Do you sit around thinking about what your “ideal” garden might look like?
Most avid gardeners do. And it usually becomes a lifelong project to accomplish, because our vision usually changes over time and with experience.
That’s also complicated further because a definition of the “ideal” household garden is not as easy to create as some might think. There are so many factors that come into play, especially today with the freedom we have to create almost any garden we wish,… even ones that would not naturally be found in our local climate.
In past years, however, gardens played such a significant role in both the nourishment and health of households that “ideal” choices were often dictated to us. Those two factors of nourishment and health have a significant impact upon choices we might make in creating historically accurate heirloom gardens here at Landis Valley or at our own homes.
If we look at what would be defined as an ideal garden, we must be careful to define a specific time period, geographic profile, and demographic segment. For instance, the gardens of the mid-1600s would have some significant differences from those of the mid-1700s or 1800s. Those in south central PA might have some similarities to those in Germany, but there would be some differences due to what crops can be more easily grown here and what might be found growing naturally in this environment. And obviously, gardens owned by persons with greater financial means might include more aesthetic elements than gardens owned by persons of lesser means.
If we look back to European garden history, we discover that Charlemagne (also known as Charles the Great) made suggestions for the content of gardens that apparently had a great impact upon German gardens, including those of Germans who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1700s and 1800s.
According to a treatise by David E. Lick published by the Pennsylvania-German Society (undated, but probably from the late 1920s), entitled “Plant Names and Plant Lore Among the Pennsylvania Germans” (pages 21-22),…
“Many of the plants which the Pennsylvania-German cultivates in his garden and field were introduced into Germany in 812 A.D. by Charles the Great.
“The original order of Charles the Great given in G. PI. Pertz, Monumenta
Germanics kisiotica, 1835, Vol. 5, page 168 f, is as follows:
(Translated from the original Latin).
“We desire that they have in the garden all the herbs, namely, the lily, roses,
fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, muskmelons, gourds,
pole bean, cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick pea, squill, iris, arum, anise colocynths,
chicory, animi, laserwort, lettuce, black cumin, garden rocket, nasturtium,
burdock, pennyroyal, Alexander, parsley, celery, lovage, sabine tree, dill,
fennel, endive, dittany, black mustard, savory, curly mint, water mint, horse
mint, tansy, catnip, feverfew, poppy, beet, ginger, marshmallows, high mallows,
carrots, parsnips, orachs, amaranths, kohlrabis, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks,
radishes, shallots, garlics, madder, artichokes or fulling thistles, big beans, field
peas, coriander, chervil, caper spurge, clary.
“And the gardener shall have, on his house, the houseleek.
“We desire them to have the following trees: various kinds of apple trees,
various kinds of pear trees, various kinds of plum trees, service trees, medlar
trees, chestnut trees, various kinds of peach trees, quince trees, hazel nut trees,
almond trees, mulberry trees, laurel trees, pine trees, fig trees, big nut trees,
various kinds of cherry trees. Names of the apple trees : gozmaringa, geroldinga,
crevedella, spirauca, sweet, sour, all the hardy ones, and such as last but for
a short time, the early ripe. Of hardy pears three or four kinds, the sweeter,
the earlier, and the later.”
I spent a couple of hours just looking up some of the names on that list with whom I was not familiar. For instance, “orach” is a very interesting plant that apparently was quite commonly grown in household gardens throughout Eurasia as far back as the early Greeks. We now use spinach in its stead, but orach is apparently far easier to grow than spinach, quite tasty, and presents far prettier foliage in the garden. It is currently experiencing a comeback among historical gardeners.
Most of the other herbs identified in this list have broad-ranging health benefits attributed to them. It could be worth the effort to go through this list and see what additions you might want to include in your own home garden.
Were you surprised that tomatoes, one of the most cultivated fruits/vegetables in the western world today, were not on this list of essential plants? That’s because this list was from 812 AD. Tomatoes were not introduced to Europe until the 1500s after they were introduced to the Spanish by the Aztecs in the “new world.”
Think about the impact that tomatoes have had on the “ideal” household garden since then. Yet, they are nowhere to be found in this early essentials list. But starting in the mid-1500s, they began to take off and today heirloom seed lists are full of tomato varieties used in the America’s for hundreds of years.
Another set of plants not recorded in this list is plants used for making fabrics and for dyeing them. In the American colonies, dye plants were always an issue for clothing and other fabric usage, according to a research paper by Monica Spiese in 1993 done for Landis Valley Museum, entitled “Pennsylvania German Textile & Dye Plants.”
Unlike Europeans who had dye available from a variety of sources commercially and locally, in the colonies Britain purposely withheld such products from colonists to force purchase of clothing and fabrics directly from Britain at a huge markup. Americans had to discover their own native sources, which were not all that good by comparison. In fact, indigo, which was the only reliable blue dye known then, could not be obtained here except from Europe.
According to Monica Spiece’s research (pages 10-15), by the time of the American revolution, most communities had developed resources for local fabric dyeing using American plants and techniques, although there is some contention about just how much home dyeing was done. By the mid-1800s, with availability of indigo as well as many other non-native dye resources from local commercial providers, only a few local plants were used in the dyeing process. Local fabric makers had found that they really only needed red, yellow, and blue to create almost any color they wanted along with brown and black. So even in the 1700s and 1800s, you probably would not have found many dye plants in a local garden except for their medicinal or food value.
Here’s another surprise: You won’t find squash on that list. That’s because, like the tomato, it was native to the Americas. By the 1700s, squash was an important food source in south central Pennsylvania and much of the rest of America. Our Tavern garden depends heavily upon squashes, and we have many records showing squashes historically in Landis Valley gardens.
You also did not see many decorative plants that provided no food or medicinal value. Our modern view of a garden generally includes decorative features. Due to the utilitarian needs of our local population in the 1700s and 1800s, that would have played a very small role in garden design. It was not until the industrialization of America, when incomes began to rise and far more necessities became available through local commercial enterprises, that decorative gardens began to take on a significant role in garden design.
On our Landis Valley property, we have one garden specifically devoted to that transformation in design. It is the “Pretty Garden” next to the Heirloom Seed Project house. Although it is still in its early stages as of this writing, the plan is to recreate an historically accurate garden that was specifically for aesthetic pleasure rather than practical need. Stop by and see how it is progressing, and you may get some interesting ideas for your historic heirloom garden.
Our 21st century ideas of what might make a perfect household garden certainly differ dramatically from historic gardens and also vary by individual preferences, because we have so much less dependence upon our gardens for food and medicine. If you are creating your own historic gardens, however, be sure to visit the village and museum property and see what’s growing. We love to share not only what was in the garden from the early 1700s through 1900, but we also love to show you how those plants were used. You never know when your “ideal” garden may require that kind of knowledge.