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.Greene, the author of the forthcoming Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, disabuses me of one "Ye Olde" conception: that each family grew all its food. He estimates that only 50 percent of the houses in Williamsburg had gardens. Why?

"It's a lot easier to raise a hog than a cauliflower," he says. Turns out these forefathers weren't getting their five-servings-a-day any more than we are now. Less than 10 percent of a Williamsburg resident's diet was vegetables. Meat and corn, as grain, were the foundation of their food pyramid. Growing your own was too hard; success too uncertain to rely on for sustenance.

The garden is a smaller three-bed variation of the type a gentleman might have owned: a foursquare garden—four vegetable beds with paths crisscrossing between them. Next to it is a mini orchard of closely spaced fruit trees. Both are surrounded by a low wooden fence. With houses on lots of less than 1⁄2 acre, Williamsburg residents didn't waste space on sweet potatoes or turnips. Leeks, onions, kale, broad (fava) beans, and cabbages were popular. Most of what the colonists ate grew on plantations outside of town and was bought at market. Perishable salad greens were harder to come by, so luxuries such as lettuce—a favorite among the colonists—were worth the gardening effort.

Ordinary people grew flowers—China pinks, foxgloves, peonies—around their vegetable beds, but the wealthy had the space to grow them separately. Contrary to the pervading myth, there was no such entity as a "Colonial herb garden." Herbs such as lavender, chamomile, thyme, and rosemary were tucked in the garden wherever their perennial habits wouldn't disturb the vegetables. (Basil wasn't yet America's favorite herb; it was still overcoming its reputation as causing scorpions in the brain.)

The Colonial Garden is a rich man's garden. Gentlemen had gardeners who planted artichokes, asparagus, cardoons, oranges, and melons. Challenging to grow and labor-intensive, these were the status symbols of their time, meant to impress guests and make a statement about the breeding and taste of the host.