Early American Gardens by Ellen Onorato

As many of us snuggle in our comfortable recliners eagerly anticipating another Red Sox season or thumbing through garden catalogues awaiting the seasonal signs of Spring, the hard realities of the early days in the Valley and throughout New England portrayed a much different life story. Gardening in New England was paradoxically very successful in our rocky, quite infertile soil even when similar attempts had failed miserably in early Virginian colonies where the soil and climate were more hospitable. 
    However, early gardening was indeed an almost daily full time year round effort. Understanding the exhausting hours toiled after harvest and into the coldest months of January and February with daily aeration of the soil and mixing in of dung were the secrets of success, not only for the developing commercial trade, but also for the less spoken of “kitchen garden”, usually about an acre for each household. Countless hours of experimentation in our difficult climate stretched the growing season to its limits while producing the "sweetest" vegetables and fruits possible. 
     Several researchers, including UMass Amherst's Ann Leighton and UTexas James McWilliams have studied in detail a subject often left untold beyond New England's income producing or bartered agricultural production of Indian corn, fish, butter, cider or timber. Amazingly, their daily diligence allowed our New England states to become the only colonies not needing to import fruits or vegetables to maintain a healthy lifestyle using home grown plants medicinally as well as for food. The immense commitment, generally by the females in the household to sustain and prepare the soil, to fully succeed at self-sufficiency, knows no comparison in modern day. The extensive cultivation of kitchen gardens producing seasonal vegetables such as herbs, apples, gourds, squash and pumpkins was merely part of the year long planning and arduous labor. 
    Gardeners, in fact, toiled almost endlessly churning, aerating and mixing dung into the soil even on the harshest of winter days while also preparing and planting a hotbed culminating in asparagus or short, prickly cucumbers as early as February. The soil's temperature was enhanced by carefully balancing the "heat" of compost while realizing that an excess could produce inferior taste or product. The daily labor in bitter cold was unquestioned as January especially was a month "in which the loss of a single day is of consequence", according to Leighton’s respected and comprehensive research in her “Early American Gardens”. The ongoing cycle of preparation with grafting, sowing seeds, transferring sprouting seeds, repairing very primitive tools, creating new trenches, destroying weeds or pests were unending, year round activities. year round activities. 
    While it is difficult to imagine the ground yielding to the most persistent hoe in the dead of winter, gardeners tried to squeeze into the soil more cucumbers, melons and cabbages while also adding potatoes, shallots, horseradish and garlic - in February! As we imagine the work involved, even today, of maintaining an acre of gardening needing to maximize yield to last an entire year for our extended family, it is virtually impossible to consider the dedication with crude implements and without the available fertilizers or scientific research that allowed the hearty Summer gardening was filled with laborious hours of planting, weeding and cultivating actually brought a modest cutback in labor expended on gardening. But lest we assume that gardening in warmer months was facile, the immeasurable methodologies and labor to try new strategies to minimize wind damage or maximize heat while allowing for shade for more tender plants was ever-demanding. The nagging fear that the rocky and infertile ground would be overused demanded constant thought and shifting of crops to maximize yield while still planning for next year. Early settlers did not just plan for quantity of yield. They expected the highest quality for sweetness in flavor, durability of stock and fine texture. 
    What were the crops that these early settlers boldly sought and very often, heartily produced? Though many of the seeds were imports from England, such as cauliflower, endive, beets, basil, carrots, parsnips, marjoram, onions, there were also many native species such as corn, squash, artichokes, sweet peas and gourds as well as wild strawberries, blueberries. Comparison studies have, in fact, indicated that the native Americans were often very helpful to early colonists and within a decade or so, yields of products were similar for settlers and Indians. (Thomas, Peter, Contrastive Subsistence Strategies 1976)
    Whereas commerce developed by the 1670s or 1680s, there are records to prove that kitchen gardens even produced bartering, such as bushels of peas for beer or herbs for eggs, but mostly, the foods produced were kept almost entirely for the family unit. The luxury of land in new "England" was in dire contrast to England's dearth of land, yet the limited labor available in the new colonies added pressure to the workload of each individual struggling in the new land. Unlike Virginia and some of the southern colonies, slave labor was not available - but the early years facing scarcity, starvation and early death while the English ships and their freight often got gravely delayed were certainly motivating factors which established the unstoppable traditions of hard work, thriftiness and self-reliance creating the stubborn Yankee spirit sometimes questioned or ostracized today. 

