could easily be gathered from frozen lakes, ponds and streams.

The ice business began in this country in 1799, when a shipload of ice was sent from New York to South Carolina.

Five years later, a Boston entrepreneur shipped ice to the West Indies. Shortly after that, another Boston firm introduced imported ice to the English.

Every Southern plantation in the 19th century had its own ice house. All industrial centers built ice storage houses, where ice cut from the rivers locally was packed in sawdust and carefully used to make it last as long as possible. Of course, the supply of ice was a limited luxury item.

Tradition tells an amusing story of Civil War-era hostess who poured from a silver pitcher. Ice was unobtainable then. It was a hot summer day, but she had placed several silver spoons in her pitcher to make an ice-like clinking sound. It made everyone cooler just to hear it.

Ever since Dr. William Cullen of Scotland tried in 1755 to make ice by mechanical means, experimenters had been working on this project.

One 19th century inventer, Englishman Thomas Masters, wrote in 1884 about his era as being “the age of inventions.”

“Art was not rested content with producing the luxuries and preparing the necessities of humanity,” he wrote. “It has dared to imitate nature in the production of that most wonderful phenomenon, ice, which, once the sole purpose of her mighty laboratory, has been made by the skill and enterprise of her subject, man.”

Today the availability of mechanical refrigerators and freezers has turned almost every American home into its own ice-making plant. Coin-operated ice-cube dispensers are also to be found in any public locations.

We have recently been hampered briefly by too much ice and snow, and we have complained loudly about the limitations they have placed on us.

We now welcome slightly warmer days and the easier mobility they give us. We look forward to spring and to planting our snow-enriched gardens.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.