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Hearth to Hearth: Kitchen Gardens

Hearth to Hearth: Kitchen Gardens – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2002

With the first bulbs and sprouted plants making the garden a wonder of anticipation, it is not too late to think of seeds. If you got to them early enough to have a stand of seedlings on your window sill, you are in good shape, but many a time the seeds planted at the same time as young plants have a way of coming to fruition at the same time. In any case, the kitchen garden is taking on its own character, the perennial herbs fragrant under the buzz of visiting bees, and the taste of young vegetables just around the corner.

This is certainly as good a time as any to think of wandering in an old kitchen garden. It fills one’s senses with vaguely familiar plants bearing unfamiliar names, pleasant scents, numbers of sprawling or bushy plants, and perhaps even the weight of the basket filled with produce for the next meal. Name tags are inscribed with exotic-sounding varieties rarely seen in the modern nursery; geometric arrangements of raised beds and neat rows reinforce an impression of order. Sometimes the gardens were walled, limiting the damaging effects of wind and intruding weeds or animals; some were fenced. Sometimes the evidence of a hoe, cutting knife or dibble reminds us that these plants, beautiful as they were, required heavy work and had an eminently practical purpose. This is clear in the demonstration plantings at many a living history museum and their reconstructions from medieval cloistered gardens to nineteenth century farmhouse beds. One has to respect the intense research that has brought this area of food history to life, literally, and which seems to be experiencing a revival today. The underlying information seems to come from a variety of sources.

First of all, there were the books. The old herbals offer much. Handsomely illustrated medieval volumes tell us about the garden management and choices: for example, rue was planted for many reasons, one being that its scent was thought to drive away unwelcome animals. Works on gardening theory and technique have been written for centuries, introducing innovative (in their time) plot rotations, manuring, or new forms of plows. Such books were common in the libraries of eighteenth-century American estates, offering the newest theory available; by the nineteenth century Peter Henderson’s influential Gardening for Profit (1865) addressed not only the home gardener but also those specializing in producing for the market.

Then there were the seeds and root stocks themselves. Early American kitchen gardens first thrived on the seeds brought from Europe. William Penn (1685) planted “Kidney Beans, English Pease of several kinds, with English Roots, Turnapes [turnips], Carrots, Onions, Leeks, Radishes and Cabbidges…also Pumpkins, Musmellons, Water Mellons, Sqwashes, Coshaws, Buck-hen, Cowcumbers and Sinnels of Diverse Kinds.” Before long the seeds of sweet corn, tomatoes, celery, beets, lettuce, egg plants, peppers, spinach, sweet potato were added.

By the American Revolution, it was reported that “Vegetable gardens are kept for almost every house…beets, parsnips, onions, parsley, radishes, Turkish beans, large beans, pepper grass, red pepper, lettuce, head lettuce, German lettuce, scurvy grass, potatoes.” Kitchen gardens, it seems, were rarely small.

At first the seeds were brought with immigrants and merchants, or sent by commissioned factors or agents in Europe. There was a constant search for new plants, as everyone from kings to scientists scoured the world on a serious search for new foods. For example, Peter Kalm, the Swedish botanist trained by Linnaeus, traveled through North America for years (1747-51) in such a quest, collecting seeds and lore to improve Scandinavian diet.

A certain amount of natural hybridizing improved the strains. Whether or not a plant’s seeds could winter over in the ground, a thrifty gardener saved seeds for the following summer, probably choosing those of the season’s best plants in the age-old process of selection. As the plants evolved according to desired qualities, they were traded among friends and neighbors, further developing improved strains. Typically, Martha Ballard (Maine, 1809) noted in her diary that “ Mrs. Emry, two of William Stones daughters had gardin seeds of me.” Sometimes this kind of trading crossed large distances, as we see from the garden correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and his peers.

By the end of the eighteenth-century a few nurseries had begun to supply orchard and berry stock to farmers up and down the Eastern seaboard. Notably, the William Prince Nursery in Flushing, Long Island, shipped selections from their extensive catalog to Jefferson in Virginia. By the early nineteenth century packaged seeds were being marketed—innovative Quaker efforts were to grow into the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia. It wasn’t long before other seed houses followed; many other regional growers developed nurseries with names we still know today—Ferry’s of Detroit, to name one. And with them came the seed catalog and the mail-order business. Quick to use the trade card and growing advertising methods, Rice’s Seeds, Cambridge Valley, N. Y., Parker & Wood of Boston, J. E. Elrick of Saltsburg, Pa., and even dealers in fertilizers, were among the many garden suppliers to distribute a series of fanciful “vegetable people” trade cards. These amusing promotional give-aways were often saved and pasted into “educational” scrap books as a source of entertainment in pre-radio days, and continue to delight collectors of ephemera today.

