For many of us, gardening is a hobby or even a passion. But there are many people leading perfectly satisfying lives without ever having a garden.
It hasn’t always been this way. Gardening is depicted as a normal facet of life in the “Little House on the Prairie” television show and book series, because each settler needed a garden in order to live. Now really think about that for a minute. The garden was where you found eighty percent of your food, of course, but it also provided medicine, fragrances, dyes, and aromatic herbs for the home, laundry – even laying out the dead.
As often as they moved, the Ingalls family installed the garden with an acute sense of urgency. They had to feed themselves with what they grew as soon as their supplies from their journey ran out. Several different types of plants were mentioned in the book series, including:
- Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
And because the garden was key, not only to living – but to living well – the best minds of the time busied themselves with the careful study of gardening. European and American thought leaders wrote and distributed volumes of gardening advice – and pioneers in America followed it.
Placement and Design of Pioneer Gardens
As gardens were the domain of women, settlers chose to plant them very close to the house. They were normally just steps from the kitchen, where the woman of the house could instantly have her hands on what she needed throughout the day. The site would either be completely flat, or slightly raised or pitched to encourage drain-off. The space was most often completely enclosed by fencing.
Today, when we think of garden fences, we think of pickets. These are the evenly spaced, vertical boards on display outside all of the big box stores. And it is true that by the late 1800s, people could order mass produced picket fences from catalogs from anywhere in the country. But people in simpler, rural areas were building versions of the medieval paling fences well into the late 19th century. For these fences, split logs or even sturdy branches could be tied to horizontal split logs, or even planted vertically into the ground. Logs would be placed tightly together, unlike how they are today, to keep out even very small animals.
The women were advised to create raised beds based on geometric patterns, the most basic of which would have been a four square garden. A path around the entire perimeter of the beds, just inside the fencing made harvesting and amending the beds easier. The beds were first made of raised, well-draining soil. Unlike so many European farmers, the pioneers didn’t enjoy the benefit of quantities of well-rotted manure from large herds of pastured animals. They likely learned from Native Americans to amend the soil with dead fish and eels. After raising the amended soil, timber could be split and staked at the corners so the beds remained upright and the soil contained.
Planting a Pioneer Garden
The plant placement approach of the pioneers was informed by two very different sources – 17th century European garden writers and Native American practices. In the European tradition, placement of plants within the garden could be dictated by fragrance. Sweet smelling herbs and flowers were likely planted just under the kitchen windows. Strong smelling plants, such as cabbages, onions, and chives were as far from the windows as possible.
Perennials that didn’t need to be completely pulled each year were planted together so that their roots would not be disturbed by the harvesting of annual crops. Parsnips and carrots grew together. Radishes, lettuces, and onions were constantly in a state of being pulled – and so were grown together. Melons, cucumbers, squashes and pumpkins were planted alone, yet edged by cabbages to make the best use of the space – considering their growth habit.
Hedges inside and outside the perimeter fencing included thrift, hyssop, germander, lavender, cotton, marjoram, savory, thyme, juniper, yew and even roses. Sheets could be stretched and dried across the fragrant hedges.
In the Native American tradition, strategic combinations of plantings were installed. The most popular of these is the “Three Sisters Garden.” A dead fish or eel was planted at the bottom of a circle of raised earth, for fertilizer. Corn was planted in the center of the mound, and surrounded by pole bean seeds. Next squash was planted around it. The beans provided nitrogen needed by the corn, the corn provided the trellis support structure needed by the beans, and the squash served as a leafy mulch, reducing soil temperature and preventing weeds from germinating by blocking out light. The system was ingenious.
Preserving the Produce of a Pioneer Garden
Pioneers dried fruits and herbs and preserved and pickled fruits and vegetables to ensure year-round nutrition. Herbs were hung to dry and peppers and onions were often hung in braids or wreaths. Fruit was often covered in cheesecloth, and then dried on the roof after harvesting. Scurvy was a threat to anyone with a diet lacking in vitamin C. Dark, leafy greens could prevent the disease well into the cold months.
A pioneer family faced many challenges in staying healthy and finding enough food for the entire family. A well-grown garden could produce a great deal of food for the family to eat. Do you have any gardening tips that have been passed down in your family?
Be sure to subscribe to the Little House on the Prairie newsletter for more explorations into the history of the pioneering era.
Suggested Further Reading on early American husbandry:
- J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, published in England in 1782.
- Leonard Meager’s The English Gardener, published in England in 1682.
- William Lawson’s A New Orchard and Garden, published with The Country Housewife’s Garden for Herbs of Common Use in England, 1648.
Places to Visit Recreated Pioneer Gardens:
- Laura Ingalls Wilder House and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri – The Wilder Home Association recently installed a representation of a 19th century garden.
- Ramsey County Historical Society’s Dakota Gardens in St. Paul, Minnesota – This unusual exhibit features Native American Medicine Gardens as well as Vegetable Gardens.
Recommendations from the website editors
Marta McDowell has written a wonderful book entitled The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books, which we wholeheartedly recommend.
For readers interested in gardening and literature, we also recommend Marta’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales, which won the Gold Award from the Garden Writers Association in 2014, and All the Presidents’ Gardens, which relates the history of American gardening as seen through the White House grounds and won an American Horticultural Society book award in 2017.
There have been many interesting books written about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane. We invite you to visit our Recommended Reading lists for children and young adults and adults. You may also be interested in a documentary film about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Karen Atkin designs period inspired landscapes. She designed the Pioneer “Three Sisters Garden” for Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, the Victorian Wedding Garden for Merrick Art Gallery and Museum, and many award-winning gardens for residential clients. She writes for the Historic Gardens Foundation and other garden magazines. To see photos of her work or hire her for speaking engagements visit her website.