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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Colonial Kitchen Gardens by Cynthia Howerter

Colonial kitchen gardens, sometimes also called house gardens, were found on nearly everyone's property in the American colonies during the eighteenth century. People who lived in rural areas as well as those who lived in small villages had them. Even the magnificent Royal Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia had one. Why? Nearly everyone was responsible for growing and providing their own food because there were no grocery stores. Farmers markets were only available in the largest cities. These gardens were a critical source of food, providing the family with an assortment of produce and herbs growing right outside the kitchen. A cutting garden with annuals and perennials was sometimes included within the kitchen garden.

Colonial kitchen garden

Eighteenth century kitchens were usually located in a detached building behind the house. Because the colonies were mostly rural and agrarian, residences generally had enough land adjacent to the kitchen for a garden that provided the household with fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit.

Below is an example of a kitchen garden divided into plots for vegetables, herbs, and cutting flowers. Walkways made from stone, crushed shell, wood planks, or brick were sometimes placed in the garden, making it easier to avoid stepping on plants and to keep one's feet from getting dirty when walking through. In the photo below, a brick walkway has been installed and a bench has been placed in the flower section. I can envision a gardener resting on it or myself sitting there reading a book. Can you?

Vegetables and cutting garden 

The kinds of vegetables grown depended on the climate, soil, and the type of plants that thrived in those conditions. Most kitchen gardens produced a variety of produce.

Chard and beans are planted in this section of the kitchen garden

These gardens were usually enclosed with a fence to prohibit stray farm animals and wildlife from eating the produce before it could be harvested. Depending on the area and the availability of supplies, a fence might be as simple as twigs woven around branches driven into the ground or as decorative as a painted picket fence. Sometimes dense shrubs, such as boxwood or holly, encircled the garden and served as a fence.

A picket fence encloses this garden

Vegetables grown might include asparagus, cabbage, carrots, chives, collard greens, figs, onions, peas, peppers, pole beans, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, rhubarb, squash, string beans, turnips, and others.

Green peppers, squash, and pole beans alongside a gravel walkway

Fruit trees were either included within the kitchen garden, in a flower garden (as shown below), or in a nearby orchard. Depending on the climate and available space, one might find apple, cherry, peach, pear, plum, and quince trees. These fruits were eaten fresh and preserved for dining over the winter months.

Fruit trees planted in a flower garden

Herbs were an important inclusion in these gardens. Not only did herbs add flavor to foods, they were also used for healing purposes. In the eighteenth century, medications were made from herbs and plants. Most housewives knew which herbs and plants treated various common physical ailments and needed to keep a ready supply in case of illness. Rosemary, for example, not only added flavor to soups and meat but could also be used to treat headaches and other physical ailments. Some pleasantly fragrant herbs, like lavender, were used as scents for the body and as room fresheners. The herb garden pictured below is behind the village apothecary shop. You can see several perennial herbs growing. More were planted once the danger of frost was past.

The apothecary's herb garden

Gardeners have always known that one of the secrets to an abundant harvest is rich soil. Compost from kitchen and farm waste was added to the ground, as can be seen by the dark earth in the photo below. Alongside the picket fence, we can also see the last of the daffodils in the spring cutting garden. Annual flowers that bloom from spring through fall will soon be planted there. Some of the cut flowers will provide fresh arrangements for display inside the house while others will be dried and used in arrangements that will be admired throughout the winter months.

A cutting garden graces the interior perimeter

Some gardeners kept bees in or near the kitchen garden for pollination purposes as well as the benefits of having honey and beeswax for candle making. Below is a photo of an eighteenth century bee keep. Gardeners would have placed several of these in their garden.

Gardeners would use multiple bee keeps in their garden

All photographs ©2017 Cynthia Howerter

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter loves living amidst Virginia's rich history. She frequently visits historic sites, accompanied by her wonderful husband and trusty camera. She enjoys sharing her photographs in her articles, believing that topics are more interesting when one can see them.

Are you going through difficult times or know someone who is? Do you need encouragement to get through a tough situation? There's nothing like true stories from people who have been in your shoes and succeeded, especially when things looked hopeless. You can purchase a copy of the award-winning non-fiction anthology book that Cynthia co-authored, God's Provision in Tough Times, from Amazon by clicking  here > God's Provision in Tough Times   Available in paperback and Kindle.


  1. Great article! I love gardening and wish my garden looked like those pictured. Thanks for sharing you insight and great photos.

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed the article and photos, Tammy! I'll bet your gardens are lovely.

  3. Lovely, Cynthia! I enjoyed the gardens as much as anything when I visited Williamsburgh (I'm a horticulturalist, after all!) and I had a chance to talk with the head gardener. Your photos are outstanding. Thanks for sharing! I no longer have my massive garden for veggies anymore and most of my flower gardens at this small place I live in now are in shade, so I sure miss the days of working in the soil!

  4. I'm so glad you enjoyed the article and photos, Debra! I, too, am a gardener who no longer gardens, so I'm with you on missing working in the soil.

  5. I enjoy Williamsburg. I have visited there often, beginning when I was a little girl living in Hampton VA. Class field trips to Williamsburg were always exciting times! Now, as an adult, I enjoy and appreciate the history so much more. :-)

    1. It is a wonderful place, Melissa! I never get tired of visiting it.

  6. Thank you, Cynthia, for an informative article and great pictures.

    1. Thanks so much, Janet! Glad you enjoyed it.

  7. Oh! I feel like we really (almost) went on a garden tour together. Thank you, Cynthia. :0) Susan

  8. Thank you, Susan! One of these days, we are going to go on a garden tour together. :)


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