Gardens were necessities for families prior to the mid-twentieth century. Without refrigeration it was uncommon for food to be shipped long distances as is done today. As a result, most households had a garden located very close to the kitchen to provide a supply of fresh produce for the table. Climate and personal tastes dictated the contents of vegetable gardens that might include corn, beans, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers and varieties of leafy greens and herbs. In the Midwest staple crops like potatoes, carrots, cabbages and turnips were grown and held for year around use in root cellars.
A greater variety of vegetables were under cultivation in 19th century gardens than is common today as we have the convenience of well stocked grocery stores. Seeds from open pollinated plants were saved for the following year’s garden. Neighbors, friends and family shared seeds among themselves. Newlyweds might receive seeds as a wedding gift for beginning their household. A benefit of the vast varieties grown was inherent resistance to disease and pestilence that is lacking in today’s monocultures.
In the past gardens were effectively organic since there were no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Tables were laden with vegetables unadorned by the cadre of pesticides that are used today in commercial growing. Companion plantings helped maintain vigor and insect resistance. The garden was kept fully productive at all times through succession planting. Gardeners maintained the health of their soil by scrupulously rotating crops and amending the soil with green and animal manures and winter cover crops. Portions of the garden were allowed to lie fallow in order to regenerate.
Anyone familiar with current organic gardening practices will recognize the wisdom of these earlier gardeners. We are re-discovering the value of heirloom seeds, food that is locally grown, managing water resources, and good soil practices including crop rotation and composting.
Start thinking about your garden for 2019. Why not consider a historically themed garden? Victory Seed Company in Oregon has a website, www.vintageveggies.com that has ideas for an 18th century themed garden. Master gardeners maintain an interesting 19th century vegetable garden at the Historical Museum in Union during the gardening season. Plan to visit often next summer.