Monday, July 4, 2011

Commemorating July 4th: A Look Back At Colonial Vegetable Gardening

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello vegetable garden
With a seemingly endless (and possibly permanent?) poor economy in the USA, home vegetable gardening has seen a renaissance in recent times. With July 4th upon us once again, I thought I'd take a look back at 18th century vegetable gardening in America, specifically around the time of 1776 when America gained its Independence.

Naturally grumpy about their vegetables

First we must understand that a good majority of the population was comprised of first or second generation English settlers. With their roots still firmly entwined in English tradition, these people were not big vegetable eaters to begin with. This may be due to the cooler, more cloudy and damp weather typical for a United Kingdom summer. Meat & grain were the two foods of highest preference for most early settlers.

Thus, in Colonial America, private vegetable gardens were not as prevalent as you may assume. One study of 18th century properties for sale in the Williamsburg, Virginia area determined that only around 20% mentioned gardens as a "selling point." Another early study found that when Colonials visited markets, just 15% of all goods purchased were vegetables, accounted for just 3% of total money spent.
Small kitchen garden, Williamsburg, Virginia
Growing vegetables ... no small feat

Though many did attempt to grow vegetables in some form, few found their niche or were very good at it. Vegetable gardening wasn't as simple as just having an idea and doing it. There were a lot of pitfalls and obstacles to overcome.

Any weather-wise gardener knows a minimum of one inch of rain is needed weekly to maintain a good growing garden. Thus, water was a huge stumbling block for most people with vegetable gardening aspirations. Though average rainfall was fairly abundant in the states comprising Colonial America, summer droughts (June thru August) were still extremely common. Some summers saw very little rainfall. Vegetable gardening could not be relied upon as a reliable source of consistent food.
Morristown National Historical Park
If you did not own your own slaves (most households did not), transporting, storing and distributing water to a garden was often-times a back breaking and exhausting experience -- seemingly endless when nature did not provide enough of its own nutrition. Often fresh water had to be carried one bucket at a time from a well or nearby stream or river. All this was enough to discourage many from growing & operating their own garden.

Animal & manpower

Tilling and breaking up the soil was another daunting task. This required the use of a horse or donkey to pull the tilling equipment along the rows or furrows, as well as manpower to help guide the tillers along a proper path.

As for gardening hand tools, not much has changed - Colonial Americans used antiquated yet effective versions of shovels, hoes, pitchforks etc... These tools were not cheap or readily available however. Most were made by local craftsmen, but some specialized equipment needed to be imported from Europe. All means were taken to ensure that your tools lasted a lifetime. If the handle from a shovel broke, for instance, rather than go to Home Depot & buy a whole new shovel, you would cut a small tree down, manually shape and cut it to the desired dimensions and find some means of attaching it to the shovel head.
Typical colonial vegetable garden configuration
Colonial gardening - a woman's job

Long before the women's liberation movement of the 1970's (about 200 years before), if you did not own slaves, women & children of the Colonial era were primarily responsible for keeping their homes and yards tidy, clothes washed, and their household well fed (just to name a few). They were also in charge of tending to the garden. This included planting seeds, weeding, watering, harvesting and all the other tasks associated with growing your own vegetables.

What foods did colonial Americans grow?

The types of food grown in colonial vegetable gardens were not too different than what is seen in today's modern gardens. Major differences were the abundant variety of vegetables grown (today's gardeners may focus on fewer groups), and the versions of each (unusual colored or shaped squash for example).

Above the ground, growing corn was extremely popular. Squash, pumpkins, lettuce, cabbage, peas, beans & leeks were also commonly seen. In ground vegetables included carrots, potatoes, radishes, turnips, onions & parsnips. Less popular but also grown were cauliflower, celery & artichokes.
Garden at George Washington's Birthplace, Westmoreland, Virginia

Herbs were also planted amongst the vegetables. Like today, many herbs were used as food flavorings. Due to fewer available doctors or drugs, herbs were also used medicinally to treat minor ailments, wounds and abrasions. They were incorporated as fabric dyes, breath fresheners, potpourri, pest repellents, cosmetically and as deodorants or fragrances.

Final word

There was no "right" way of planning your garden. However, a typical colonial vegetable garden consisted of four squares or rectangles bisected by walkways. Walkways were frequently lined with stones found in the ground locally, and trellises made with sticks found in nearby woods. Many people planted fruit trees or vines around the edges or adjacent to this garden plot.

Resources for this article:
Kitchen Gardens in Colonial Virginia
eHow- Typical Colonial Vegetable Garden
eHow- Colonial Herb Gardens


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