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Tending Your Herb Garden in Colonial America

Spring is right around the corner! We’ve all been impatiently waiting to spend more time outdoors after a very long winter. From the heavy snowfalls to cancelled holiday gatherings, to of course taking the most safety precautions any of us have in recent memory, winter (let alone the entire year of 2020) is just about behind us. So while you’re busy thinking about your spring getaway, why not clear out part of your backyard (that patch of dirt is itching to become a garden!), plant some of your favorite herb seeds (maybe some basil or rosemary, perfect for muddling in a cocktail or enhancing your stew!), and get outside for some much-needed warm weather gardening? Already a pro? Mix things up and try it the old-fashioned colonial way!

Today, we plant gardens that contain flowers, herbs, spices, and more, usually based on what we like! Colonial gardens differed depending on the colonist’s needs, from nutrition to brightening wardrobes. During the 18th century, colonial gardens in America were often influenced by the regions from which the colonists emigrated including France, Ireland, and England. Europeans brought fruit trees, various vegetables and herbs, as well as flowering bulbs like the tulip to America which helped create beautiful, diverse, and delicious gardens varying by climate, economic status, and the heritage of the homeowner. The 18th century garden served as an apothecary and spice rack for the average family, with the first gardens planted with herbs that served a purpose — herbs that provided nutrition and offered medicinal properties. Herbs also worked well for dyes, too! Parsley, bayberry, and marjoram were popular for their natural dyes, as were flowers like marigolds. And, as some colonists grew wealthier, separate gardens were added to grow flowers for pleasure (think George Washington’s Mount Vernon!).

When it came to size and placement, gardens were proportional to the size of a family. Gardens that contained small vegetables, such as leeks and carrots, herbs, and flowers, were placed near a house door for easy access. Larger vegetables, like green beans and pumpkins, were grown in outlying fields. Working-class colonists had smaller gardens compared to those in rural areas, while wealthy colonists focused on designing large symmetrical gardens with framed walkways.

Two common herbs we all know (and love) today were among the most popular staples in the colonial home: parsley and sage. While parsley is sometimes used as a garnish at your favorite steakhouse (which you probably just move off to the side), the dried spice adds balance to savory dishes and is rich in vitamins A, C, and K, perfect for your favorite soup, salad, or sauce. Colonists used parsley to season food and rid the gamey taste from wild meat, but also often incorporated it into their diets for its medicinal benefits (and it worked well as a dye, too!). When you think of sage, one of two things probably comes to mind: Thanksgiving stuffing, or a spiritual cleansing of negative energy (!). Perfect for stews and meats, sage was a staple in Colonial America for both its flavor and antimicrobial properties. Used as a tonic to cleanse the body, colonists would brew sage into an ale to help a sore throat, lower a fever, and assist with digestive issues. Other common herbs often found in a colonial garden were rosemary, thyme, and lavender (rosemary, one of my personal favorites, is great for a variety of dishes, from roasted root vegetables and rice, to fish, pork, and chicken!).

If you’re nervous about trying to start a garden (not all of us have a green thumb, myself included), or don’t have time to run to your local garden center for seeds, the Society has you covered! We’ll be offering free herb seed packets for all of our visitors interested in gardening at home (while supplies last)! If you don’t know which herb to start with, we’ll also be cooking herbed biscuits over the open hearth so you can sample some fresh herbs, too — check out the recipe below. From basil to rosemary, thyme to mint, we have plenty of herbs for everyone, from novice gardener to expert horticulturist. (If this is your first time planting seeds, be sure to take a look at the back of the packet for seed starting and planting information.)

Open house and museum tours are free, but donations are always appreciated — we can’t wait to see you this spring!

Herbed Biscuits


2 C. Flour

2 ½ tsp. baking powder

¾ tsp. Salt

1/3 C. Lard or Crisco

¾ C. Milk

Herbs to taste — Rosemary or Thyme (grated cheese optional)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Sift together in a larger bowl: 2c. Flour, 2 ½ tsp. baking powder, ¾ tsp. salt

Cut in 1/3 C of shortening (Lard or Crisco). Add the cheese and herbs here if using

Add 3/4 C Milk and stir with fork

Knead 20 turns and roll out on a floured board to ½ in. thickness

Cut into rounds using a glass or cutter

Place into heated oven for approximately 10 minutes

By: Jennifer Burns

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