Vegetable Gardening, Colonial Style

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Vegetable Gardening Colonial Style

Heirloom vegetables aren’t antiques in Wesley Greene’s garden — they’re the latest thing.

Greene is a gardener at Colonial Williamsburg, and he cultivates precisely the vegetables that might have appeared on colonists’ tables in the 18th century. Cabbages, cucumbers, and squash were all luxury items that demanded careful husbandry, and, although times — and, in some cases, tastes — have changed, the past is still present in Greene’s garden.

In more than 30 years as a gardener at Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia’s Tidewater region, Greene has cultivated the skills, techniques, and sensibilities of an 18th-century gardener. They’re all on display in the garden on Duke of Gloucester Street, in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, where Greene grows peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, and many other crops in decidedly old-fashioned ways.

Vegetables and glass cloches

The quarter-acre demonstration garden is a study in tidiness and productivity. Greene starts crops from seed and sets out transplants in rows, just as 21st-century gardeners do. He builds sturdy trellises that serve for both peas and cucumbers, and uses cloches and cold frames to protect tender crops from frosts in spring and fall.

Bee skep in garden

The garden and Greene’s book, "Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way", give modern gardeners a chance to absorb gardening wisdom from the past and compare it to techniques we use today. Colonial Williamsburg gardeners use tools an 18th-century garden would have used, but it’s important to remember that, at the time, these tools were the latest thing. Gardeners have always prized sharp shears, sturdy spades and trowels, and well-made watering cans. Good tools are as indispensable to a gardener as rain.

Scissors opening a bag of manure

In many ways, gardening is easier now. People had to shovel a lot of well-rotted manure from cows, chickens, and other farm animals to fertilize the soil in colonial times. Modern gardeners can buy it in a bag.

Artichoke plant with support

If a colonial gardener could have any of the luxuries of the 21st century, it would probably be a hose, Greene says. “That’s the big thing everybody would have died for, is plumbing,” he says. Some modern vegetable hybrids would also impress 18th-century gardeners, Greene says. The string beans of today are more tender and not as stringy as the beans the colonists grew. Peas are also much improved: colonists planted ‘Prince Albert’ pea, which Greene calls “a very good pea,” but not as good as modern cultivars. Greene favors ‘Lincoln’, a pea introduced in the 1940s, for its productivity and sweetness. His own favorite vegetable, he says, is “the one that’s in season.”

Wesley Greene portrait

When visitors come to the garden at Colonial Williamsburg, Greene often greets them at the gate. He is in the garden nearly every day, looking natty and authentic in his 18th-century garb. More than half the people who visit are vegetable gardeners, he says, and the other half would like to try their hand at it. His advice for aspiring vegetable gardeners is simple: start small, and spend a little bit of time in the garden every day. To get started, all you have to do is plant a seed.