When the pilgrims arrived in New England in December 1620 food, shelter and warmth were significant priorities. While nearly half of them would perish the first winter, the corn they discovered and removed from Indian storage pits was an important source of nutrition and seed stock. Corn quickly became a staple crop for the pilgrims and was pivotal for their initial survival in the New World. Rapidly the Pilgrim garden and farm fields were established and became the confluence of the staples of the Old World and gifts of the New.
The early settlers did not find an unbroken wilderness as some of our classroom histories taught us, rather a naturally open landscape in some areas, the coastal lowlands in parts of New England and the coastal plain further south. Sections of coastal lands had been cleared by the Indians for agriculture and villages. Some early explorers remarked that the landscape was open as far as the eye could see. The Pilgrims settled on a seemingly abandoned Indian village with cultivated fields present. This was a typical early colonial settlement pattern taking advantage of the previous work of the Indians. In many cases Indian populations had already been ravaged by the effects of European diseases and the sites were abandoned.
The first Pilgrim gardens were created almost simultaneously with the first dwellings. Gardens were made as close to the house as possible, so the housewife whose chief outdoor domain was the kitchen garden, could literally step out from the house or kitchen into the garden and easily access the necessities. Houses afforded some protection from the elements. Every garden had a fence, typically of boards providing a modicum of privacy, wind protection and a barrier to roaming domestic livestock.
The garden itself was composed of raised rectangular or square beds surrounded by rough planks or logs, and filled with soil. Like raised beds today, they kept a width that made the bed accessible from all sides. The planks could be staked from the outside or mortise and tenoned. Stone may have been used to form garden beds in some instances. This was in the tradition of monastic gardens and most recently of the gentrified kitchen and formal gardens in Europe, although linear raised beds are ancient in origin.
While the Pilgrim garden had elements of formality through the layout of the raised beds, the design was derived from common sense practicality, not leisure. The Pilgrims certainly were aware of the aristocratic gardens of parterres with clipped borders, and beds laid out in complex patterns, often with a central feature such as a mound or pool of water. This kind of formality did not become part of the colonial garden aesthetic until the 18th century.
The main paths were made of sufficient width to allow two people to stroll abreast in their garden, paths typically being composed of shell, sand or gravel. Stone paths or grass was a luxury of later development. Annual and perennial plants were generally segregated. Some vegetable crops of different maturation dates such as radishes, lettuces, and onions would be sown together, creating an intensive cropping system.
While individual gardens differed, generally the beds had mixed plantings and were not reserved for a single vegetable crop. The beds may have been bordered with plants which could keep an orderly edge, “to keep them in fashion” and not spilling over the sides. Later on, and especially in the more southern colonial gardens, beds would be devoted to a single crop.
The gardens tended to have a mix of medicinal and culinary herbs along with the vegetable crops. Herbs were a very important component of the garden and daily life. Most housewives were familiar with a range of medicinal plants and cures. Initially there were not separate herb gardens, which became more fashionable toward the end of the 17th century.
William Wood’s New England Prospect of 1634 mentions that farmers manure their land with fish to increase the already good fertility. The Indian Squanto had introduced the Pilgrims to the use of fertilizing corn with fish, a practice some claim that Squanto learned from his earlier stay in England. There is, however, no reason to believe the Indians had not previously learned that fish made an excellent fertilizer. While field crops were typically planted outside the kitchen garden, small plantings might be placed within the garden. According to Wood, “Field crops of wheat and beans grow well in gardens, and they have not been tried in newly plowed ground in which rye oats and barley do well.”
The vegetables cultivated in the Pilgrim garden were varieties that were similar if not identical to those pictured in books like John Gerard’s Herball of 1597 or John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, published in 1629. While there were European seed suppliers and some named varieties available there was no resemblance to the seed industry which would begin to blossom in earnest beginning in the late 18th and especially the 19th century. Seed supply for the colonies typically came from England. When a ship docked with a fresh supply of seeds, notices were placed in the local papers and word spread quickly. Additionally merchants stocked some seeds, and there were individuals who sold seed and raised some of their own.
Relatively little selection of new varieties or cross breeding was occurring, and consequently the named varieties of vegetables was limited. In some cases plant breeding was not well understood, so for example in the 17th century gardeners were warned not to let cucumbers and melons cross breed. While this may seem ridiculous today, keep in mind that botanists and gardeners were pretty keen observers of plants; those two species are quite closely related, so the mistake is understandable.