Food or Medicine

    Though reasons were varied for traveling to the new world, the English seemed to always bring their plants as they traveled to different parts of the world. New England was no exception. Evidence of these early plants, arriving with early Puritans prepared for their survival, is seen today as we detect English natives such as wild yarrow, St. Johnswort, teasel or scarlet pimpernel along our roads. 
Let us remember that most men and women traveling to their new land to escape Bishop Laud’s intolerance in England were well educated, with strong ideas and acceptance of 2nd century Greek Galen’s earlier ideas leading to an understanding of Aristotle’s four elements. Utilizing and consistently discovering the values of plant life for medicinal purposes was critical to survival in New England, too, as well as for sustenance.
The English usually drank beer rather than their soiled water but found water and the pristine streams delightfully refreshing in New England. Air, water, heat and earth blended with the four primary qualities of moist, dry, hot and cold were tenets every household needed to fully appreciate in their daily lives. Balancing these to derive certain goals, such as heat from fire and air or medicinal syrups came from an understanding of alchemy.     Many of these derivatives remain today such as salicyclic acid from willow bark used by early colonists for rheumatism, and now used today in aspirin. The art of “simpling” as the gathering of this ancient and trustworthy information was called was accepted, yet astrology and any superstitions were highly disdained by these God fearing colonists.
    Survival was difficult even with this knowledge while living in the New England wilderness. The doctrine of signatures theory in which God was thought to have left signs or marks on specific plants that indicate which organ of the body would be nursed with its medicinal values was fully accepted. Some examples of this indicated in Leighton’s meticulous research derived from Italian botanist Porta include: the mandrake root for sterility, birthwort for the uterus, poppies for hemorraghes, or liverwort leaves for the liver. Many highly educated colonists, midwives and skilled housewives were available for community needs as trained doctors from England were few and far between in the early colonies. Some-times, the minister cared for the health of his congregation as much as their souls. Lists of up to 400 plants with their medicinal value were compiled by one minister in the early colonies. 
    The English also sought out much advice from the native Indians to learn of their indigenous food, medicinal herbs and plants. Looking back, we might wonder how colonists and native Indians thought of shellfish, including clams and even lobsters, as far inferior to cod or other fish. Lobster was often used as bait instead the delicious meal most of us covet today. 
    Besides food and medicine, native plants were used for glues, tars and turpentines often resulting in exports back to the Mother Country. The kitchen garden often integrated all of the needs of a household - from dyes, salves or glues to food and medicine. It is also interesting to note that colonists always grew poisons in their kitchen gardens, too. Whether for pain relief or in case nasty enemies were at hand, monkhead or another poison plant was usually growing in the garden. 
    Early colonists also grew their front yard gardens as a symbol of high-standing in the community. Eventually, more ornate gardens with boxed edgings and topiary work gradually evolved and up until the last few decades, gardens played a tremendous role in American daily life. 
    Throughout our wild landscapes, we still see the influence of imports from Italy, Holland or Germany today. Most of us consider these weeds, often without any appreciation of the medicinal value or its visual or odorous value that played such an important part in early settler life. Noble leader (then Gov.) John Winthrop wrote as his ship came close to the Massachusetts shores, after ten weeks of ocean travel, "we now had fair Sunshine Weather and so pleasant a sweet Aire refreshing us, and there came a smell off the Shore like the Smell of a Garden". (Earle, Old Time Gardens). This first scent was known to be the mingled scents of the indigineous sweet fern and wild rose, but it seemed heaven sent to the English arriving on the otherwise bleak rocky shores with unimaginable challenges ahead.
For more information, check NE Quarterly, 3/04 McWilliams “Well-Flavoured Gardens” or Ann Leighton’s “Early American Gardens”

 
 

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