Monday, September 24, 2012

The Colonial Garden
A History of  Past Gardening Styles
Article written for The Essential Herbal January 2005

Herbs and herb gardening have been around this country for more than a few centuries. Our foremothers and forefathers brought from the old world, along with their new political ideas, plants and seeds that would be needed to sustain them. Yes, herbs were grown and harvested for seasoning the meals, dying fabrics, making soaps and other household helpers such as brooms, but more importantly they were utilized as medicines and for the prevention of diseases.  Today, there has been a reconnection to our past and herbs seem to play a major part in the reconstruction of the old gardens that worked so well before. Here at Possum Creek Herb Farm we have recreated what we think would have been a working herb garden used by the Colonial housewife during the period of 1690-1780.


            The Colonists would have placed their gardens near their home preferably behind the kitchen for easy access. Many would have fenced in the gardens to protect the precious plants from animals. A fence of twigs, small branches and trunks of small trees would have been tied together and pounded into the ground. Fortunately for us, fencing is a little less work intensive. Our Colonial herb garden is surrounded by a weather resistance white picket fence with gates for easy access. The Colonists would have dug out their gardens with crude shovels, axes and possibly with the use of a horse or mule. They would have created long rows with paths intersecting each section of the garden. The house wife would have interspersed vegetables in with the herbs. Each section of the Colonial herb garden here at the farm is enclosed in pressure treated lumber “boxes”. They range in size from 8 feet by 4 feet to 8 feet by 8 feet. There are six boxes in all with gravel paths leading the visitor from one garden to the next. The Colonists would have used the rich soil that they built their homes on probably removing large stones and utilizing them for building walls. We too have rich, well-draining soil here at the farm which we amend yearly with compost. Full sun and moisture were all that was needed to promote the lush growth of the herbs for use all throughout the spring, summer and fall.


            Several herbs lend themselves very well to dying fabrics. The Colonial housewife would have boiled the foliage, bark and roots of Rosemary, Sage Yarrow, Chamomile and Woad, which were among others, to dye their homespun fabrics such as wool. Herbs such as Soapwort and Lavender were added to the daily wash water to freshen and clean the laundry. Many herbal blooms lend themselves well to the dye pot. Blooms from herbs such as Marigold, Onion, Goldenrod, Madder Oregano, and Foxglove just to name a few were also used in the dying process.


            Many herbs were grown for seasonings. The Colonial housewife would have tended her culinary herb garden each spring and summer, harvesting what she needed on a daily basis. And what she didn’t use on a daily basis she would bundle up and hang near a dry cool spot out of the sun for future use. Herbs such as Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Lavender, Chive, Dill and Roses were grown and harvested. Rose petals were often saved for potpourri which wasn’t used to fragrance the home but to mask unpleasant smells from the inhabitants that lived their. Many herbs were made into jellies and jams if sugar was available. Or dried and pounded into powders for seasoning during the winter.


            Herbs played a very important role medicinally. The housewife was usually the family physician back in the very early days. She often gathered herbs from her gardens or from the wild to treat her family. Often diseases such as malaria, typhoid, measles, malaise and dysentery were treated with herbs such as Willow, Mint, Echinacea, Dill, Ginseng and Yarrow. Unfortunately, many of these herbs have fallen out of favor over the years due to the creation of more modern chemical medicines. Many herbs were strewn on the ground of the homes to prevent diseases from forming. Herbs placed in strategic places would keep insects and vermin out of the homes as well.

            As the knowledge of the Colonial housewife increased so did her gardens. Many Colonists raised bees for honey for their families and to sell. The blossoms of many herbs attract honeybees and other beneficial wildlife to the gardens. Many Colonists also learned that certain vegetables grew well along side their herbal counterparts increasing the harvest for the family. And they learned to utilize compost from their farm animals to improve the soil. We could learn a lot from those early settlers that discovered our country. Many of these gardens have been lost do to the sprawl of our cities but a few have been kept intact for visitors such as the gardens of George Washington at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

 9-2012:  The Colonial Garden that was created here six years ago is long gone with only its fence and raised beds left behind. It has since become the veggie garden that produced peppers, onions, tomatoes and soon, a few pumpkins. It is being taken over by a crop of Sweet Annie I thought long gone. After reading through the above article again I think the Colonists had mad prepping skills but then, they had to, didn't they?


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