The Colonial Garden

Take a look at the crops and techniques used by Pilgrims in Colonial Gardens.


| Fall 2014



Corn Illustration

Early on, the Pilgrims let corn grow freely in the hills before eventually switching to row planting.

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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.





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