Colonial gardening was more stressful than modern efforts

By Jean Knowles - Victoria County Master Gardener
Dec. 21, 2017 at 9:54 p.m.
Updated Dec. 22, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Plantings in early America were the food source for colonists in addition to having medicinal purposes for treatment of ailments. Shown here is a sampling of plants grown in early colonial gardens. These included kale, sorrel, rue, lavender, cabbage, onion and rosemary grouped for illustrative purposes courtesy of Earthworks Nursery in Victoria.

Plantings in early America were the food source for colonists in addition to having medicinal purposes for treatment of ailments. Shown here is a sampling of plants grown in early colonial gardens. These included kale, sorrel, rue, lavender, cabbage, onion and rosemary grouped for illustrative purposes courtesy of Earthworks Nursery in Victoria.   Picasa for The Victoria Advocate

Families and friends gather together throughout the holiday season with abundant availability of food and drink. But imagine a time when food - and mere existence - totally depended on gardening.

The basics

Gardening in early colonial times was out of necessity. It was also difficult work and the responsibility of the women and children. It was backbreaking.

The ground in New England was rocky and poor. Rocks were moved to make borders, and the soil had to be amended. As early colonists did not bring livestock, manure had to be found in nature.

All water for the gardens had to be carried from a stream or river. Tools were rudimentary at best and most were handmade. The women and children had to do all this labor wearing cumbersome and hot clothing.

Dependent on nature

Early gardening was at the mercy of the weather and the short growing season. The colonists learned tricks to lengthen the growing season. They worked manure into the soil so the heat of composting would lengthen the growing season as well as begin germination earlier in the spring. Also, they added charcoal dust from the areas around the fires to absorb the heat of the sun to keep the soil warm.

No place for decorative flowers

As the Puritans were practical and simple people, their gardens were also practical and simple. Vegetables were grown to be eaten and preserved, and herbs were tucked in to use for flavor and medicinal purposes. Flowers for decorative function were not planted. Only those that had medicinal properties or were edible were grown.

Old world replaced with new world gardening

The first growing season was not successful.

Seeds

Many of the seeds brought from England were not suited to the New England climate. Therefore, the first growing season was not productive. The next season, Iroquois Indians traded seeds and taught the colonists ways of gardening that worked in the New England soil and climate.

Vegetables and fruits

Vegetables that were planted included corn, squash, beans, cabbage, kale, leeks, sorrel and onions. Colonists planted roots and cuttings of fruits and berries that they found in the wild in their gardens. Fruits were especially important as they could be dried easily and fermented.

Herbs

Because herbs typically did not need as much water and enriched soil, they were tucked into rocks and sandy places. Just so they got full sun, they could thrive to produce flavor for the bland diet as well as treatment for ailments. Common herbs included chamomile, rosemary, thyme, parsley, rue, tansy and sage.

Herbs and their purposes

A charming book called "Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America" has been a source of interesting information about the herbs grown and how they were used in everyday colonial life.

These included medicinal purposes of chamomile; flavoring and seasoning from rosemary, thyme and parsley; various treatments from the use of rue and tansy; and perceived longevity from sage.

See additional information included with this article with more specific detail of various herbs grown in early colonial America. Many are still used today in cooking and treatments.

Plants for uncommon food/insecticide uses

The early colonists grew things to eat that we do not normally eat, such as purslane, dandelion, salad burnet and skirret, a kind of spinach plant with tubers.

Colonists did not have to deal with many of the pests like squash vine borers, cabbage loopers, slugs and snails.

Those came from Europe later. But they did make a simple insecticide from Mayapple roots. The roots, which are toxic, were dried and used as an insecticide. The seeds were soaked in the root powder before planting to eliminate pests.

Very few records kept

There are few records of early gardens because the colonists did not have the leisure to keep journals or even ability to buy paper.

Most of the information available comes from the journals of early visitors to the New World who went back to England and recorded what had been seen. The early practices of the settlers, though rudimentary, were the basis for future gardening in America.

Imagine then to now

Today, we garden for pleasure and for the taste of freshly picked produce and bemoan the rabbits, deer or birds that get into our gardens.

Imagine the devastation when critters destroyed your food source for the winter.

Imagine how difficult gardening was without hoses and irrigation systems, tillers and ergonomically designed tools and compost by the bag. We just think we are gardeners.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com.


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