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Colonists' gardening tricks

Wood cut of ploughing

If you're growing all of your own food, early spring is the hungry time, when your stores are running low and you're craving fresh vegetables.  Over the three and a half years that we've been farming our land, we've slowly learned that sun exposure is the most important factor in early spring gardens, and early American colonists came to the same conclusion.  Whenever possible, they planted their gardens on south-facing slopes to jumpstart the gardening season, and hilled up soil on the north sides of rows to trap even more heat and block the wind.

Modern organic growers put down black plastic around their strawberries to heat the ground and promote earlier crops.  Once again, the early colonists were way ahead of us.  They saved charcoal dust from their fires and spread it on the soil around early crops to absorb the sun's heat.

Applying manure to a field

New England's growing season is short, so it was especially important to start some seedlings inside.  Instead of the modern plastic growing trays, colonists dug sod in the fall, stored the clods of earth and grass in their cellars over the winter, then planted their seedlings in the inverted sod clumps the next spring.  This worked especially well for crops that didn't like to be transplanted --- the colonists could simply bury the entire hunk of sod into the garden where it merged with the soil and protected the seedling's roots.

Pest control was pretty minimal at the time.  One technique I'd like to try is placing fresh onion skins on cucumber hills to control squash bugs.  Another of the settlers' methods --- scattering ashes on plants to control flea beetles and other insects --- is still common today.  If you're having a problem with slugs or snails, why not do as the Plymouth colonists did and scatter cabbage leaves between your plants, then collect the sluggy leaves in the early morning and burn them?

Woodcut of corn harvest

My ebook about Appalachian ecology can be read online for free, or bought in a print-friendly version.

This post is part of our Early New England Gardens lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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I'm sure the sight of burning slugs would prompt a revolt from our chickens if they could somehow figure it out.
Comment by mark Wed Mar 24 12:51:41 2010
love these ideas! i just found out about setting out 'trap crops' to attract pests. never thought about cabbage leaves between your plants. perhaps i will try it!
Comment by Aliza Thu Mar 25 14:01:57 2010

Mark --- you're right! They should have collected the leaves and thrown them to the chickens.

Aliza --- trap crops work well, but only if you pay attention and dispose of them once they've collected your insects. Otherwise the trap crop can actually be a breeding ground for bad bugs. That's probably be a good thing to feed the chickens too. :-)

Comment by anna Thu Mar 25 14:14:58 2010

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime