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.And just as they do now, people wanted to eat fruits and vegetables out of season. To put fresh peas on the gentry's table by the second week of April demanded the most up-to-date technology. But they managed to do it much the way we do today. Greene puts it succinctly: "Same techniques, different materials."

For example: The Colonial Garden's hotbed does the work of a modern heat mat, but there's a bit more to it than simply plugging in an electrical cord. In January, fresh horse manure is piled up and covered with a tarp until the center of the pile reaches about 160°F. It is then packed 2 feet deep in a pit. A brick-lined wooden box that looks like a coldframe is filled with 4 inches of fine loam and set on top. Once the loam cools to about 70°F, seeds are planted, and the box is then insulated with straw. This way, a manure hotbed stays warm for about 3 to 4 weeks.

Next to the hotbeds is a coldframe, whitewashed to reflect heat, looking much like coldframes do now. Its function hasn't changed: to start seedlings and keep plants from freezing. Glass bell jars, also called cloches, dot the garden, but it's too warm to need them. Bell jars were primarily used in the winter months to protect artichoke, cauliflower, and other seedlings. Still sold today, they work just as well and don't cost much more—back then, they had to be imported from England, costing the exorbitant equivalent of about $25 each.

It's the paper frames that most surprise me. Cypress hoops snake down a row that in spring held melons ("the Snickers bar of the 18th century," says Greene). Paper treated with linseed oil was glued to the frame. Under these hoops, melons stayed warm and dry. In other areas, neat lines of seedlings are covered with cobwebby cheesecloth to let sun in but keep bugs out.

This garden is tended organically—the only option in Colonial times. But the settlers had one up on us: Many of the most troublesome insects we battle in our vegetable gardens today are not native, and in the 18th century they hadn't yet arrived in America. Although striped cucumber beetles, squash-vine borers, and cabbage loopers were here, and plum curculio besieged fruit trees, many crops grew pest-free. Insects such as imported cabbage worms, flea beetles, slugs, and snails hadn't yet crossed the pond. It would be years before the Colorado potato beetle and the Mexican bean beetle hitchhiked their way to Virginia.

But all these immigrant insects are here now. And since the historical record can't provide a control for a pest that didn't yet exist, in Greene's words, "We have to deal authentically with inauthentic pests." The chemical arsenal includes lime water, tobacco dust, chimney ashes, and manure tea. Greene covers apples with little muslin bags and ties rope around tree trunks to deter slugs. Other methods include practicing the ancient art of hand-picking, and, ultimately, embracing the philosophy that, as Greene puts it, "A cabbage with a hole in it tastes exactly like a cabbage without a hole in it."

We're not as different from the early residents of Williamsburg as we might suppose. Like them, most of us garden because we want to, not because we have to. Technology and science have made gardening less backbreaking, but now we deal with the more destructive and widespread consequences of progress. Our tools and materials may be less biodegradable, more high-tech or longer-lasting, but we still want victory over pests and diseases, to extend the growing season, and to raise the biggest, sweetest, or earliest we can. We still love our lettuce. It's rather comforting to know that what we want from our gardens hasn't changed all that much in two-and-a-half centuries—only the ways we get it.

If You Go

Colonial Williamsburg is located in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is open 365 days a year, usually from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. "Meet the Gardener" tours are scheduled during the gardening season (March through October). A gardening symposium is held one weekend every April.

For more information: 800-447-8679 or