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Colonial Gardens

The desire for the new and the novel has become a pervasive feature in American culture. Yet our interest in historical garden styles is well grounded.

Early English colonists in America may have viewed their arrival as a beginning for a new life. Unfortunately most of these people weren’t skilled farmers. Due to inexperience and sheer bad luck, quite a few of the original settlers died from starvation and illness. To make matters worse for Jamestown settlers, their arrival in the New World apparently coincided with a prolonged, severe drought in the mid-Atlantic region.

Early colonists didn’t use fish as fertilizers though children have been
taught this myth for years in American history. Neither did the American Indians. In addition, manure use for gardens was generally impractical for colonists usually allowed their cattle to run loose.

Garden style in colonial times ranged from the very formal ornamental pleasure gardens of the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg to the more functional kitchen gardens and orchards of the ordinary people. Some garden books were available to the settlers. George Washington purchased a copy of “New Principles of Gardening” by an English author through his London agent. Washington received the book after his marriage in 1759. Garden historians say this was one of the first steps he took towards making his garden one of the first outstanding New World examples of an English garden style, which was informal and naturalistic.

In the South, the parterres of low-growing germander and box were used to create decorative, geometrically-designed gardens. This style was used much earlier by Greeks and Romans, and was popular during the Middle Ages as well.

In colonial times, the beds were usually in a rectangular fashion. In the Southwest where the Spanish settlers established haciendas, the style actually was based on a Moorish-influenced style seen in Spain. These included houses around a courtyard with trees for shade and a well for water. There were also inner courtyards, which served as cool, shady retreats from the heat.

One of the best examples of colonial gardens is Tryon Palace in New Bern, North Carolina. And Colonial Williamsburg is unsurpassed as an example of colonial style. Like many other gardens, those of Williamsburg put on a spring show of color. However, the other seasons are also wonderful for the neat hedges and parterres are lovely year-round, even in winter.

There are many ways of learning about history. One is to look at diet, eating habits, and culinary customs. In colonial times, forks had only two times. These were used in combination with knives to shove food into the mouth. Meats were a major part of the diet along with fish. Vegetables and fruits weren’t as common.

Whether we see history from the viewpoint of cuisine in colonial times or from the things we see on garden tours, history comes alive.

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This content was written by Connie Krochmal. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Connie Krochmal for details.



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