Exploring the exciting colonial garden
In observance of Independence Day, I thought it would be interesting to explore what gardens were like in colonial America. Leaving behind European marketplaces for expanses of wild terrain and learning to grow food in a new climate certainly came with challenges. It also came with great rewards — far more land than in England, exciting new plants and vegetables and a sense of ‘no rules.’ Interestingly, there is not one definitive ‘Colonial Style’ garden design as there is in architecture. The design, or sometimes lack thereof, was far more dictated by a colonist’s needs and personal preferences than adhering to a set of rules and guidelines as there is in English and French garden design. The rustic beauty of a colonial garden is in its functionality. While orchards, herb and vegetable gardens were the main focus of the colonial gardener, several ornamentals were still enjoyed in colonial America.
Old fashioned varieties of lilac were coveted by wealthy colonists, which were even considered a status symbol because they were still so rare, but admired, in America. Because propagating lilacs requires a fair amount of skill, they would not become common until much later. More common ornamentals were wild roses, lilies and sometimes azalea (more so in Southern colonies). The most common ornamental shrub was boxwood. Boxwood was commonly used as fencing within the garden.
Interestingly colonists rarely divided their gardens as we do today. Instead of having an herb garden, a vegetable garden and an orchard often these three were simply mingled together in one large area. A major advantage of this concept is that the scent of many herbs is very unattractive to pests like deer and rabbits. So having herbs cohabitate with fruit trees and vegetables was one of the few means of discouraging pests from invading the garden. Some crops, however, were always grown further out from the house and divided from the rest of the garden. Particularly corn and pumpkins. Because both crops require a lot of space they could not be incorporated with the rest of the garden. One of the few standards among colonial gardens is, for the most part, that they were divided in two by a central path either of brick or stone. Mimicking the central hall design of most colonial homes, the path was right in line with the front and back doors. Gardens more sprawling with defined features like separate orchards and ornamental gardens were only maintained by the very wealthy. A prime example of a wealthy colonist’s garden would be Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
To more easily control the quality of their soil, colonists regularly employed raised beds. Certainly more rustic looking than the raised beds of today, but still the same great hallmarks of excellent drainage, ease to work in and to contain the plants within. Colonial raised beds were often fashioned out of entire logs or large beams.
The informality and unpretentious nature of the colonial garden is certainly worth remembering today. Rustic and beautiful, these gardens magnificently illustrate that practical can be beautiful and embody my favorite aspect of gardening — there are no rules. Luckily today we do not completely rely on our gardens as the colonists did, so we have even more freedom to experiment and enjoy unique plantings.
On behalf of the Master Gardener Association, I would like to wish you a very happy Fourth of July!
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer