The Colonial Kitchen Garden Then and Now

The gardens of Historic Williamsburg Virginia.

Time, nostalgia, and then necessity. In that order. Those were the key factors that determined how gardens in America were grown in the mid-1700s. By that point, the pilgrims had long landed, settlers were four generations into life in the New World, and creating an independent society was on everyone’s minds.

An 18th century painting of New Milford, CT.

Despite the idea of pastoral food plots, of self-sufficiency, of larders full of carefully tended, joyfully grown vegetables, the reality, surprisingly was that many working-class 18th-century families did not have time to waste cultivating the land into mounds of gorgeous gardens.

Even though garden pests were much fewer in those days than they are today, gardening was still a risky endeavor in the mid-18th century. One bug or one beetle or one dry spell could wipe out an entire season or two of manual labor. Time lost during a century when almost everything was handmade and hand-touched could result in cataclysmic results not only for individuals but also for families, communities, and even the burgeoning nation.

In the centuries before Miracle-Gro and sprinkler systems and lawn mowers, before electric clippers and garden hoses, soil amendments, and genetically modified seeds that were practically guaranteed to grow, gardening was a risky business. And not all were willing to gamble. Since the colonial mindset valued efficiencies and effectiveness, one’s time was much better spent building a building, or a family, or the constitution instead of raising food gardens that may or may not result in something edible. And that really wasn’t the point of gardening back then anyway.

Painting by Edward Hicks titled the Home of David Twining, 1787

The mid-18th century diet, most accurately studied by researchers at Colonial Williamsburg, was almost entirely made up of animal proteins. Surprisingly, just 10% of the foods they consumed came from vegetables. When colonists abandoned the idea of growing their own food because of time, space, or temerity, they turned to local farms to purchase what little plant roughage they consumed.

The vegetable gardens at Moniticello.
Photo of the gardens at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Billy Hathorn

Those farms, with the ability, the space, the manpower, and the elite lifestyle to afford a garden in all its splendors and failures were generally ones of upper-class wealth. For this affluent sector, gardening was a matter of refinement and intellectual interest. They could absorb the costs of failed planting endeavors or reap the financial rewards of a fruitful season either way. They also had access to education for leisurely study and experimentation, something not often afforded to the working class.

One of the best examples of early American gardening on a large-scale level is Thomas Jefferson’s Virginian home, Monticello. With an avid interest in horticulture, 5,000 acres to play with and a net worth equal to $284 million dollars today, Jefferson was able to explore the world of gardening from all angles. He made copious amounts of notes and drawings regarding what, where, why and how his gardens were growing…

While it’s fascinating to go through Thomas Jefferson’s notes in order to understand his thought process, methodology, and relationship to innovations we take for granted today, one of the facts that I found most fascinating while researching colonial gardens is not something that can be linked to a specific concept or a system or even a person. It’s much more individualistic. What I learned is that stylistically, all gardens in America from the very beginning were driven by and inspired by nostalgia. And many people’s nostalgia at that.

Painting of forget-me-nots with goblet by Leon Bonvin, 1863

As new settlers immigrated from other countries and other continents throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought with them memories of their parent’s garden, their grandparent’s garden, and perhaps even their own garden that they left behind. A desire to replicate this specific sense of familiarity meant that gardens were not created in America but in fact, recreated, from replicas of what these settlers once knew before in their home countries. Memories of ancestral orchards, ancient hedgerows, favorite flowers, fruiting vines, and heritage foods all acted as springboards for the first wave of garden preferences when it came to shapes, designs, content, color palettes, and layouts for gardeners in the New World. Those longings for other familiar places and spaces were what founded the very ideas of what a garden should and could look like here in America.

Since maintaining a garden was both a status symbol and a sign of wealth, gardens of the 18th century came in two basic styles… cottage gardens and farm gardens. Cottage gardens were small patches of land grown specifically for vegetables, herbs, and flowers with a purpose. Ornamental flowers were not often grown in these petite patches as they were considered frivolous time wasters.

