Spring is in the air, and summer is just around the corner, which has us thinking about warm weather, plenty of sunshine, and the smell of fresh flowers (unless, of course, you suffer from seasonal allergies!). When you picture a garden, you might see a backyard oasis full of blooming bushes and flowering vines draped over an arbor, or you might imagine a vegetable garden packed with your favorite peppers, tomatoes, and herbs. Whatever you see, it might not be entirely different from how your ancestors gardened in colonial America.
During the 18th century, colonial gardens in America were often influenced by the regions from which the colonists immigrated, particularly those from France, Ireland, England, and the Netherlands. Colonists and Europeans would also exchange native plant materials and species, bringing fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and flowering bulbs, like the tulip, to America, creating diverse gardens that varied by climate, economic status, and the heritage of the owner.
Though they may look similar, colonists did not create their gardens the same way as landscape designers and garden hobbyists do today. Colonial gardens were dependent on a colonist’s needs, with the size proportionate to the size of their family. Working-class colonists with less land had gardens that were smaller than those living in rural areas, and those who were wealthy had larger, more elaborate gardens that framed walkways. Gardens that contained vegetables, such as leaks, onions, carrots, and cabbage, herbs, and flowers, were planted near a house door or a raised garden bed to provide quick access (which came in handy when you realize you forgot the rosemary for your stew!). Pungent herbs, like oregano and ginger, were usually omitted from vegetable plantings. As gardens evolved, fruit trees were incorporated and planted along outside edges and in the center of the garden to create focal points. Green beans, corn, and pumpkins were grown in large fields — think fall pumpkin picking! Everything from seasoning herbs to fruits and vegetables would also be used for food preservation and dying fabric.
But what about our founding fathers? Many of our nation’s founders understood the importance of nature and gardening, including George Washington. Even during the American Revolution, Washington oversaw all aspects of the landscape at Mount Vernon and would extensively redesign the grounds by adopting a less formal, yet naturalistic style, through vistas cut through forests and hundreds of native trees and shrubs. Martha Washington cared for the kitchen garden which provided her with fresh fruits and vegetables year round. However, the Washingtons also had 317 slaves who assisted with the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. Many of Washington’s guests would be welcomed with fresh vegetables and fruits, and would often partake in after-dinner strolls through his gardens.
Just like today, gardening in Colonial America provided people with a source of fresh produce and a chance to be outdoors. In 1792, Martha Washington said, “[the] vegetable is the best part of our living in the country.” (If you are anything like me, you prefer your vegetables sugar-coated or glazed, but hey — that still counts, right?)
By: Jennifer Burns