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.

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2 comments for “A Seventeenth Century New England Garden

  1. July 31, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Hey, I recognize all those symbols:) It looks like you had a lot of fun with this assignment. I like the way your design turned out and can appreciate your need to scale back and design for the times. Great job.

    • joenesgarden
      July 31, 2011 at 11:29 pm

      Thanks, Debbie. Now on to the next lesson.

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