Farm gardens, on the other hand, were the ones cultivated on bigger stretches of land adorned with numerous outbuildings, an ample number of workers, and dedicated areas for kitchen work, pleasure gardening, dairy operations, and large-scale croplands. Organized, efficient, and tidy, farm gardens leaned towards formal decorative designs inspired by European gardening techniques and aesthetics. Most often they were dotted with topiary tree, ornamental flowers, exotic plants, manicured bushes, and lined with brick or crushed sea shell pathways. Attractive garden structures in all shapes and sizes added the finishing touch to ensure picturesque vantage points. Even in the new days of the New World, history bloomed in the garden from other centuries, other places, other pasts. And from those two garden styles forward we never really varied in what we decided constituted an American garden.

The colonial garden that is beginning to emerge in the front and back yard of our 1750s-era house is one of both history and purpose. In an effort to be as self-sustainable as possible we are growing fruit, vegetables, and herbs for cooking, and flowers for fun. While we are not following the formality of hedged colonial gardens, but instead opting for a more cottage garden approach, I am intent on only growing heirloom varieties for an old-fashioned aesthetic and a pretty dose of historic storytelling from the ground up. Here are a few ways we are incorporating history from three centuries into the garden of our 272-year old house…

Heirloom Seeds

With the exception of one newly invented pepper plant developed by the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, and two flats of marigolds and nasturtiums purchased from our local nursery, in this year’s garden, we are growing everything from seed, using only heirloom varietals of fruit, flowers, and vegetables.

Okra, brandywine tomatoes and bush beans growing up and out!

We were a bit late in seed starting since we didn’t move into our house until April, but so far we have tomatoes, zucchini, peas, beans, carrots, herbs, okra and lettuce growing up in the garden. As of today, the showiest plantings so far are the nasturtiums from the local nursery…

Nasturtiums made a regular appearance in American colonial gardens too by way of seeds carried from England and Holland. Prized then and still now, they were eaten like salad greens… leaves stalks, flowers, and all thanks to their sweet but peppery taste. If you like arugula mixed in with your lettuce, you’ll like nasturtiums too. They also happen to be fantastic pest repellants for squash bugs, aphids, beetles and our daily invader – the pesky slug.

Raised Beds

Colonial gardens in the 18th century were laid out in symmetrical grid styles using raised beds and walkways of crushed seashells in between. Based on the layout of our yard, the lush tree canopy, and the pattern of the sun throughout the day, we also are doing raised beds but not in the same traditional colonial grid format since we have fewer pockets of consistent, direct sunlight throughout the day. Instead, we have built one long raised garden bed that measures 25′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet (width) x 2.5″ feet (height) in the front yard using rocks gathered from around the property. The rockery aesthetic matches the stone walkway and steps of the front porch.

Newly built and just before we filled it in with all the dirt and compost materials.
Flowers, seedlings and seeds get planted this week, but this is a little sneak peek as to where more nasturiums will be headed.
The tree canopy changes color throughout the day and makes the prettiest shadows in the yard. Two sugar maples live in the front yard. We cant wait to tap this fall for our own maple syrup.

In the backyard, just off the porch, we built a smaller raised bed out of wood that measures 10′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet by 3′ feet (height). Instead of using just plain untreated boards, my husband experimented wth the Yakisugi method and charred the wood with a propane torch. Yakisugi is an ancient Japanese art form that naturally preserves the wood and gives it a pretty, dark walnut-hued finish.

To add a little softness to the rectangular shape, we built another curved rock wall garden bed on one end where the okra, zinnias, coreopsis, Brussels sprouts, and marigolds are happily growing away.

Rock walls have been a part of the natural historic landscape of New England since the 1800s, and were used as land dividers and fencing following the split rail style fencing that was popular during colonial days. In Connecticut in the 1700s, most of the landscape was covered in trees so everything in that century was made out of wood since it was the most abundant building material. We haven’t yet decided on what kind of fencing we will add to the front yard. It’s a big decision with many possibilities ranging between a picket fence, a rock wall, a split rail fence, or a series of decorative shrubs and grasses.

The greenhouse is only six weeks old but already it’s got quite the little personality.

The Greenhouse

The first greenhouses were built in Europe and the UK in the 1600s, so they’ve been an important garden feature for quite some time. Our greenhouse was found locally on craigslist, just a couple of weeks after we moved in. Still in its original box, it just needed one day of assembly and then it was ready to start growing things.

