Organic Gardening, Colonial Style


Colonists went green before green was a movement. Learn to keep an organic garden the Colonial Williamsburg way. Master Gardener Wesley Greene talks about history’s methods.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Organic gardening is enjoying a renaissance now that we're becoming more careful about how our food is grown and harvested. There was a time, though, when organic was the only option. Historic Gardner Wesley Greene joins us now to talk about his new book "Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way." Wesley, thank you for being here.

Wesley Greene: Well thanks for having me.

Harmony: Tell us who you are in the Historic Area. Where are we going to find you?

Wesley: Right across the street from Bruton Parish Church. We have a little garden and also a garden shop.

Harmony: So you are our historic gardener. You spend every day of every year in the garden.

Wesley: Yes. There's two of us in the garden.

Harmony: And so those practices you try to keep as closely to what would have been practiced in the 18th century as you can. What does that mean?

Wesley: Exactly. Well, all of your garden books, with the exception of the first garden book which was written here in Williamsburg by John Randolph, are coming to us from England. So all the aristocracy as well as middle class would have gardening books they purchase in town from English garden writers. So they're using the same gardening sources as we're using and then taking that advice and changing it to fit Virginia conditions which are very different from English conditions.

Harmony: How are Virginia conditions different from English conditions?

Wesley: We're hotter in the summer, we're colder in the winter and we're drier at all times.

Harmony: So that affected just the transition from England to the Americas. You also mention in your book that the 18th century Virginia is not the 21st century Virginia in terms of climate. What changes have we seen just in the intervening centuries?

Wesley: Well it was much colder up until about the time of the Revolution. Geologists sometimes talked about this as a mini ice age. So we then take the advice from Mr. Randolph written here in Williamsburg in the 18th century and change it to suit 21st century conditions.

Harmony: Which are warmer. So let's just talk about the life of the garden and we talk too about things being organic.

Wesley: Yes. We were organic gardeners before we knew we were organic gardeners or had any desires to be organic gardeners. In fact, we had the organic gardening tools. We certainly don't have the mind set. The mindset of the 18th century gardeners, if it crawled, hopped, flitted or flew we wanted to kill it.

So you see extravagant means of killings earthworms, for example, which we now think of as beneficial. Many devices for killing ants, which sometimes is a nuisance in the house but not a problem in the garden. So we really don't have what we think of as modern organic in tune with nature sort of mind set. We're just not very good at killing them.

Harmony: What are some of the methods that would have been used in the 18th century for pest control?

Wesley: Well some things that really do work for us are the use of lime water. In fact our masons, our brick makers, burn down shells to produce the lime. We then use that to make a slurry, which is just a water lime mix. We find that's very good for controlling aphids on melons for example. Just a simple board trap or frames, we have frames where we raise lettuces for example. It's an ideal slug habitat, so just by putting boards in the frames and turning them over every morning the slugs will seek a home under the boards and then you squash the slugs and it's very effective in controlling slugs. Sulphur, what they call brimstone was used, and tobacco dust was used.

Harmony: And you are also using cold frames and manure and all types of organic methods of managing the heat and the temperature in the garden.

Wesley: We started to expand the growing season. Of course there's a much more seasonality now than the diet in the 18th century. You eat peas in June. You don't eat peas in September. But through the use of frames, hot beds, which were pits filled with manure to provide a bottom heat, we start to extend the season and begin to move towards what we take for granted today and that's having any fruit, any vegetable any day of the year. Of course this again is restricted to the wealthier sort.

Vegetables are a small part of their diet and really more of a luxury item because in the end it's easier to raise a hog than it is cauliflower so the Englishman's diet is primarily meat and grain. Probably 90% of Virginians are living on diets of 60-70% corn. So vegetables are luxury items. And one of the nice things about this is because they are considered luxury items is there's much more care, much more thought going to raising things like cauliflower, for example.

You see these extravagant devices digging these great ditches and framing with manure and sheltering them with boxes at night because they place so much importance than perhaps we do today, where we just go to the grocery store and pick them off the shelf.

Harmony: We talked about there being a difference in the methods of the organic methods of keeping a garden. The look of the garden is actually very different as well, in the types of plants that are grown. Talk to me about the unexpected things that people will find in the garden that you tend.

Wesley: Well we have some plants that have fallen out of favor. For example, what the English call a broad bean most people know it by the Italian name of fava beans. Our new world bean is called bean the bean all familiar with because when the first explorers arrived here it put them in mind of the fava bean which we've been eating for 10,000 years in Europe so we call it bean. In fact both Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Washington are miserable failures at growing this bean. It's the one thing I have precedence over them in.

But the broad bean has fallen out of the American diet. And then there's the case of what I would call rocket, you would call arugula. Very popular salad green in the 17th century falls entirely out of favor in the 18th century and now it's back in fashion today in the 21st century. There's some unusual roots such as scorzonera and salsify. There's a celery substitute called cardoon which few Americans know.

But by and large, the most popular vegetables in the 18th century are still popular today: the beans, the cabbages, the peppers. Tomatoes are just coming into use as a sauce; never as a ripe fruit, never on salad, never on sandwich, but we're starting to see tomatoes as a sauce here in town.

Harmony: If I keep a garden, it's going to be something that I tend, maybe I'll go water it after work and get into it on the weekend to keep up with it. The garden that you keep is a full time job for two people. Is that a difference in gardens today and gardens in the 18th century that there would have been a dedicated professional expert tending that garden every day?

