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Kitchen Gardens in Colonial Virginia

The kitchen garden at the Benjamin Powell HouseMost colonial Virginians lived on farms and were relatively self sufficient in provisioning their families with foodstuffs. Corn was easily the most important staple, followed by meat. This meat and grain diet had been the typical English fare for hundreds of years. Englishmen, it seems, have never been very fond of eating their vegetables. Giacomo Castelvetro was an Italian protestant who was rescued from the Inquisition in Venice by the English ambassador Sir Dudley Carleton in 1611. After settling in England, Castelvetro lamented the scarcity of vegetables in the English diet. In 1614, he published a book titled The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy to better acquaint the English with the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. His book begins with the observation: “I often reflect upon the variety of good thing[s] to eat which have been introduced into this noble country of yours over the past fifty years . . . Yet I am amazed that so few of these delicious and health-giving plants are being grown to be eaten.”

It seems that the lack of enthusiasm for vegetables was carried to the New World. Robert Beverly, in his The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), wrote: “A Kitchen-Garden don’t thrive better or faster in any part of the Universe, than there [Virginia]. They have all the Culinary Plants that grow in England, and in far greater perfection.” However, after this glowing report of prospects for a kitchen garden he observed that in actual practice the typical attempts at gardening in Virginia were not “fit to bear the name of gardens.” Frances Michel, a Swiss traveler to the Williamsburg area late in 1702 recorded in his journal: “The inhabitants pay little attention to garden plants except lettuce, although most everything grows here.” This insightful statement suggests that eighteenth-century kitchen gardens provided garnishes rather than staples.

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation historian Lorena Walsh noted in her study on provisioning urban colonial Virginia households that vegetable purchases at market accounted for approximately 15 percent of all transactions, representing approximately three percent of the total value. This, taken with dining accounts from local diaries, seems to verify that a typical Virginian’s diet was primarily meat and grain.

Most plantation accounts refer to kitchen gardens, but it is far more difficult to determine how common kitchen gardens were in an urban setting and, in particular, in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. The 1782 Desandrouins map of Williamsburg does show garden areas on several properties, particularly on the fringes of town where the larger estates were located. Thomas Jefferson, in a 1776 letter to John Page, compares Annapolis, Maryland, to Williamsburg and concedes that the buildings in Annapolis were “in general better than those at Williamsburg, but the gardens are more indifferent.” All of the stores in eighteenth-century Williamsburg offered vegetable seeds for sale, so there were certainly a number of fine gardens in town that were most likely vegetable gardens.

Vegetable gardens, however, provided luxuries rather than staples. John Randolph, the last Royal Attorney General in colonial Virginia and a member of one of Virginia’s most influential families, wrote North America’s first gardening book titled A Treatise on Gardening. He neither signs nor dates the work, but it appears to have been written in the 1760s. The eminent Mr. Randolph wastes no ink on Roses or Posies. He writes exclusively on vegetables and herbs, which suggests that vegetables played a more important social role in Virginia society than what we commonly imagine. In the eighteenth century, a gentleman made a statement about who he was by how his table was set. Vegetables such as Cauliflowers and Artichokes conveyed an important message that guests were dining at the home of a person of taste and consequence.

Gardens require extensive labor, including watering, and weedingA survey of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century York County [Virginia] probate inventories for urban properties reveals that only slightly more than seven percent of all of those households listed garden tools in the estates. While these lists cannot be construed as consistently inclusive of all articles owned by the household, they do indicate that urban gardens were perhaps the exception rather than the rule. For Williamsburg properties offered for sale in the Virginia Gazette during the eighteenth century, approximately twenty percent mention a garden. Gardens are seldom mentioned in modern real estate listings, so this may be an indication that an established garden was an important selling feature for a property in the eighteenth century. It is interesting to note that most taverns listed both garden tools and gardens. This is likely the result of two factors. First, a tavern that could offer vegetables along with the typical meat and grain fare was likely to earn a reputation as a finer establishment. Second, taverns also had— generally in the form of slaves—a domestic labor force. This last consideration is the most important.

With all of our twenty-first-century conveniences, many people still find a vegetable garden to be too much work to manage. As a result, today, as in the eighteenth century, less than fifty percent of households maintain vegetable gardens. Consider, for example, the difficulty of watering a garden in the eighteenth century. At the Colonial Garden in Colonial Williamsburg, visiting children are enlisted to haul water from the well, fill the cistern, and distribute the water with watering cans. When the weather stays dry, as it often does in July and August, nearly 4,000 pounds of water a day may be moved—an amount which, in a dry year, is almost enough to keep everything alive. This amount of water is equivalent to what a modern oscillating sprinkler dispenses in one hour.

In the eighteenth century, even households that could afford slave labor had a difficult time keeping up. John Custis, who kept a house and garden on four acres near the Public Hospital in Williamsburg lamented in a 1738 letter to Peter Collinson: “I kept 3 strong Nigros continually filling large tubs of water and put them in the sun and watered plentifully every night, made shades and arbors all over the garden almost; but abundance of things perished; notwithstanding all the care and trouble, so that my garden is very much impaired.”

In a typical non-slave-owning household in eighteenth-century Williamsburg, a garden was the woman’s responsibility. She and her children planted the seeds, picked the caterpillars from the cabbage, weeded and harvested, but were not moving 4,000 pounds of water per day. They were at the mercy of the weather, another reason that vegetables were luxuries rather than staples. Without sufficient labor to haul water to the garden, it was simply impossible to rely on having a successful harvest.

A typical eighteenth-century kitchen garden was a four square garden—four squares or rectangular planting beds bisected by walkways. The large garden at Carter’s Grove Plantation, seven miles east of Williamsburg, was composed of eight planting beds, or a double-sized four square garden. A colonial gardener knew most of the same vegetables we know today as well as some with which most modern American gardeners are not familiar, such as the broad (fava) bean, Salsify, Cardoon, and Corn Salad. For most vegetables, the differences are in the variety. For example, an eighteenth-century gardener would recognize the pumpkin, patty-pan, and yellow crookneck squash but he would not know the Acorn, Butternut, Hubbard, or Zucchini squash.

Herbs were also commonly grown in 18th-century kitchen gardensIn the colonial period, the vegetables more likely to be found in the gardens of wealthier households include Artichokes, Cauliflower and Celery. Vegetables that were not yet known at that time include Brussel Sprouts, Rutabagas, and Asian vegetables such as Mustard Greens, Pak Choy, and Soy Beans.

Herbs were also included in eighteenth-century kitchen gardens. There is no evidence, however, for anything resembling a “colonial herb garden” like those that have been “recreated” at historic sites throughout the United States!


Wesley Greene is a garden historian in the Landscape Department at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.