First day!

So far we are off to a good start. This has been the birthplace of our tomatoes, basil, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cilantro, parsley, dill, lettuces, French marigolds, and okra.

It’s also the permanent new home of our three-year-old Southern papaya tree, Pappy, who did not love our move to the Northeast as much as we did and responded to the 9-degree temperatures experienced during our temporary stay in Pennsylvania this past winter by promptly losing all his leaves. Every day from November to April, no matter how much coddling I gave him, Pappy threatened to shrivel up and call it quits. Luckily, the warmth of the greenhouse has him happy once again and back on the road to recovery.

Pappy! Two new leaves grown, a million more to go!

It’s our plan to keep the greenhouse in constant use all year long. With the help of a heater and some neighboring cold frames, I look forward to growing kale, chard, cabbages, and other cool-weather vegetables there this winter.

Rain Barrel

To complete the start of our self-sufficiency model we added a colonial-style rainwater collection barrel to the side of the garage. So far we’ve pumped an entire barrel full of water into the garden as well as accidentally grown a vat of sulfur-smelling bacteria. As it turns out, there’s an art (and a science!) to storing rainwater in a barrel, and there is still so much for us to learn. In an upcoming post, I’ll share the system my husband custom-built to pump the water from the barrel to the garden, which I hope might be helpful for anyone else learning the ropes of the rain barrel watering system.

Future plans for the garden include bee boxes, landscaped garden beds, lighting, and a fire pit, but for now, this is the start of our new yet old colonial-inspired garden. More photos will come as the garden grows up!

In the meantime, while the kitchen is under renovation and we wait for the vegetables to flower and fruit, the grill has been a beehive of action and adventure as we discover and explore some vintage recipes meant for the barbecue days of summer. One of my favorites so far is this grilled potato recipe from 1955. Coming next to the blog, this recipe will add an extra delicious dose of fancy food to your summer soirees. Can’t wait to share it!

Cheers to summer foods, sentimental gardening, and horticultural history! Hope this season is your most beautiful one yet.

H is for Witchcraft: Kitchen Signs, Symbols & Artifacts Found So Far in the 1750 House

Little stories are popping up everywhere these days. Renovations on the kitchen are underway, but there is nothing flashy and exciting to show quite yet since it’s mostly been electrical work, beam support, plumbing upgrades, and insulation clean-up. Once the kitchen gets framed out and the walls go up, the tiles go on, and the appliances get installed then we’ll be ready for more exciting room photos.

In the meantime, during all this cleaning up, clearing out and repair work the kitchen is beginning to share some secrets. I haven’t had a chance to research the origin story of the house yet, but the following items and information we have discovered during the renovation of this room over the last couple of weeks definitely gives us some insight into the lives of previous owners.

Trapped in between layers of blown insulation in a west-facing kitchen wall we found these three objects on the same day in the same area…

a spoon, a bullet, and the shearing half of a pair of scissors. All from different eras of history, they each offer a glimpse into the domestic atmosphere of life lived centuries ago.

The Antique Teaspoon {exact age unknown}

This antique silverplate teaspoon has a really detailed pattern with wheat sprigs, a scroll (most likely where a monogram would have been placed) and a fleur-de-lis type embellishment. Well weathered, but in one whole piece, this spoon is really quite a work of art…

No easy teller of time and talent, it is, unfortunately, unmarked as to maker and manufacturer. After many hours pouring over antique silverplate patterns, I can’t seem to find any exact matches, but I suspect that it dates to somewhere around the late 1800s. It seems like quite a fancy spoon for a simple style house so it has piqued my interest as to who it belonged to and how it wound up stuffed inside the kitchen wall. I’ll keep researching it, but if any of you lovely readers recognize the pattern design please share your thoughts in the comment section.

The Bullet {pre-1936}

Never having researched guns or ammunition before, this was a real deep dive into the world of historic firearms. This bullet, officially referred to as an ammunition cartridge, was made by The United States Cartridge Company. Located in Lowell, MA from 1869-1927, USCC was one of the largest suppliers of ammunition during WWI, and produced ammunition for both the military and civilian use. This type of ammunition in particular is called a rimfire cartridge, with gunpowder located in the middle section and the bullet located at the tip. The design is known as a pineapple (vintage kitchen theme approved!) because it explodes in multiple directions once it hits its intended target.

