“We have made trial of our owne English seedes, kitchen hearbes, and rootes”:
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
KITCHEN GARDENS IN COLONIAL AMERICA AND THE EARLY REPUBLIC
This year, with shortages caused at least in part by the COVID-19 Pandemic, has caused many people to think about just how vulnerable we are to disruptions in the supply chain that produces, packages, transports and distributes many of the items we need to get by on a day-to-day basis. This is especially true of fresh items such as fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, and dairy items. Additionally, the disruption to the economy has affected people’s income causing them to have fewer dollars to spend.
Just as Americans have done in the past when faced with shortages and uncertainty, many people have taken an interest in growing at least some of their food. One doesn’t have to look that far back in history to see this in action; consider the Victory Gardens of WWI and WWII.
During both WWI and WWII, Americans planted “Victory Gardens” in both rural and urban settings to help to alleviate food shortages caused by the war. In 1953, 36% of the US population lived in rural areas where they could easily grow at least some of their own food.
I grew up in a rural area, outside a large city, and for much of my childhood we had vegetable gardens that produced crops such as corn, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, strawberries, lettuce, radishes, watermelon, and asparagus. In addition, we had apple trees, and grape vines that provided us with an abundance of fruit.
For the purposes of this blog post however, we are going to look at the history of family vegetable gardens and at vegetable gardens planted during the Colonial Era and the early years of the American Republic, gardens that were crucial for providing a varied diet for themselves and their families.
Following the Ice Age, favorable climatic conditions helped to fuel early plant domestication. Subsistence farming was the earliest form of gardening. In this type of farming most of the crops or livestock raised are used to support the farmer and the farmer’s family, leaving little if any surplus for sale or trade. Subsistence farming dates back at least 12,000 years, when humans began domesticating plants for growth.
Beginning around 11,500 years ago, cultivation of the eight Neolithic foundation crops, emmer, einkorn, wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas, and flax began in the Levant. China domesticated Rice sometime between 11,500 and 6,200 BC followed by mung, soy and azuki beans. In the Andes of South America, indigenous people domesticated the potato between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago, along with beans, and coca. Domestication of sugarcane and some root vegetables occurred in New Guinea around 9,000 years ago and sorghum in the Sahel region of Africa by 7,000 years ago. In Mesoamerica, indigenous peoples bred wild teosinte into maize ca. 6,000 years ago.
Cottage gardens, which appeared in Elizabethan times, appear to have originated as a local source for herbs, vegetables, and fruits. One theory is that they arose out of the Black Death of the 1340s, when the death of so many laborers made land available for small cottages with personal gardens. According to the late 19th-century legend of origin, the workers that lived in the cottages of the villages created these gardens to provide them with food and herbs. Farm workers were provided with cottages set in a small garden—about 1 acre (0.40 ha)—where they could grow food and keep pigs and chickens.
Gardens of the yeoman cottager would have included a beehive and livestock, and often a pig and sty, along with a well. The peasant cottager of medieval times was more interested in meat than flowers, with herbs grown for medicinal or culinary use rather than for their beauty. By Elizabethan times there was more prosperity, and thus more room to grow flowers. Even the early cottage garden flowers typically had their practical use—violets were spread on the floor (for their pleasant scent and keeping out vermin); calendulas and primroses were both attractive and used in cooking. Others, such as sweet William and hollyhocks, were grown entirely for their beauty.
Vegetable Gardening in the Colonial Era
The first English men and women who, in 1607, landed in the Tidewater of Virginia confronted a life-and-death struggle to set up a colony at Jamestown. By 1609, close to 500 colonists were living there, but when the Powhatan Indians blockaded the settlement and withheld all provisions, the horrible “starving time” spared only 60 people.
After the end of the Powhattan blockade, within a matter of months Jamestown officials sent a message back to the London Company of Virginia—the English business that had bankrolled the colony—about the phenomenal gardening prospects:
“We have made trial of our owne English seedes, kitchen hearbes, and rootes, and find them no sooner putt into the ground then to prosper as speedily and after the same quallitie as in England.”
