A Gentleman’s Guide to Vegetables

Williamsburg’s early American nursery replicates an 18th-century kitchen garden. Though labor was scarce and summers were brutal, colonists found timeless techniques for growing a variety of produce. 

On Duke of Gloucester Street, across from Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg, the Colonial Nursery beckons passersby with its formal squares filled with period-appropriate vegetables, herbs and flowers. Here, garden historians Wesley Greene and Don McKelvey reveal much about our nation’s early culture through horticulture. The interpreters, who have served the Foundation’s landscape department for more than 45 years combined, have an encyclopedic knowledge of early American plants after years of researching historic documents such as letters, inventories and advertisements.

     Dressed as 18th-century garden workers, the scholars are quite approachable and easily engage visitors of all ages. From teaching a young boy in a rented period costume how to doff his hat properly with his right hand, reminding him that “left-handedness and -footedness are frowned upon in the 18th century,” to teaching his sister how to lay out straight furrows to plant turnip seeds by using a string tie, the experts’ historical tidbits hook the curious and bring the past to life. What’s more, these early methods for conservation of land and water offer timely lessons for today.

      This garden is a “gentleman’s town garden”—a wealthy person’s garden—and there would have been few of them in 18th-century Williamsburg. “Williamsburg is a pretty town,” McKelvey notes, but “European travelers call it ‘coarse and unkempt.’ It’s all about skill and labor. The English have lots of it, but there is less here.”

      So a wealthy colonist would need slaves to manage his garden, which could be more than an acre in size. One look at the huge, 200-gallon cistern in the garden’s center shows why. Slaves filled it using two-gallon, four-pound wooden buckets. At about eight pounds per gallon, that’s 20 pounds per bucket—times 100, making 2,000 total pounds of weight to move.

      Slaves probably got their training through owners’ instructions or from any of the dozen or so professional gardeners working in Williamsburg as early as 1695 (at either the Governor’s Palace or the College of William & Mary). The professional gardener had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship, but a significant fringe benefit in the Colonies, McKelvey points out, was that a gardener could own land. “In England, land was all tied up.”

      McKelvey stresses that the Virginia climate was a significant challenge. “Even if you were successful in moving the large quantities of water, there was no guarantee you would be successful in growing vegetables. Summer in Williamsburg is a poor gardening season. Last summer, 2008, there were 60 days above 90 degrees.” The English came to America in 1607 thinking they would have a Mediterranean climate, much wetter in the summer than Williamsburg actually is, and colder in winter.

But there’s an upside to the area’s brutal summers, says McKelvey: “no deep-down frost line.” That offers the potential for double-cropping—getting two consecutive crops out of the same land during the same season. The long summer enables gardeners to plant a second crop of cool-weather vegetables such as the supremely popular cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, lettuce and broad beans, which can be planted in late September to early October and harvested in November.

       Distinctive garden accessories—windowpane-like glass and wooden frames and glass bell jars—extend the planting season even further. The frames can be “hot” or “cold,” depending on whether they contain manure (hot) or not (cold). In January, the gardeners start a hot frame by putting in a 30-inch-deep layer of fresh horse manure, which can reach 120 to 130 degrees as it decomposes. On top of that goes a four- to five-inch layer of fine planting soil, which the compost underneath will heat to 70 degrees, perfect for starting the year’s first crops of lettuce, turnips, cabbages, leeks, artichokes and celery. Lettuce sprouts in a mere two to three days in the frame, and artichokes in about 10 days.

      A gardener must check the frames daily, opening and closing the glass on top to regulate the temperature. If they get a sunny day in January, they can start the “hardening off” process, which means getting the seedlings used to cold weather and wind. By late February, they have already transferred the lettuce from the hot frame to the cold frame—“cold” because it has only soil (no manure) and glass panes for frost protection. The hot frame is now available in early March for planting the warm-season (cold-sensitive) vegetables such as melons and cucumbers, which will be transplanted into the garden in late April, after all chance of frost has passed. “Transplanting is an important part of gardening in the 18th century,” McKelvey says. “Lots of things are not planted in place.” The compost is then removed to provide natural fertilizer for the perennial beds. The frames that have been in constant use from November to April are put aside. Using this system, lettuce can be grown for nine months of the year, from September to May.

Similarly, glass bell jars (before the Revolution, no English colonists would use the French word, “cloches”), were used principally in winter for frost protection for an entire small plant such as broccoli or cauliflower, which are less cold-hardy than cabbages.

      Another resourceful practice by the colonists was a pruning technique called “pollarding.” It evolved from the European practice of “coppicing,” where street trees are whacked back severely. Pollarding was (and is) a source of sticks for trellises and wattle fences. “You could never have too many sticks,” says McKelvey. A woven section, for example, could be used as a frost-protector for broad beans in winter, and later become a trellis for cucumbers.

      The historical colonial kitchen garden says much about the social order of that time, according to McKelvey. “You see a very, very strong class diet.” The wealthy person ate one-half to two-thirds of his diet in meat and the rest in grain, whereas the slave ate mostly dried beans, field peas and dried shell corn. In fact, sweet corn as we know it did not exist. Shell corn, associated with the lower classes, rarely surfaced in wealthy homes. McKelvey tells of a time when William Byrd offered corn pone to one of his guests, so insulting the man “that he gets on his horse and rides away.”

      White people ate neither peanuts nor okra back then, says McKelvey. “Fruit is more likely to be drunk than eaten.” Apples were made into hard cider as well as vinegar. While peaches make good brandy, they were primarily used for hog feed, because the colonists believed that hogs fed on peaches yielded “the best meat you ever ate.” Grapes were grown for wine. At that time, colonists tried desperately to establish vineyards, but McKelvey says it was not until the next century that “they figure[d] out to graft the European grape onto the North American rootstock.”

      So it took trial and error to get things right. But more often than not, the colonists did—and, considering that today even the White House has installed a kitchen garden, more than ever we value the old ways.

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