History lessons from a colonial garden

06/07/2012 2:35 PM

06/07/2012 2:42 PM

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 appeared on colonists’ tables in the 18th century. Cabbages, cucumbers and squash were luxury items that demanded careful husbandry, and although times have changed, the past is still present in Greene’s garden. He grows time-honored crops to perfection.

In more than 30 years as a gardener at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia’s Tidewater region, Greene has cultivated the skills of an 18th-century gardener. The organic techniques that served colonists well are still relevant today, Greene says, and they’re all on display in the garden on Duke of Gloucester Street, in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, where Greene and his gardening partner, Don McKelvey, grow peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins and many other crops in decidedly old-fashioned ways.

The quarter-acre garden is a study in tidiness and productivity. His advice for aspiring vegetable gardeners is to start small. “Ten by ten feet is big enough,” Greene says.

Greene and McKelvey start crops from seed and set out transplants in rows, just as 21st-century gardeners do. They build sturdy trellises for peas and cucumbers, and use cold frames to protect tender crops from frosts in spring and fall.

“I like how they paid attention to things, to little details,” Greene says of vegetable gardeners more than 200 years ago. Colonial gardeners watered melons carefully, in a shallow trench around the melon beds, not right around the crowns of the plants. Greene does the same thing. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know whether my melons grow better that way, but it seems to work, and part of it is just the fun of recreating what our ancestors did,” he says.

The garden and Greene’s book, “Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way,” give modern gardeners a chance to experience such details themselves. The voices of gardening authors of long ago ring out from the pages, with tips and strategies that are still relevant. “In the end, I’m a gardener and not a scholar,” Greene says, but he clearly enjoys the research as much as the growing: The book contains a rich harvest of gardening wisdom from the past.

Some heirloom varieties are every bit as delicious today as they were when they were introduced. Salsify, a root crop that looks like a carrot and has a crisp, nutty taste, is one of Greene’s personal favorites. “Americans have forgotten how to eat root crops,” he says. He also likes fava beans, a cool-season bean most backyard gardeners have forgotten about, and he extols the virtues of purple sprouting broccoli, which matures over a long period, and tastes sweet. “And,” Greene says, “the caterpillars don’t like it.” His favorite vegetable, however, is “the one that’s in season.”

Colonial gardeners were “unwitting hybridizers,” Greene says, saving seeds from the crops that performed best and were the most delicious. They were competitive, vying to have the first fresh peas in spring, for example, but they were also generous, sharing seeds with their neighbors.

Heirloom vegetables taste delicious, but 18th-century gardeners would probably be eager to try some modern varieties. “Beans are a good place to start,” 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.

If a colonial gardener could have any of the luxuries of the 21st century, it would probably be a hose. “That’s the big thing everybody would have died for, is plumbing,” Greene says. Hauling water — watering crops from a cistern with buckets and watering cans — was an almost overwhelming task in the colonial period. In the garden at Colonial Williamsburg, children visiting with their parents are happy to help carry water to crops, but “we move almost 4,000 pounds of water a day if it stays dry,” Greene says, and it is hard work.

When visitors come to the garden at Colonial Williamsburg, Greene greets them at the gate. He is in the garden nearly every day, looking very natty and authentic in his 18th-century garb. The garden is an exceptionally beautiful place, with flowers growing among the vegetables and nary a weed in sight. “There are lots of things to discover in the world of heirloom vegetable gardening,” he says. To get started, all you have to do is plant a seed.

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