For the rest of the 17th century, Virginians would carve an economically workable colony from the wilderness, feeding themselves with subsistence farming. Corn was by far the most important crop, followed by field peas and beans. Under these circumstances, a vegetable garden supplied luxuries rather than staples, since although its produce was a much-appreciated diversion from a monotonous diet of meat and grain, it was not always dependable. In much of the South, including Virginia, summers could be blisteringly hot with little rain, putting gardens very much at risk. The climate in America’s northern colonies, which experienced cooler summers with more rainfall was more conducive to vegetable gardening.
In Plymouth Plantation and rural New England, the gardens were purely a functional out-growth of their needs. The house and barn formed the focus and the garden placed near the house. The orchard and fields were not always near the "home lot" but where soil and exposure seemed best.
The size of the garden was proportionate to that of the family. Most of the vegetables needed on a small scale, as well as culinary and medicinal herbs, grew in fenced-in gardens near the house. These included leeks, onions, garlic, melons, English gourds, radishes, carrots, cabbages, and artichokes. The herbs were planted among the vegetables, the most aromatic grown to one side so as not to "flavor the soil". Meanwhile, vegetables needed in bulk, such as corn, beans, peas, and pumpkins, grew in fields.
18th and Early 19th Century Virginia Vegetable Gardening
The population of the Virginia colony continued to grow and, in 1699, the English founded the city of Williamsburg as the colony’s capital. It attracted merchants, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who, along with their wives, had enough leisure time to cultivate dooryards and cottage gardens of vegetables and herbs for their households. In the beginning, they consulted English manuals on gardening, adjusting the planting times to accommodate Virginia’s seasons and climate.
Somewhere between 1760 and 1770, John Randolph, King’s Attorney for Virginia, wrote the first American gardening book, A Treatise on Gardening, before he fled back to England at the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. Although this treatise was no doubt based upon earlier gardening books from England, Randolph was clearly writing from his own experience in the New World. Most notably, he changed the planting dates to suit the Virginia climate. He also noted, for example, that the multiple spring sowings of spinach recommended for England resulted, in Virginia, in plants bolting and going to seed.
Supplying water to gardens, particularly in the hot summers of Virginia, has always been an issue. Gardeners in 18th-century Williamsburg, for example, depended on wells for water during periods when no rain fell. Modern experimentation at Colonial Williamsburg determined that two people with water cans hauling water from a well can carry 200 gallons a day—the equivalent of 4,000 pounds of water—to fill a cistern, and still not keep up with the needs of a decent sized garden when the summer stays dry.
The methods employed by gardeners in 18th and early 19th century Virginia were what we would recognize today as “organic” gardening. To improve the soil, the 18th-century gardener used animal manure, primarily horse dung, but also from poultry, sheep, and cattle. A few of the more “adventurous” gardeners experimented with vegetable ‘dung’ – composted plant and vegetable waste. While this was not as nutrient rich as animal dung, it did, however, offer an excellent way to build healthy soil.
Due to the lack of chemical herbicides and pesticides, Williamsburg’s gardeners followed the customary practice of killing anything that hopped, wiggled, or flew, but the colonists just were not particularly good at it. Their methods included the practice of using limewater for controlling aphids. It was effective, but must be restricted to mature plants, because it would harm seedlings. Another method involved a simple trap made of boards to capture slugs and snails within the lettuce frames achieved a tolerable control. Handpicking, an ancient, tried-and-true method for controlling caterpillars, was another method but the gardener had to be diligent. Finally, they used “companion plantings” - the close planting of different plants that enhance each other's growth or protect each other from pests.
Colonial Virginians had most of the vegetables the modern gardener is familiar with but there are a few exceptions such as Sweet Corn, and Rutabaga. On the other hand, the 18th and early 19th century gardener grew some vegetables that are seldom found in the modern garden such as Salsify, Scorzonera (also known as Spanish Salsify or Black Salsify), and Cardoon (Artichoke Thistle).