While the majority of seeds came from English merchants, other sources included farmers and gardeners who saved seeds and created local types, seeds arriving with new settlers from England who may have brought local variants as well, seeds from the Dutch, possibly French from other colonial areas, and Native American varieties.
Many of the same varieties were grown up and down the coast in the early settlements. Regional distinctions of specialized food crops were more limited and were often a consequence of climate rather than varietal selection. Since most people were initially coming from England, the varietal selection was narrow. Nevertheless there were undoubtedly differences, especially in the indigenous crops of corn, beans, summer and winter squash, which already varied amongst Indian tribes of different regions.
John Josselyn in his New England’s Rarities Discovered, published in 1672 and reflecting his earlier visits mentions that there were several kinds of New England pumpkins, pompions, which were “dryer than our English pompions but they were better tasted.”
Josselyn says of the Squontersquashes, “all of them pleasant food boyled and buttered and seasoned with spice.” The Squontersquashes referred to summer squash which could be a variable long yellow or green and could degenerate into a gourd, presumably becoming hard shelled as they ripened. The yellow Apple squash was considered “one of the best.”
Gerard identified eight kinds of pepo squash, including a great round pumpkin, a great long pumpkin, “the small round Indian pumpkin” a scallop and an acorn type including one pepo gourd. One farmer reported growing a pumpkin 5 feet across, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration.
Pumpkins were one of the staple crops for the Puritans, and they stored for a long time. Numerous methods of cooking pumpkins were devised and “pompion sauce” was often served with fish or meat.
Corn was especially suited for the Pilgrims, and the Indian method of growing it in hills allowed the settlers an easy and quick method of soil preparation, fertilization and cultivation. While they soon reverted to row culture, the corn’s ease of growth, excellent yield and ease of processing amazed the Pilgrims.
Francis Higginson in New-Englands Plantation (1630) describes corn “of various colours, as red, blew, yellow etc.” and Roger Williams says “there be divers sorts of this corn and of the colours.”
The New England corn were typically eight-row flints although Gerard, for example, pictures ears that must have been 10- to 12-rowed varieties. Some varieties may have yielded softer (more flour-like) kernels than others, producing a softer meal and less grit, although true flour corns tend to be more southern.
There is scant description of the precise kinds of beans the Pilgrims grew. A wide variety were grown by the Northeastern Indians and obtained from them, while many were brought from European seed stock. Bean plants consisted of climbers and twiners. The twiners were the predecessors of the modern bush beans and were more or less self supporting, although they did send out twining shots up to several feet in length.
Amongst the beans that could have been cultivated include various patterned Horticultural, kidney, flageolet, red cranberry beans, pea beans, sulphur beans, solider beans, yellow eye, and probably many others. John Gerard says of the kidney bean “The Kidney Beane are wonderful many:” and to write about all of the types “would greatly stuffe our volume”. While he is calling many types of Phaseolus vulgaris “Kidney Bean,” many different types existed in England by the late 16th century. Some of these varieties probably produced an edible if not stringy pod. Van der Donck in writing of New Netherlands in 1642 mentions various sorts of beans “including the Windsor or house-bean” or fava bean.
Most of the early writers remark how well all of the crops perform in the New World. According to Josseyln “Cabbidge growes there exceeding well … sparagus thrives exceedingly …” William Wood says “the ground affords very good kitchen Gardens ...”
Willam Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony writing in A Descriptive and Historical account of New England in Verse (1794) says, “And truly it was admirable here to know, How greatly all things here began to grow” extolling the fall harvests “all sorts of grain which our own land doth yield, hither brought and sown in every field ... for all thrive.”
In Francis Higginson’s New-Englands Plantation: Or a Short and True Description of the Commodities and Discommodities of that Countrey (1630), we read, “Our Turnips, Parsnips and Carrots are here both bigger and sweeter than is ordinarily to be found in England.” Gerard lists only two types of turnips, Great Turnips and Small Turnips although he says there are sundrie sorts of turnips including wild turnips. The cultivated turnips are globe shape, the small turnips being the same as the larger, though sweeter. One of the earliest surviving list of seeds from this time period is by William Lucas in London circa 1677. He mentions the "Long, Round and Yellow Turnep."