Rimfire was used in rifles and pistols mostly for small game-hunting, and marksmanship. A very popular style of ammunition during the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was even used by the Boy Scouts to garner merit badges in shooting.

After The United States Cartridge Company was purchased by Winchester Repeating Arms in 1927, production moved to New Haven, CT which is just 30 minutes down the road from the house. Geographically, it is fitting that a locally produced bullet would be found here, but there is no way to tell if this particular bullet was made in Massachusetts pre-1927 or in Connecticut. Either way, Winchester stopped making USCC branded ammunition in Connecticut in 1936.

Poster image courtesy of Historic New England

Perhaps this was part of someone’s military memorabilia or maybe this one was part of a pack of similar cartridges that were used in hunting the land around here. So far in the yard, we have spotted one deer, five turkeys, several doves and a family of rabbits so I can only imagine what a diverse food source this area would have offered for hunters and gatherers.

The Scissors {exact age unknown}

Although quite rusty, these primitive scissors look to be hand-forged and pretty old. Like the spoon, there are no marks or labels to help identify a maker or a year of manufacture but they are intact enough to see that they are short scissors, measuring just 4.5″ inches from the tip to the first turn of the handle. Here you can see them next to a pair of standard fabric sewing scissors to get an idea of size and shape.

Long considered a domestic industry, scissor-making encapsulates the design of over 150 different styles of scissors that run the gamut from small and delicate to large and mighty depending on the task at hand. Given the smaller, more fragile shape of these, I suspect they were made for more delicate tasks like sewing, bookbinding or papercrafts.

The Handforged Nails {circa 1800s} and The Wooden Pegs {circa 1750s}

Before nails held houses together there were wooden pegs that did the job. In the kitchen, we uncovered several areas in the rafters where you can see these wooden pegs. They date to 1750, the year the house was built.

If you recall from the previous post, we think the kitchen was added onto the back of the house sometime in the 1800s. That would explain the presence of antique nails in place of pegs found in the rest of the room. These three antique nails are square-cut box nails in 3″ inch and 1.25″ inch lengths. Known as a general, multi-purpose nail, square cuts were used for a variety of projects including flooring, framing and even box making.

We see them mostly in wall supports in the kitchen and plan on saving all of them for some future project. While doing all this cleaning and clearing it’s been fun thinking about who built this house and this kitchen addition. Was it a master carpenter? The original owner? A team of people or one family over many generations? I can’t wait to find out!

The H-Hinges {circa 1750}

All over the house, including the kitchen, original wrought iron hardware is fastened to original doors and cupboards. The type of hardware that holds it all together is called an H-Hinge. An incredibly popular style of hinged bracket used during colonial times, there is a bit of superstition wrapped up in its form and function that suggests why it was a favored domestic carpentry detail. According to legend, the H stood for holy and acted as a symbol of protection. Against witchcraft.

Don’t be nervous about all those paint splatters on the hinges – they haven’t been cleaned up in decades but we are up for the task!

Oh my. Once learning this info, I immediately refamiliarized myself with the Salem Witch Trials. They occurred in Salem, MA sixty years before our house was built but Connecticut also had their own similar witch trials that were held in Hartford from 1647 to 1663 and in Fairfield in 1692. The last recorded witch trial in Connecticut was conducted in 1697 – fifty-three years before the wooden pegs were hammered into place in our place. Hopefully, by now, any and all nefarious spirits have long been put to rest, but I’m glad to know the kitchen (and all the other rooms of the house!) will be safeguarded just in case the “possessed” happen to return:)

In addition to these items found inside, we have also found quite a few treasures out in the yard and garden too (more coming on that in a future post) that offer equally compelling glimpses into life once lived around here. It’s not enough to put a complete story together yet just based on what we have found so far, but it’s a start. With a little bit of luck and some dedicated research, more of a narrative will unfold. Cheers to history and to long-form storytelling!

A little preview at one of our outside discoveries – a rock named Hilda.

Further reading for Colonial home enthusiasts: Colonial Style by Treena Crochet