18th and Early 19th Century Vegetables and Herbs
For those interested in recreating early vegetable gardens in today’s world, one of the issues with determining what vegetables and herbs were grown in early America is that many of the varietal names used in the period are not in use today. As a result, many times we find ourselves trying to use period descriptions of the plant to look for a matching heirloom variety. Another issue is that countless varieties grown in the past have ceased to exist in today’s world. This is because of a difference in how gardeners of the period viewed seed saving.
In the 18th and early 19th century, there were no seed stores or catalogs. When we plant and save heirloom seeds, we are trying to freeze time. We want the varieties in as pure a form as possible. The gardener in early America, on the other hand, was happy to discover any trait that improved a vegetable variety and would start saving seed from the newest improvement. Over time, the older form disappeared and replaced by the new improved mutation.
There are quite a few sources for information on vegetables and herbs grown in early America. One of the most extensive sources is the journals and records kept by Thomas Jefferson documenting his agricultural pursuits at his Virginia home, Monticello. These journals can, however, be misleading as Jefferson was, through his correspondence with acquaintances throughout the Americas and Europe, importing seeds and plants to experiment with from throughout the world. As a result, Jefferson’s journals must be used with caution if we are looking to determine what vegetables and herbs were commonly grown in early America.
A better source for determining what vegetables and herbs were commonly being grown here in America, at least in terms of what vegetables and herbs were being used, is period cookbooks and “housekeepers guides” published here in North America. Since the first American cookbook was not published here until 1796, the earliest period these cookbooks give us a window into is the last decade of the 18th century. However, since most of these recipes had existed well before the 1790s, we can use them with a fair amount of accuracy. Books such as the American edition of Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery,” as well as Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery,” Lucy Emerson’s “New-England Cookery,” Sussannah Carter’s “The Frugal Housewife,” and Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” provide a rich source of knowledge in terms of what foodstuffs and herbs were commonly available in the Early Republic. It also may provide the best view into the types of fruits, vegetables, and herbs used by folks of the “middling sort” since she had run a boarding house in Richmond and then moved to Washington to live with her son at the time when she wrote the book
What follows is a list of vegetables and herbs, complied from John Randolph’s book on gardening, as well as period cookbooks and housekeeper’s guides published in America.
Annotations as to the source of entries are as follows:
(JR) – John Randolph “A Treatise on Gardening” ca. 1765
(AS) – Amelia Simmons, “American Cookery” 1796
(SC) – Sussannah Carter, “The Frugal Housewife” 1803
(HG) – Hannah Glasse, “The Art of Cookery” 1805
(LE) – Lucy Emerson, “New-England Cookery” 1808
(MR) – Mary Randolph, “The Virginia Housewife” 1824
Vegetables Grown in Colonial Gardens
Artichokes (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Common (AS) (HG) (LE) (MR)
Jerusalem (AS) (HG) (LE) (MR)
Asparagus (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Beans (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Broad Beans (AS) (SC) (LE)
Calivanse (AS) (LE)
Clabboard (AS) (LE)
Cranberry (AS) (LE)
English (AS) (LE)
French (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Frost (AS) (LE)
Lazy (AS) (LE)
Six-weeks (AS) (LE)
Small White (AS) (LE)
Snap (JR) (MR)
Windsor (AS) (LE) (MR)
Beets (AS) (HG) (LE) (MR)
Red (AS) (LE) (MR)
White (AS) (LE)
Broccoli (JR) (HG) (SC) (MR)
Brussels Sprouts (MR)
Burnet or Salad Burnet (MR)
Cabbage (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Curled Colewort (JR)
Early Yorkshire (AS) (LE)
Green Savoy (AS) (LE)
Low Dutch (AS) (LE)
Musk Cabbage (JR)
