|Vintage postcard of Plymouth Plantation.|
1. Pilgrims grew what was easy to grow and store. You think you're busy, but Pilgrims spent all day just trying to survive. They didn't have time to while away in the garden. So they chose crops that were filling and easier to grow. This included corn (which they ate as a grain), onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, fava beans (then called "broad beans"), cabbage, winter squash, and kale. All of these foods could easily be stored for the months without refrigerators, freezers, or canning.
2. They grew flowers and herbs among their veggies. The idea of edible landscaping really isn't new. Unless they were wealthy, Pilgrims couldn't spend a lot of time on separate garden or herb beds. They grew them among their vegetables. Not only did this save labor and time, but it attracted pollinators - and looked pretty, too.
3. They used raised beds and berms. Berms - or rows of dirt hoed at least several inches above the soil line - kept the garden warmer and made tending crops easier. So did raised beds, which measured 4 feet wide - an ideal width to be able to reach to the middle from either side. Most of the Pilgrim's raised beds were 12 feet long.
4. They sometimes used hotbeds and cold frames. To get a jump start on the spring garden, wealthy Pilgrims used hotbeds. This time honored technique involves putting fresh (not composted) horse manure in a pile, then covering it with a tarp (in those days, made of cloth) until it reaches approximately 160 degrees F. Then the manure is shoveled into a pit about 2 feet deep. A cold frame (a bottomless wooden box) is placed on top and about 4 inches of good garden soil shoveled over the manure. When the soil is about 70 degrees F., seeds are planted in it and straw is used as mulch. The resulting hot bed stays warm about 3 - 4 weeks. Cold frames were also used without manure. They were whitewashed so they'd reflect the sun's heat better, and a glass top was set on top to warm the frames even further.
5. They used garden tunnels. We tend to think of low garden tunnels as a modern invention, but they aren't! Pilgrims made their hoops out of cypress limbs and glued linseed oil-covered paper to them. These hoops were used mostly by the wealthy to grow coveted melons.
7. They used organic methods. Though the Victorians were quick to put all manner of chemicals on their food, the Pilgrims didn't. Of course, many of the pests we have today weren't yet in the New World. They had cucumber beets, cabbage loopers, and squash-vine borers, but cabbage worms, snails, slugs, potato beetles, and flea beetles had yet to be brought over on ships.
8. They made compost. Animal manure was placed in a pile to age and make garden beds fantastic growing mediums. Leaves and other garden clippings were composted, too. And what plant-based food not given to livestock like pigs and chickens was also thrown in the compost heap.
* Gardening was mostly a female affair. Men grew the grains, but women tended the herbs, vegetables, and flowers.
* The Pilgrims grew some easy veggies we are no longer familiar with, like skirrets and scorzoners. They might be fun for us to try!
* Not all Pilgrims kept a garden. Raising pigs, for example, required a lot less time and energy, so they might be chosen over vegetables. In those days, meat was considered the most important part of the diet. Plus, eating lots of meat was a sign of freedom, since only the rich ate that way in Europe. (The rich had land to hunt on. It was illegal for the poor to hunt the land, and so they ate mostly vegetables.)
* The corn the Pilgrims ate was different than the sweet corn we eat today. It was native to the New World, and the Pilgrims called it "Indian corn." It was red, yellow, white, and black, all on the same ear. It was dried, then pounded into flour. This was the main source of nutrition in the Pilgrim diet and was eaten at nearly every meal.
* The Pilgrims originally tried to keep a community garden of sorts. They thought it would be best to have one garden that everyone contributed to. This idea failed so badly, the Pilgrims nearly starved. After this experiment, the Pilgrims kept their own gardens and each family was responsible for it's own food. This lead to far better times for the Pilgrims.
* While doing research for this post, I bumped into the book Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th-Century Methods for Today's Organic Gardeners. It looks fascinating; check it out!