In the early 19th century, the need for fresh produce in growing urban centers pushed the family-oriented gardens into the commercial world and commerce in seeds began. From mid-century and on a good many “heirloom” varieties were being marketed and listed in period seed catalogs. For example, William Woys Weaver’s Heirloom Vegetable Gardening shows that what had earlier been known simply as watermelon, or the American watermelon, would now require such individual names as Moon and Stars, Rattlesnake, King And Queen, Ice Cream, Kleckley Sweets Watermelon, Black Spanish or Cuban Queen. Some of these were developed by agriculture departments of new Land Grant Colleges; others came out of the research of private seed companies. Seed catalogs from nurseries such as James J. H Gregory or W. Atlee Burpee educated the gardening public and spread new varieties.

Burpee Seeds published its own cook books; likewise Vaughan’s Seeds put out their own Vegetable Cook Book in 1898. Conversely, in the long tradition of kitchen gardening, cookbooks sometimes told the cook how best to grow her ingredients. Gervase Markham (1615) instructed on the monthly phases of the moon and when to plant each plant. Amelia Simmons (1796) directed that “Beets, grow on any ground, but best on loam, or light gravel grounds, the red is the richest and best approved, the white has a sickish sweetness, which is disliked by many,” and noted that the Low Dutch Cabbage “only will do in old gardens.”

The tools of kitchen gardens were for a long time quite simple. One needed a “reel and line” to establish straight rows, a spade to turn over the earth, a rake to smooth it and remove debris, long- and short-handled hoes, and a knife to prune or harvest. A dibble or planting stick made the hole for the seed, and eventually a mechanical seeder (most often used in field crops, but handy in a kitchen garden as well). After 1850 improved industrial methods contributed to the patenting of a number of weeding implements – among them the “hand-weeding hook,” the pronged cultivator so common today, and the strengthened digging fork.

With this view of the things needed, let us turn to the work of kitchen gardens. They were usually fairly extensive as they, along with various processes of preservation, carried the burden of provisioning during the cold months. The planting, tending and harvesting were of necessity heavy work, and often required the efforts of the entire family, but were most commonly women’s work. Martha Ballard, farming in Maine, wrote (May 15, 1809), “I have dug ground west of the hous. Planted squash, Cucumbers, musk and water mellons East side house.” A number of entries between May 9 and May 31 of that year recorded that she maintained several plots, “workt in gardin,” planted seeds and ‘stumps” [roots], potatoes, strawberry and “leutis” [lettuce] plants, covering the gamut of kitchen garden produce with both seeds and previously-sprouted or wintered-over plants. Perhaps she had a cold frame or used a root cellar to winter-over cuttings. Her efforts included planting and tending an orchard. Martha’s late summer and autumn entries appropriately recorded harvesting, preserving, and storage.

The status of kitchen gardening has swung back and forth over the centuries. There was a time when complex beds near a luxurious house boasted unusual varieties among the staples and brought high status to the master. At the same time, lower levels of the largely rural society maintained less impressive plots in their efforts to survive the winter. With the growth of cities and more sophisticated materialism, the status of rural life declined, and with it the allure of gardening. But in the late nineteenth century in America, their popularity returned as part of the back-to-the-land movement when city dwellers perceived need to reconnect to the natural world, to do physical work, and perhaps to seek a more “healthful” vegetarian diet. It was thought that this would counter the harmful influences and overstimulation of the modern city, in which the anxieties associated with life and business were thought to cause physical and mental problems. Children were now encouraged to garden as a source of exercise and fresh air, of moral lessons in the good life, and a wholesome sense of pride in the harvest. During World War 1 and World War 2, those on the home front used what land they could for Victory Gardens, and the subsequent move to suburbs has made this still more possible.

Today gardening is ranked as the number one American hobby, and for many a kitchen garden is part of it. The proliferation of Seed Savers and other such organizations, dedicated to preserving old varieties, and the mushrooming of vegetable gardens in urban vacant lots shows something of the currant value and prestige of kitchen gardens for many.

A kitchen gardener myself, I am tempted to remark on the wonderful kitchen gardens of my childhood in Brooklyn, inevitably behind the homes of first generation Italian families. Their tradition is still alive and well on Long Island, where you don’t have to be Italian to know that the best time to eat a tomato is in August when you have just picked it yourself.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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