Gerard distinguishes two kinds of parsnips — the “Tame” or “Garden” and the “Wild” which is tough and inedible. He mentions two types of carrots — the Yellow and the other with a blackish-red root. White carrots were present in Europe as well and the colonists may have cultivated these. Orange carrots were not developed until the late 16th century, although Lucas’s catalog mentions an orange carrot. These and other European root crops, with their long storage ability, were vital to the food security of the settlers.
William Bradford in his rhyming verse says, “All sorts of roots and herbs in gardens grow, Parsnips, carots, turnips or what you’ll sow: skirrets, beets, coleworts, fair cabbages, onions melons and cucumbers and radishes.”
In the kitchen gardens William Wood encountered were “Turneps, parsnips, carrots, radishes and Pumpions, Muskmillions, Isquotersquahses, Cowcumbers, Onyons and whatever grows well in England.” Josselyn’s list of cultivated plants include “cabbidge, lettuce, parsley, French mallows, chervil, burnet, carrats…“parsnips of a prodigious size,” red beets, radishes, turnips, “purslain,” wheat, rye, oats “musk mellons,” and cucumbers.
Gerard pictures two types of onions, the White and the Red, while 80 years later Lucas now lists Strasburgh, Red and White Spanish, French and English. Gerard illustrates both a large and small, long white radish, the former with a very sharp taste, a rounded flattened radish, and a pear-shaped black radish. He also mentions a long and black type. Lucas lists four radishes, the Black and White Spanish, Sandwick and London. Van der Donck in the New Netherlands lists Spanish radishes.
Both species of oyster plant, Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) and Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) were common to the Pilgrim garden as well as Skirret (Sium sisarum). Among the root crops, Bradford and Van Der Donck mention beets, while Josselyn specifically refers to red beets. Lucas’ catalog of seeds contains three types of beet, the white, red and Roman. These would appear to be the same beets listed by Gerard, for he mentions the white beet, Beta alba, with a root that is “thicke, hard and great,” Beta rubra, the red beet, which seems to be named for its red-streaked leaves, and Red Roman Beet with all red leaves and roots, whose seeds according to Gerard produced plants of many different colors.
The land near the coast in eastern Massachusetts became settled and cultivated steadily and quickly. Less than 15 years after the Pilgrims landed, William Wood describes Dorchester having “faire corne-fields and pleasant Gardens, with Kitchin-gardens” while both Boston and Roxberry have “fruitful gardens.” Edward Johnson estimated that in 1642 there were a “near thousand acres of land planted for Orchards and Gardens” amongst the many towns he visited. John Josselyn lists numerous towns which possess gardens and orchards, including Charlestown, Boston, Watertown and Ipswich. Gardens were essential components of daily living being sources of food and medicine.
The Pilgrims enjoyed a wide variety of greens, making a distinction between cabbages which were more or less heading types and the coleworts, loose-leaf types, kale and collard-like and ones eaten for their flower buds, essentially early forms of broccoli and cauliflower. Most of these were Brassica oleraceae and some could easily have been forms of Brassica rapa, whose wild ancestors are present in much of Europe and includes the turnip and Cole rape. For example, John Parkinson illustrates about eight of these types including the Open Cabbage, the Curled Sauoye Colewort (Savoy cabbage), Coleflower, and the Changeable Curld Colewort. Gerard calls this entire group Colewoorts. He pictures 12 types including White Cabbage, Red Cabbage and one that bears resemblance to ‘Lacinato’ kale. Lucas’ list of 1677 mentions four types of heading cabbage and three types of savoy.
Sallets formed a component of the Puritan diet, although probably not fitting the picture of our contemporary bowl of fresh greens. Sallets were generally cooked greens served with oil and vinegar, a tradition derived from the Romans. Sallets may have included lettuces, endive or chicory, spinach, purslane, mallow, mache (corn salad) coleworts and other cruciferous plants including “rocket,” and wild and cultivated leaves of violets, mints, sorrel and others. Gerard describes six types of lettuce – Garden, Curled, Small Curled, Lumbard, Cabbage, and sauoie (Savoy) while Lucas expands that list to include Roman, Arabian, Rose, and Red. Spinach was probably represented by Prickly and a round-leaf form.
The Pilgrims relied heavily on the plants they knew from Europe, which preformed well in a temperate climate. While their choice of varieties was limited, they grew and consumed a wide diversity of plants, a broader selection than many modern people eat. Like other Europeans, they were quick to recognize the attributes of Native American varieties and incorporate them into their diets. Though they carried on their European traditions in their basic garden design, they gardened with a practical necessity to accommodate their New World.