How We Grew

Colonial Williamsburg shows us that gardening techniques have remained surprisingly consistent for 260 years.

By Therese Ciesinski

Photography by Matthew Benson


the gardeners at Colonial Williamsburg.The wooden yoke around my neck doesn't hurt at first. I winch up two brimming wooden buckets from the well and attach them to the yoke. Now carrying 40 extra pounds of water weight, my shoulders visit my knees as I lurch away from the well and stagger across the garden to pour the water into the cistern, where it must warm to air temperature before it is scooped out again to water the vegetables.

I'm in the Colonial Garden and Nursery at Colonial Williamsburg, the 79-year-old living history museum in Virginia. The date is October 12, 2010. Or 1750. Either century is correct. It's sunny and quite warm; T-shirt weather. Because rain's been scarce, I have volunteered to water the vegetable garden, in the way a housewife of the "middling class" would.

Never has a drop in the bucket seemed so futile: If it were 1750, it would take 49 more trips just to keep this garden alive another day. With men off doing the hard labor, this Sisyphean task fell to women or children. Or, for those who could afford them, slaves. In truth, most people gardened at the mercy of the weather.

In addition to "History" with a capital H, Colonial Williamsburg depicts the daily lives of the colonists: what they ate and wore, how they quarreled and courted, worshipped and worked. Hauling water is one way to understand how people in Williamsburg gardened back in the day, a day 260 years ago. What they grew and how they grew it reveals the differences between then and now (eaten any good scorzornera lately?) and emphasizes how difficult it was to coax food from the ground. It's humbling to realize how easy a garden hose makes my life, how comparatively little sweat equity actually goes into my tomatoes.

The Colonial Garden is a fresh pop of green on dusty Duke of Gloucester Street. It's too warm for thick vests and breeches, but that is what Wesley Greene and Don McKelvey, interpreters, historians, and gardeners, wear as they plant and hoe the fall crops. Greene started this garden in 1996, and the mulchless, weed-free beds and crisp lines would satisfy the eye of any 18th-century gentleman. No natural landscaping here: Symmetry and order are hallmarks of Colonial gardens. Outside town lay a disordered and dangerous wilderness. A garden was a place of the known.