The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Early New England Gardens

Early New England garden with bee hives

A few months ago, we checked out PBS's Colonial House on Netflix.  The reality TV show plunks a few families down in New England where they replicate what life was like in Plymouth Colony in 1628.  Although the series was interesting, I was sorely disappointed by the lack of time spent focusing on the gardens --- that's the whole point of a reality TV show about the past, right?  Early New England Gardens: 1620 - 1840, a little booklet put out by Old Sturbridge Village, filled in the gaps.

The early American colonist generally had two separate gardens.  First, a house plot (also known as a merestead) was equivalent to our kitchen garden.  It was placed right by the house and was full of vegetables, herbs, and flowers used every day.  Further off, the settlement fields were planted with large-scale crops --- the staples backyard gardeners don't often grow much of anymore, like field corn, parsnips, turnips, beans (for drying), pumpkins, and cabbage.  Personally, I've found that putting a garden any further than two steps out the front door means that it gets neglected (and eaten by deer), but I guess these colonists felt the need to concentrate their houses close together for mutual protection.

Early New England settlement field

There were two general patterns evident in meresteads in early New England --- the cottage garden style and the formal garden style.  The former predominated in the Plymouth colony and among the poorer colonists while the latter was more common in Massachusetts Bay colony and among richer folks.

I've described cottage gardens in a previous lunchtime series --- you may remember that cottage gardens are a very informal hodgepodge of plants and animals, with herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruits, and even pigs and bees mashed together in a small space.  The people who settled in Plymouth Colony believed that gardens should be austere and utilitarian, and that flowers with no use were frivolous and extravagant.  The booklet notes, "There was actually an early Connecticut statute declaring it unlawful to walk in the garden on the Sabbath."

Plan of an early New England formal gardenIn contrast, the more prosperous Massachusetts Bay colonists based their gardens on the English manor garden.  There was usually a long central path, ending at an arbor, summer house, or dovecote.  Beds along the side were usually linear (though still informally planted with mixtures of plants).

As New England colonies became more prosperous in the eighteenth century, the more formal type of garden became widespread.  Soon, flowers were separated out of the vegetable gardens and the layout began to resemble the American landscape seen today.  Most houses had a large front garden composed purely of flowers and/or lawn running down a path to their front gate, with the vegetables tucked away out of sight.

As a final note, all of the photos in this week's lunchtime series come from Old Sturbridge Village's website.  I got a bit lost browsing their images and comparing colonial life to my life.  If you're bored, you might wander over and look for a while too.

This week, I'm plugging my brand new book, chock full of information about Appalachian ecology!

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

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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You are plugging a brand new "book"? But the link is for a new website right?
Comment by MH Mon Mar 22 12:48:28 2010
Hi, Anna--Great to see something about the Massachusetts Bay Colony! However, the settlers of Plimoth (which you can also see on the web) were not Puritans!! They actually were escaping from some Puritans, so were really called Separatists!! If you go to the Plimoth site, you will find some of what they do there now, as living history museum, like Rocky Mount, TN. Fascinating! Also, I think you'll see that the larger common gardens were fenced with a stockade-like fence.--mom
Comment by Mon Mar 22 13:27:00 2010

Maggie --- it's both. You can read it for free on the website, or buy the ebook.

Mom --- I'm sure you're right! My history is shoddy. The booklet seemed to be suggesting that they were Puritans, but maybe they were just referring to the influence of other Puritans in the area.

Comment by anna Mon Mar 22 18:07:17 2010
Very interesting. I have always wondered how they cut their grass way back when, especially in those British-type films depicting Europe centuries ago with those perfect gardens. We know the gentlemen lounging around sure didn't do it (rather useless lot). Thanks for the info.
Comment by HeatherW Mon Mar 22 22:39:07 2010
Why, the servants cut it, of course. :-)
Comment by anna Tue Mar 23 11:19:11 2010

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