In southern New England from whence I hail, the spirit and history of colonial gardening is kept alive in living museums, public historic houses, parks and memorials. Gardening is a timeless pursuit of great interest and reward. Who doesn’t look forward to a little digging in the dirt come springtime? In our country’s earliest days, however, gardening was a necessary part of daily life. Every home, whether in town or country, had a garden. They ranged from the most modest dooryard gardens (that is, small garden plots literally located just outside the front door) to beautiful, sprawling acres like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Park. They provided sustenance for the family, were cultivated for medicinal purposes and provided the pleasure of fresh flowers which even the poorest of Colonial women could enjoy.
The Plymouth Pilgrims were introduced to local crops by the Wampanoag Indians. Without them, the early settlers might not have survived the winter. These Native Americans taught them many techniques, including a highly effective method of gardening called The Three Sisters. A Three Sisters garden begins with the planting of corn, which could be eaten off the cob or ground into flour. Once the stalks grew, pole beans were sown beside them where they would climb the stalks as opposed to spreading across the ground. This procedure not only conserved space but added nitrogen to the soil. Squash planting followed—anything from pumpkins to crookneck to acorn squashes. The vines encircled the corn and beans, acting as living mulch to help conserve water and control the growth of weeds, while their bristles helped repel hungry critters.
Every home from poor to middle class to gentry had its own kitchen garden for the family’s everyday use. These produced all manner of vegetables and herbs, sometimes even flowers, all crowed together so as not to spare one of inch of soil. Lamb’s Quarter was popular during this time, though is rarely to be found on our modern dinner plates. Today this leafy green is treated as a weed and discarded, but in early America it was commonly consumed for its rich nutritional value and a taste similar to that of spinach.
Gardening was also a rare way in which a Colonial woman could earn a livelihood. Seedswomen traded in flower and vegetable seeds and many advertised in local newspapers such as The Boston Evening Post. For other women, gardening was a way to alleviate some of the homesickness they felt when they came to the New World by planting seeds and roots common to their homelands, such as the English Rose.
In addition to plant life, gardens would sometimes include a beehive or dove-cote or perhaps even a heavy leaden sundial which would stand for generations. Many were inscribed, like this one owned by a Dr. Bowditch of Boston, which I'll leave you with in parting:
“With warning hand I mark time’s rapid flight
From life’s glad morning to its solemn night.
And like God’s love, I also show
There’s light above me, by the shade below.”