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Gardening in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg

GRADE LEVEL: Elementary through Middle School


By the end of the seventeenth century, the English colonists had overcome the hardships of starvation, disease, and Indian attacks. As the wealthier colonists became more secure and less concerned for their survival, they began to turn their attention late in the century to not only scholarly and political pursuits but also toward ornamental gardening. In a southern urban town like Williamsburg, it is likely that the formal garden designs found on plantations were adapted to fit within the smaller scale of fenced town lots and backyards. Usually the flower and vegetable gardens were separated, but sometimes they formed a single unit. The gardens were usually laid out in multiples of simple rectangles and squares, but also occasionally in other more complex formal designs. This gardening tradition which began in Williamsburg, continues to influence our garden design tastes even today.


2 - 3 class periods


  • A copy of the Virginia Almanack, For the Year of Our Lord God, 1749
  • A copy of Williamsburg's Joseph Prentis: His Monthly Kalender & Garden Book
  • American Gardens in the 18th Century by Ann Leighton (Optional)
  • Graphic Organizer: Data Summary Chart
  • Appendix B: Garden Designs
  • Green construction paper
  • Graph paper, pencils, rulers

[Note: The 1749 Virginia Almanack, Williamsburg's Joseph Prentis: His Monthly Kalender & Garden Book, and Ann Leighton's American Gardens in the 18th Century may be purchased through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation by calling (757) 565-8328.]



As a result of this lesson, the student will be able to:

  • discuss colonial gardening in the eighteenth century
  • collect data using research materials
  • construct a data sheet with pertinent information
  • complete a simple garden design with appropriately titled and labeled data


Ask the students how many of them have gardens at home. What kind of gardens do they have? Lead students to discuss flower, herbal and kitchen gardens. Ask students how they think a kitchen garden got its name. For more background information on a kitchen garden see pp. 3 - 4 in Williamsburg's Joseph Prentis: His Monthly Kalender & Garden Book. Identify with students what would be grown in a kitchen garden. For instance, will the kitchen garden contain herbs only, vegetables only, or both vegetables and herbs? Before developing the lesson, ensure that all students understand the concept of a kitchen garden.


Inform the students that they are going to design a colonial garden. Refer to pp. 1 - 6 in Joseph Prentis' Garden Book. Joseph Prentis divided his garden into squares. One being "next chimney"; another square is referred to as "next street." It is also noted that there was an "east Garden" and a "Large Garden." Explain to the class the use of geometric design in kitchen and formal gardens, especially the use of the square. But before the students design their garden, they will need to investigate the different varieties of plants grown in eighteenth-century gardens.

First divide the class into six collaborative groups. Assign each group two consecutive months, e.g., Group 1 (Jan/Feb), Group II (Mar/Apr), etc. Give each group a copy of Williamsburg's Joseph Prentis: His Monthly Kalender & Garden Book and a copy of the Data Summary Sheet. Ask each group to read the pages [pp. 31 - 65], which pertain to its two months. Have them document on the Data Summary Sheet any vital information (the plants which Joseph Prentis would have planted and/or his gardening maintenance) for the two months assigned to them.

Next give to each group a copy of the Virginia Almanack. Ask each group to collect supporting details (sowing dates, weather predictions and environmental factors) for the sowing of their crops from the Almanack. Have them record this information on the Data Summary Sheet.

If time permits, have each group do independent research in the school library. Refer students to resources, which have information on eighteenth-century gardens. American Gardens in the 18th century by Ann Leighton is a good source. Ask the students to add any additional information to the Data Summary Chart in the column marked Other Sources.

The students are now ready to design their own garden. Give to each group a copy of Appendix B: Garden Designs. Using graph paper, ruler, Data Summary Sheet, direct each group to design a simple garden. Have them plot the points of a compass on their paper. This will help them determine where to plant those vegetables, herbs and/or flowers, which require more sun. Inform students that the number of plants selected should correspond to the number of designs the team has incorporated into their garden design. Each group should complete its garden design by selecting a specific geometric location in their garden design to place a specific plant and in this location supply the following data: name of plant, month of year, sowing date, amounts of sunlight, moisture, etc. As a culminative activity, have each group report its findings to the class.


[1] Have each teams of students calculate the area of the garden plot, individual plots and the volume of soil needed in each raised bed. [2] Ask each team to provide a sketch of the vegetable and/or herbs listed on the data chart. [3] Have each team locate a modern recipe, which uses any one or more of the plants listed on the data chart.


An appropriate scoring tool or rubric can be designed taking into account factors of neatness, depth of research, appropriate labels, design or eye appeal and originality. In addition the student could earn a grade in two different disciplines based on the assessment of each specific discipline incorporated into the lesson (evaluation of design and/or sketches by the art teacher, calculations by the math or science instructor, evaluation of content and research by the English teacher, etc.).

This lesson plan was developed by Vera Painley of Uniontown Senior High School, Uniontown, Pennsylvania and the staff of Colonial Williamsburg's School & Group Services department. If you have a lesson plan which you would like to share, please send to Jim Ebert, School & Group Services, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, PO Box 1776, Williamsburg, VA 23187