Red (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE)
Savoy (JR) (SC) (MR)
Sugar Loaf (JR)
White (JR) (HG)
Yellow Savoy (AS) (LE)
Cardoon (HG) (SC)
Carrots (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Orange (JR) (AS) (LE)
Red (JR) (AS) (LE)
White (JR) (AS)
Yellow (AS) (LE)
Cauliflower (JR) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Celery (JR) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Cucumber (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Bright Green (AS) (LE)
European or English (JR)
Prickly (AS) (LE)
White (JR) (AS) (LE)
Currants (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Elder (HG) (SC)
Berries (HG) (SC)
Endive (JR) (SC)
Fennel (JR) (HG) (SC) (MR)
Gooseberry (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Grapes or Raisins (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Lettuce (JR) (AS) (SC) (LE)
Common Garden (JR)
Cos (JR) (SC)
Dutch Brown (JR)
Egyptian Green Cos (JR)
Green Capuchin (JR)
Imperial White (JR)
Purple Spotted Leaf (AS) (LE)
Versailles Cos (JR)
Melon (JR) (AS) (HG) (LE) (MR)
Citron (JR) (AS) (LE) (MR)
Green Fleshed (JR)
Muskmelon (AS) (LE)
Netted Wrought (JR)
Watermelon (AS) (LE)
Mulberries (AS) (SC) (LE)
Nasturtium (JR) (HG) (HG) (SC) (MR)
Onion (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Madeira White (LE)
Red (AS) (LE)
Red Spanish (JR) (HG)
Scallion (JR) (SC) (MR)
Shallots (SC) (LE) (MR)
Welsh Onion (Bunching Onion) (JR)
White (AS) (HG) (SC)
White Spanish (JR)
Parsnips (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Peas (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Charlton Hotspur (JR)
Crown (JR) (AS) (LE)
Crown Imperial (AS) (LE)
Early Charlton (AS) (LE)
Marrowfat or Dutch Admiral (JR) (AS) (LE)
Master Hotspur (JR)
Ormond Hotspur (JR)
Reading Hotspur (JR)
Rondehaval (AS) (LE)
Spanish Manratto (AS) (LE)
Spanish Marollo (JR)
Sugar (AS) (LE)
Pepper (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Cayenne (AS) (LE) (MR)
Pepper Grass or Virginia Pepperweed (MR)
Potato (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
How’s (Howe’s) Potato (mealy) (AS) (LE)
Red (AS) (LE)
Red Rusticoat (AS) (LE)
Sweet (AS) (LE) (MR)
Yellow Rusticoat (AS) (LE)
Yellow Spanish (AS) (LE)
Pumpkin (AS) (HG) (LE) (MR)
Radish (JR) (AS) (SC) (LE) (MR)
London Short Topped (JR)
Purple (AS) (LE)
Scarlet or Salmon (JR) (AS) (LE)
Turnip (Round Rooted) (JR) (AS) (LE)
White (AS) (LE)
Raspberry (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Salsify (JR) (MR)
Sea Kale (MR)
Sorrel (HG) (SC) (MR)
Spinach (JR) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Squash (AS) (LE) (MR)
Crookneck (AS) (LE)
Winter (AS) (LE) (MR)
Strawberry (JR) (AS) (LE) (MR)
Scarlet or Virginian (JR)
Turnip (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Water Cress (JR) (AS) (SC) (LE)
Herbs for Culinary Use
Angelica (HG) (SC)
Garlic (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR) (MR)
Horseradish (JR) (AS) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Lavender (JR) (SC)
Marjoram (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Sweet (AS) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Marsh Mallow (JR)
Mint (JR) (SC) (MR)
Mustard (SC) (LE) (MR)
Parsley (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Penny Royal (AS) (SC) (LE)
Rosemary (JR) (HG) (SC)
Sage (JR) (AS) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Broad Leaved (JR)
Savory (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Summer (AS) (LE)
Tansy (JR) (HG) (MR)
Thyme (JR) (AS) (HG) (SC) (LE) (MR)
Sweet (AS) (LE)
I hope you found this post on the history of Vegetable Gardening in Colonial America and the Early Republic interesting, informative, and thought provoking. If you did, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post) and let us know your thoughts by posting a comment. We also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier posts.
Carter, Sussannah. The Frugal Housewife. New York: G. & R. Waite, 1803.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittannica. Subsistance Farming. 21 February 2020. 4 August 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/subsistence-farming.
Emerson, Lucy. New England Cookery. Montpelier: Josiah Parks, 1808.
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