Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Seventeenth Century New England Garden

To fulfill one of my landscape design lessons, I sunk my imagination into what the gardening life of a female settler at Plimoth Plantation might be. I needed to design a small garden to show key characteristics of an authentic garden set in a period of my choosing. I’ve long been fascinated by the survival skills learned and adopted by 17th century New England colonists – even tried my hand at braiding onions and garlic – so I opted to develop a series of garden beds indicative of this time.

One of the main characteristics of gardens of this period is their randomness. To optimize planting space beds were created wherever they fit. Beds were not necessarily evenly spaced or arranged. Paths between each bed were narrow and often filled with weedy growth. Garden size depended on the size of each family and the number of mouths to feed. Principles of more modern landscape design such as unity, balance, proportion, rhythm/movement, and interest were not an important consideration. Instead, the driving forces behind early settlers’ gardens were function, convenience, efficiency and productivity. They had to grow as much food as possible plus all herbs, medicinal, and dye plants they might need throughout the year. Survival depended on the harvests from smaller garden or kitchen plots and from larger field-grown corn, beans, squash, grains and other edible crops.

Ethnic Garden-Colonial New England


Settlers took care to fence edible gardens from roaming livestock and edge raised planting beds with large rocks or the trunks of felled trees … tasks likely relegated to men. Otherwise colonial women did most or all the gardening chores, including digging/hilling the soil, spreading manure, planting, harvesting, collecting seed … all with little help from other family members who were busy elsewhere.

My design shows perennial herbs such as hyssop, lemon balm, sage, thyme, sweet woodruff or mints in green. Yellow shades are annual vegetables like pumpkin and other squash, cabbage, carrots, melons or beans. Fruit trees, perhaps an apple, pear and plum,  and berry brambles are planted along the western edge. Additional berries and fruiting shrubs like mulberry or quince run along the north fence line. The heavy black line in the upper right is part of the house. The lighter line just below it is a livestock pen.

Portraying this garden accurately meant squelching the urge to build planting beds of uniform size and shape; to ignore creating paths that could accommodate landscape machinery or garden carts; to forget aesthetically pleasing plant placement; and to forego any thoughts of hardscape or grassy pathways. Settlers did not have herb gardens or beds of dye or medicinal plants. They intermingled all the plants they needed to grow. They placed plants wherever they found space. Pathways were overgrown with weeds, worn down to bare soil, or possibly scattered with the crushed shells from seafood harvests.

These were rough, rugged working gardens. But I think their simple functionality shines through. There’s still balance, rhythm and movement, but it’s that of a period when garden design took a back seat to growing edible plants to survive.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 Joene Hendry

Onion & garlic braids

Do you think early New England settlers braided onions as a means to store them after harvest? I wondered this when faced with the trays of onion and garlic bulbs harvested a couple of days previously and set on a covered porch to dry.

I’ve braided bulbs before but had not planted and harvested quite the number of bulbs I have this year. So with bulbs and twine at hand, I positioned myself in a shady spot out of the hot sun.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Braiding onions should be a no-brainer for anyone who knows how to braid hair. However, my previous braids often unwound from the bottom unless secured with twine. A handy onion braiding guide recently published in Organic Gardening magazine’s email newsletter explained how to start the braid so it will hold without twine at the lower end.  

Before braiding, though, bulbs must be brushed free of clinging soil … a rather slow, tedious task that allowed my mind to wander back to the era of American settlers. I imagined what a colonial woman had to go through to prepare her garden plots. Gardening tasks fell to the women so my imagined colonist, Prudence, had to loosen her beds by hand, add manure from the family’s animals, weed, watch, hope for ample rain and finally harvest the onions (from what I’ve read, early colonists did not grow garlic) that would help feed her family for the next year.

After harvesting she probably let them rest on the soil in the sun to dry and cure for a day or two. Prudence surely would have sought the cooling shade of a large tree to rest under while brushing her work-worn hands over each precious bulb to remove clumps of clingy soil.   As she braided, Prudence probably monitored the nearby gardening or animal tending chores of some of her children. She may have had a daughter by her side to teach the youngster to braid.

I suspect Prudence enjoyed the brief set-a-spell rest she was able to enjoy, and that her braids looked much neater than mine.  While braiding, her mind likely wandered to all of the other tasks she needed to complete that day – beans to pick and a stew to stir.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I saw Prudence briefly admiring her finished braids as she hung them on a dry interior wall of her small wood-frame home, then she scooted off to her next chore.

My braids, no doubt, are not nearly as attractive or proficiently done as Prudence’s, but as I see them hanging in my modern kitchen with all its conveniences I have an overwhelming appreciation for the fortitude Prudence’s people … my people … brought to this land.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 Joene Hendry