Historic Gardening: Practical & Pretty, Kitchen or Formal?

Moving forward along the U.S. History timeline, we get to the early settlers and the Colonial Era. In some cases, Native Americans shared their crop growing techniques with the new settlers.

Obviously, in the earliest settlement and colonial days (and along the expanding frontiers) gardening and crop growing focused on food production. But, as the colonials became well-established in larger towns or plantations, they wanted to make their homes and surroundings beautiful. They developed gardens that were both practical and pretty.

Notice the patterns and shapes designed into this garden.

Colonial Gardens – Not Just For Food

The Enlightenment Era in Europe prompted an interest in the sciences and philosophies. Botany, appreciation of nature, and “simplistically” structured gardens were vogue. With a little more time on their hands, some colonists started developing their garden patches (or the land around their mansions) to keep up with the times and fashions of Europe.

For example, an herb garden might be carefully planned and planted to create paths between the plants. The herbs and shrubs might be trimmed into fantastic shapes or allowed to grow together to create geometric designs. Sure, food was important, but to those beyond the struggle to grow food to survive, having beauty in life became a fashionable and status “thing.”

Kitchen Gardens, Formal Gardens

Certainly, not everyone could afford or desired to spend time on elaborate gardens, even if it was to grow practical fruits, vegetables, or herbs – let’s be clear about that. (A farmer growing carrots to sell in the marketplace was probably NOT going to border his fields with geometric hedges!)

This is an example of the formal gardens leading to the Governor’s Mansion in Colonial Williamsburg

However, for those who wanted to explore creative gardening, there were two basic types of gardens to develop. The kitchen garden. The formal garden.

A kitchen garden grew fruits, vegetables, or herbs – culinary products needed in the kitchen. The location of this garden usually wasn’t too farm from the house or the cookhouse.

The formal gardens were a feature at the homes of the wealthy. They usually displayed the creative designs, exotic plants, rare flowers, and other agricultural beauty. These gardens were designed for strolling and showing off the owners wealth, education, and botanical skills (or the skills of his laborers or slaves.)

Williamsburg & Mount Vernon

Williamsburg was the capital city of Virginia during the Colonial Era. Visitors from Europe praised the gardens designed and grown by the residents. The governor’s palace boasted large formal gardens – including a shrubbery maze – for the fun and staid entertainment of the governor’s guests. Williamsburg is now preserved as a historical town and still features beautiful kitchen and formal gardens, continuing the tradition begun in the 1700’s.

Mount Vernon was George Washington’s estate. Washington enjoyed overseeing the cultivation and development of his land. Some of his improvements included kitchen gardens, formal gardens, and a hot house where he experimented with growing oranges. Like Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon is preserved and its gardens are well-cared for, copying the patterns and featuring the plants from Washington’s era.

Some of Mount Vernon’s formal gardens and hot house in the background

Conclusion

During the Colonial Era, gardens still served the practical purpose of growing food or herbs, but some colonists took the time to design, cultivate, or oversee beautiful gardens. Following fashion and educational trends in Europe, gentlemen and ladies designed their kitchen gardens to grow food “beautifully” and their formal gardens to boast their ingenuity and prestige.

The establishment of towns, large homes, and plantations provided the perfect ground for this agricultural creativity. A new found appreciation for natural beauty, taking time to enjoy organized and beautified nature, and leisure to create and enjoy motivated the development of these works of living art surrounding the colonial homes.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Looking for more information about gardeners and gardens? Check out this article from Colonial Williamsburg.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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One Response to Historic Gardening: Practical & Pretty, Kitchen or Formal?

  1. Pingback: Historic Gardening: Civil War Gardens | Gazette665

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