Wesley: We have professional English-trained gardeners that worked at both the Palace and the College throughout the 18th century. We have a few examples of professional gardeners working in town and on local plantations, but most gardeners in the 18th century Williamsburg, Virginia were enslaved gardeners. Of course, most families did not have that resource. Many families probably don't keep gardens at all.The vegetable garden in the 18th century, like a vegetable garden in the 21st century, provides luxuries. It does not provide staples. Because again an Englishman's diet is primarily meat and grain.

You mentioned water. That's the limited feature of gardening in the south. We find on dry years that between hauling the water from the well, filling up the big cistern or vat in the middle of the garden, putting out with watering cans, we can move 4,000 pounds a day and not keep up. Now you as a typical housewife are not going to do that. You're at the mercy of the weather. And which is one of the reasons vegetables become luxury items.

Now the vegetable garden that colonial Virginians can keep, and what is not an issue, is a winter garden: the collard greens, the kales, the turnips, all those things that become associated with southern cuisine is founded because winter garden is our garden. So you look at diaries in the early part of the year in the 18th century in the months of February, March, April, as you are now, it fills up they're eating pork and greens and beef and greens and greens and greens. They clearly prize these vegetables. It's just something they don't always have access to.

Harmony: Another change from the 18th century to today are some of the pests that you have to deal with that hadn't been introduced.

Wesley: Yes. I resent having to worry about the imported cabbage caterpillar for example. The white butterfly that all gardeners know. That doesn't arrive in this country until 1852. The Colorado potato beetle, Mexican bean beetle would never make it within a thousand miles of Virginia. I would not know slugs, I would not know snails. We get nearly a 300-year hiatus on vegetable pests because our vegetables are coming to us as seeds and we're leaving the pests behind. They do of course eventually catch up.

Harmony: Are you able to use varieties of plants that are well-suited to the Virginia garden or the Virginia region? You're trying to limit yourself to 18th century Williamsburg which would have had a heavy English influence, but I wonder if there are native Virginia plants that might be more happy or better suited to resist some of the wilts and bugs and things that are part of this climate?

Wesley: Well, of course, gardening techniques give you the ability to grow plants that are not suited to your exact climate, but there are certainly native plants we adopted. Of course corn, as we mentioned, is the number one crop, New World crop throughout North America, both for the native people and for the English as the staple food, and now this is all field corn. There's no sweet corn in the 18th century. So we're talking corn bread, corn grits, hominy, etc.

The New World bean, the green bean, or kidney bean is probably the most prized of all New World vegetables both on English tables here in Virginia and home in England. The squashes make up the other part of what's known as the three sisters that the native people provide us with. Squash are as important for feeding livestock as they are for the people, it seems. Then we have the sweet potato was here when we get here. The white potato is a little bit slower. It does not arrive until the 1750s and starts to replace the European starch vegetables such as parsnips and turnips in our diet to the point that most Americans eat very little in the way of parsnips and turnips any longer. The white potato entirely replaced that.

Harmony: Remembering that you told us that the vegetable garden would have been a luxury for the richer sort, what did we find were the favorite vegetables, the most prized crops among those households that could afford to keep a garden?

Wesley: The vegetable you would find only in the gentry gardens are things like artichokes, which is just forming up on my plants right now and artichokes are tremendously popular; cauliflower. If you provide your guests with a cauliflower on a Friday evening, people would be talking about you on Saturday morning. This is a real luxury item.

There are some things which are difficult for us to grow such as celery. Celery does better in a muck soil a little bit farther north of here. Leeks also do a little bit better a little farther north of here. So those again are considered luxury items. Then broccoli, now my broccoli is a purple broccoli. Much different looking than your broccoli which is Calabrese. It's only been in the market since the 1930s, very modern vegetable. Broccoli was a brand-new introduction that was seldom grown.

Harmony: And what's your favorite thing to come out of that garden?

Wesley: Oh, that's like asking me who my favorite child is. That's very difficult. My favorite vegetable is the one that's in season.

Harmony: Well, you know and that's a good point too. In the 18th century there wasn't a choice, but today we're allowed to teach something in this garden about seasonality, about local crops, about sustainability.

Wesley: Oh absolutely, and I think buying local is a big movement. I think a very valuable movement. We cannot continue to import things from Argentina for example every year. So I think locally-grown produce is important. It provides jobs; it's easier on the land. I think seasonality in the garden today not only gives you better quality vegetables because you're not getting frozen vegetables or imported vegetables; you're getting locally produced vegetables.

There's the perennial question of, "what do you have for dinner?" If you keep a garden, that kind of guides you. You walk out and say "Oh, we're having cabbage tonight, or we're having beets tonight." You start to fall in line with that seasonality of the vegetables which is just a nice way to eat and live I think.

Harmony: I can't have you here without asking for some free advice. I said I'm a weekend gardener. What's the best thing, what's the single best thing I can do for my garden?

Wesley: Start small. Most people start too big. New ground, weeds will overwhelm you the first couple of years and so you can start with a 10 x 10 or 10 x 15 plot, something that you can manage. Then gardening doesn't become such an onerous task which I think so often turns people off of the experience.

Harmony: Wesley, thank you so much for being our guest today and I hope all our listeners will stop by to talk with you some more when they find you in the colonial garden right across from the Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area.

Wesley: Bring the kids, we have work for them.