How We Grew

Colonial Williamsburg shows us that gardening techniques have remained surprisingly consistent for 260 years.

Therese Ciesinski September 1, 2011

The wooden yoke around my neck doesn't hurt at first. I winch up two brimming wooden buckets from the well and attach them to the yoke. Now carrying 40 extra pounds of water weight, my shoulders visit my knees as I lurch away from the well and stagger across the garden to pour the water into the cistern, where it must warm to air temperature before it is scooped out again to water the vegetables.

I'm in the Colonial Garden and Nursery at Colonial Williamsburg, the 79-year-old living history museum in Virginia. The date is October 12, 2010. Or 1750. Either century is correct. It's sunny and quite warm; T-shirt weather. Because rain's been scarce, I have volunteered to water the vegetable garden, in the way a housewife of the "middling class" would.

Never has a drop in the bucket seemed so futile: If it were 1750, it would take 49 more trips just to keep this garden alive another day. With men off doing the hard labor, this Sisyphean task fell to women or children. Or, for those who could afford them, slaves. In truth, most people gardened at the mercy of the weather.

In addition to "History" with a capital H, Colonial Williamsburg depicts the daily lives of the colonists: what they ate and wore, how they quarreled and courted, worshipped and worked. Hauling water is one way to understand how people in Williamsburg gardened back in the day, a day 260 years ago. What they grew and how they grew it reveals the differences between then and now (eaten any good scorzornera lately?) and emphasizes how difficult it was to coax food from the ground. It's humbling to realize how easy a garden hose makes my life, how comparatively little sweat equity actually goes into my tomatoes.

The Colonial Garden is a fresh pop of green on dusty Duke of Gloucester Street. It's too warm for thick vests and breeches, but that is what Wesley Greene and Don McKelvey, interpreters, historians, and gardeners, wear as they plant and hoe the fall crops. Greene started this garden in 1996, and the mulchless, weed-free beds and crisp lines would satisfy the eye of any 18th-century gentleman. No natural landscaping here: Symmetry and order are hallmarks of Colonial gardens. Outside town lay a disordered and dangerous wilderness. A garden was a place of the known.

Greene, the author of the forthcoming Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, disabuses me of one "Ye Olde" conception: that each family grew all its food. He estimates that only 50 percent of the houses in Williamsburg had gardens. Why?

"It's a lot easier to raise a hog than a cauliflower," he says. Turns out these forefathers weren't getting their five-servings-a-day any more than we are now. Less than 10 percent of a Williamsburg resident's diet was vegetables. Meat and corn, as grain, were the foundation of their food pyramid. Growing your own was too hard; success too uncertain to rely on for sustenance.

The garden is a smaller three-bed variation of the type a gentleman might have owned: a foursquare garden—four vegetable beds with paths crisscrossing between them. Next to it is a mini orchard of closely spaced fruit trees. Both are surrounded by a low wooden fence. With houses on lots of less than 1⁄2 acre, Williamsburg residents didn't waste space on sweet potatoes or turnips. Leeks, onions, kale, broad (fava) beans, and cabbages were popular. Most of what the colonists ate grew on plantations outside of town and was bought at market. Perishable salad greens were harder to come by, so luxuries such as lettuce—a favorite among the colonists—were worth the gardening effort.

Ordinary people grew flowers—China pinks, foxgloves, peonies—around their vegetable beds, but the wealthy had the space to grow them separately. Contrary to the pervading myth, there was no such entity as a "Colonial herb garden." Herbs such as lavender, chamomile, thyme, and rosemary were tucked in the garden wherever their perennial habits wouldn't disturb the vegetables. (Basil wasn't yet America's favorite herb; it was still overcoming its reputation as causing scorpions in the brain.)

The Colonial Garden is a rich man's garden. Gentlemen had gardeners who planted artichokes, asparagus, cardoons, oranges, and melons. Challenging to grow and labor-intensive, these were the status symbols of their time, meant to impress guests and make a statement about the breeding and taste of the host.

And just as they do now, people wanted to eat fruits and vegetables out of season. To put fresh peas on the gentry's table by the second week of April demanded the most up-to-date technology. But they managed to do it much the way we do today. Greene puts it succinctly: "Same techniques, different materials."

For example: The Colonial Garden's hotbed does the work of a modern heat mat, but there's a bit more to it than simply plugging in an electrical cord. In January, fresh horse manure is piled up and covered with a tarp until the center of the pile reaches about 160°F. It is then packed 2 feet deep in a pit. A brick-lined wooden box that looks like a coldframe is filled with 4 inches of fine loam and set on top. Once the loam cools to about 70°F, seeds are planted, and the box is then insulated with straw. This way, a manure hotbed stays warm for about 3 to 4 weeks.

Next to the hotbeds is a coldframe, whitewashed to reflect heat, looking much like coldframes do now. Its function hasn't changed: to start seedlings and keep plants from freezing. Glass bell jars, also called cloches, dot the garden, but it's too warm to need them. Bell jars were primarily used in the winter months to protect artichoke, cauliflower, and other seedlings. Still sold today, they work just as well and don't cost much more—back then, they had to be imported from England, costing the exorbitant equivalent of about $25 each.

It's the paper frames that most surprise me. Cypress hoops snake down a row that in spring held melons ("the Snickers bar of the 18th century," says Greene). Paper treated with linseed oil was glued to the frame. Under these hoops, melons stayed warm and dry. In other areas, neat lines of seedlings are covered with cobwebby cheesecloth to let sun in but keep bugs out.

This garden is tended organically—the only option in Colonial times. But the settlers had one up on us: Many of the most troublesome insects we battle in our vegetable gardens today are not native, and in the 18th century they hadn't yet arrived in America. Although striped cucumber beetles, squash-vine borers, and cabbage loopers were here, and plum curculio besieged fruit trees, many crops grew pest-free. Insects such as imported cabbage worms, flea beetles, slugs, and snails hadn't yet crossed the pond. It would be years before the Colorado potato beetle and the Mexican bean beetle hitchhiked their way to Virginia.

But all these immigrant insects are here now. And since the historical record can't provide a control for a pest that didn't yet exist, in Greene's words, "We have to deal authentically with inauthentic pests." The chemical arsenal includes lime water, tobacco dust, chimney ashes, and manure tea. Greene covers apples with little muslin bags and ties rope around tree trunks to deter slugs. Other methods include practicing the ancient art of hand-picking, and, ultimately, embracing the philosophy that, as Greene puts it, "A cabbage with a hole in it tastes exactly like a cabbage without a hole in it."

We're not as different from the early residents of Williamsburg as we might suppose. Like them, most of us garden because we want to, not because we have to. Technology and science have made gardening less backbreaking, but now we deal with the more destructive and widespread consequences of progress. Our tools and materials may be less biodegradable, more high-tech or longer-lasting, but we still want victory over pests and diseases, to extend the growing season, and to raise the biggest, sweetest, or earliest we can. We still love our lettuce. It's rather comforting to know that what we want from our gardens hasn't changed all that much in two-and-a-half centuries—only the ways we get it.

If You Go

Colonial Williamsburg is located in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is open 365 days a year, usually from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. "Meet the Gardener" tours are scheduled during the gardening season (March through October). A gardening symposium is held one weekend every April.

For more information: 800-447-8679 or history.org.

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