Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Pioneer Vegetable Garden

I planned on writing about my spring vegetable garden. Unfortunately neither my garden plot nor the weather cooperated. And to be honest, the main problem was my ignorance.

My garden was supposed to look like the first photo at this point. Instead, this is what it looks like. Fortunately, I don’t have to depend on my garden to survive, unlike the settlers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Settlers traveling west depended on their gardens for eighty percent of the family’s food, but also for medicine, fragrances, dyes, and flavor-enhancing herbs. With so much on the line, nothing was left to chance except the weather.

Responsibility for the kitchen garden fell to the women of the family, their knowledge acquired from their own mothers and grandmothers, their skill honed by working in the garden from earliest childhood.

They didn’t have the variety of produce we can find in the grocers of today, but their produce was extensive, including apples, beans, beets, berries, cabbages, carrots, corn, lettuce, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes (white and sweet), pumpkins, sage, squashes, turnips, and wintergreen. That’s a more balanced diet than mine.

With nothing more than the Old Farmer’s Almanac to guide her, the housewife staked out her garden as soon as the house was built. The site had to be either completely flat or slightly raised to encourage drain-off. The space allocated for the garden had to have plenty of sunlight but be as close to the kitchen as possible and handy to the chicken coop too, because chicken manure was a favorite fertilizer, and the remains of harvested vegetables were thrown to the chickens.

Often the garden was enclosed with a fence of spikes to keep rabbits and other pests out.

America’s earliest settlers used the Indian method called the Three Sisters Garden. A dead fish or eel was planted at the bottom of a circle of raised earth. Corn was planted in the center of this mound and surrounded by pole bean seeds. Next squash was planted around them. The beans provided nitrogen needed by the corn, the corn provided the trellis to support the beans, and the squash served as a mulch, preventing weeds from germinating.

Obviously, the Indian methods limited vegetable variety, and settlers soon moved to the European method—placement of plants was dictated by fragrance. Sweet smelling herbs and flowers were planted just under the kitchen windows. Strong smelling plants like cabbage, onion and chives were planted as far away as possible.

Perennials were planted together so their roots wouldn’t be disturbed when crops were harvested. Parsnips and carrots grew together, while radishes, lettuce, and onions were grouped, so they could be easily reached for daily harvesting.

The main thing these settlers did that I neglected was planning—from plot preparation to harvest and beyond. Seeds were expensive, and every one was saved and preserved for planting the next season. All scraps not fed to animals went into the compost pile. There was no waste—ever. The harvest was preserved by canning or drying. Here’s an interesting tidbit about fruit drying I didn’t know before. The western settlers would dry their apples, covered in cheesecloth, on the roof. My research didn’t say how they kept birds from pecking through the cheesecloth. But the next time I read about those dried apple pies in historical romances, I’m going to wonder if they dried their apples on the roof.

I can forget my plans for an early spring garden, but I’ve learned enough to prepare my garden for the summer. Maybe I can gather a basket of fresh veggies like this later. How about you? Do you plan a vegetable garden this year?

FREE EBOOK ALERT!!! Book 2 of my mail-order brides series is free today through March 18. For those who've never read this series, please download. Reviews are always appreciated!


  1. Loved this post about the pioneer vegetable garden. Growing up on a farm we had a large vegetable garden, along with herb garden and flowers. I do not have garden space but plant a few staples--tomatoes, green peppers in pots. Blessings as you work in the soil of your garden.

  2. Thanks, Marilyn. My mother had a large vegetable garden every spring. I guess that's why I think I can do it. Unfortunately, I don't have her green thumb.

  3. I love gardening and I do plan to have a garden this year, Good Lord willin'! I am so thankful to have an opportunity to grow our own vegetables. Thanks for sharing this post and for sharing the link to your book.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Connie. Your sweet presence is always welcome.

  4. LOL my garden would look like a second picture too...