Pioneer Kitchen Gardens: How the Pioneers Planned and Planted

by | Apr 4, 2015

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.

How the Pioneers Planned and Planted

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:

  • Apples
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Berries
  • Cabbages
  • Carrots
  • Corn
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
  • Pumpkins
  • Sage
  • Squashes
  • Turnips
  • Wintergreen

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

Pioneer Kitchen Gardens

This is a version of a medieval paling fence. To keep rabbits and other animals out, pioneer kitchen gardens had less space between the slats than the fence in this example. Photo courtesy of Dvande@dreamstime.com

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.

Pioneer Kitchen Gardens

The Author’s design for Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s “Three Sisters Garden” shows just how close to the house the kitchen gardens were, as the domain of the Woman. At most, she would have needed to go only as far as the chicken coop to complete her tasks. Note the underlying geometry of the beds – a holdover from 17th century European gardens. The orchards and large animals were the domain of the Man of the House. Illustration courtesy of Pittsburgh Botanic Garden. (Click to print full size.)

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.

Three Sisters in the Garden

Three sisters in the garden; Illustration by Becky Bayne first appeared in Backyard Farming by Angela England.

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.

Pioneer Kitchen Gardens

Pioneers dried fruit, covered in cheesecloth, on the roof. Scurvy could be prevented with a diet rich in vitamin C year-round. Photo courtesy of jedsada@dreamstime.com

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:

Places to Visit Recreated Pioneer 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.

41 Comments

  1. Kathy Gross

    I am interested in replanting a”Servants Kitchen Garden” at a Historical Home in Omaha, NE. It is located right off the porch from the kitchen where the cooking was done. I am interested in planting mostly herbs and perhaps a few vegetables. Apple trees and other fruit trees are located in other areas of the property. This “Kitchen Garden” is for display purposes only. The General Crook House has many visitors during the Spring and Summer months and I would like to be able to show them what a 1890’s kitchen garden might have looked like.

    Reply
  2. Joseph

    Thanks for the fascinating article. I think it is wonderful that you are teaching the old ways of gardening. I prefer the old ways to the new. Our grandparents new better and more natural ways than we have now. Please keep up the good work. May God bless you and yours.

    Reply
  3. Maryrose Barse

    did the pioneers have veggie peelers to peel such produce as carrots?

    Reply
  4. Diana Holzer

    Member of the Holborn Herb Growers Society Guild in Canfield, Ohio. A major function of the club is the planting and maintaining oh the gardens in the Western Reserve Village in the Canfield Fair. (Mahoning County Fair)

    Our building to display is the Settlers’ Cabin. We are working to provide fair visitors a fairly true example of plants and vegetables that the early settlers to Ohio would use.

    I will try to visit the Three Sisters’ Garden at the Pittsburgh Botanical Gardens before the Fair in late August. I pray it is still a display.
    Thank you.
    Diana Holzer

    Reply
  5. Karen

    In Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown, we learned that they used wooden buckets and hollowed-out gourds to water the garden plants.

    Reply
  6. Joan Burton

    What kind of containers did women use to water the pioneer gardens?

    Reply
  7. Elle

    Such a nice garden. I am growing potatoes, Tomatoes, basil, watermelon, squash, and pumpkins.

    Reply
  8. Faith

    good information, and what a lovely garden. Something I would like to do.

    Reply
  9. Unknown

    This was a awesome passage it really it nice to read it shared alot of things a need in class thank u :3

    Reply
  10. Christine

    Delightful! What a wonderful article! AND thank you for the bibliography! I am researching my garden for 2018; zone 8. I want to plant and grind my own polenta. I will make this site a permanent source for my research!

    Garland Texas

    Reply
  11. Judith Hollis

    I am in the process of writing a book about a woman who came to California in the 1840s. For a couple of years, she and her husband lived on a farm in Alton, Illinois. Your article has been incredibly helpful. I am a small town and city girl with little experience with farming. Thank you so much. Oh, I read and reread Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books as a child.

    Reply
    • Kerstin Mackenzie

      I cant wait to wait to read your book. Please tell me when it is published!!!

      Reply
  12. Brandi Missouri Griffin

    Hi what a wonderful post! Do you know of any resources about kitchen gardens in the deep south?

    Reply
  13. shron pariser

    a lego kit to make the little house is great. although I would like to see a wooden kit almost like shadow boxes. if anyone has seen one could you reply. I would love to put it together with my granddaughter. legos can be a little difficult and frustrating for young kids and older adults.

    Reply
    • Pam

      The K’nex Lincoln-Logs Collector’s Edition Homestead Building Set that I found at amazon.com might be like something you are looking for.

      Reply
  14. pt

    cool

    Reply
  15. Vickie

    I love gardening. It has become a passion of mine and I am always interested to see how others garden. One thing I was curious about was how gardens in the pioneer days, or even before that with the Native Americans, were irrigated. I would assume most Native American gardens were grown near a water source, a creek, river or lake. However, if pioneer gardens were built near the cabin, were the gardens irrigated with well water?

    Reply
    • Debbie

      now see that is how I came upon this website.I was wondering how that was done too, how people in the 1800’s watered their gardens,or if they did at all.
      We had a bad drought last year, first one I can ever remember.I’m in Ontario, Canada. I was watering the garden a lot last year whereas I usually just wait for rain.
      I can’t imagine not having a vegetable garden. The only fruits I have this year are watermelon and cantaloupe.
      And so far I have only done freezer jam. Looking at canning regular cause I know it will save a ton of money. My Grandma did it, but God rest her soul she got Alzheimer before she could teach me to can.
      I am aiming toward self sustaining because the hydro (electric) costs in our province are rising steadily every year -to unreal amounts actually, and a lot of money is spent just on this, other more so than me, but water rates are real bad to.

      Reply
  16. Phyllis Lindblade

    This is such a perfect website. I have been a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan since I started teaching school back in the 1960s . I’ve visited Rocky Ridge Farm twice, but before they had a garden. Right now, we are hoping to plant a pioneer garden behind my antique shop and next to our local museum – your discussion was a perfect find! Thankyou

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      I hope to see pictures!! So glad you found it useful!

      Reply
  17. Karen Atkins

    Thank you for reading it so closely!

    Karen Atkins

    Reply
  18. Shelly

    Love this article. A lot of great helpful ideas and valid points as to how, when and why. Thank you for taking the time to share.

    Reply
  19. Debra moore

    I love watching little house because it makes me feel when I was young. We watch it every day two or three time’s a day. I wish I could win a set of there CD. I am disable. but I wanted to let you know the shows bless my heart. thank you for letting me let you know how I feel about the show. I wish life was like that now. we’re people care for one another.

    Reply
  20. Donna

    Oh this Spring will be the best one ever. The beauty of God’s creatures and the flow of positive patterns of life has me stirred up.

    Reply
  21. Monica Delgado

    I loved the way the three sisters looked in our community garden it was a beauty to look at

    Reply
  22. Marianne Hayes

    I plant an organic garden every year. I plant clover around the outside borders and the bunnies and other critters eat that and leave my veggies alone. I’ve never had a fence since.

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      Thank you for the tip! FABULOUS information! Karen Atkins

      Reply
  23. Habegger

    Thank you very much. I grow a garden here in Switzerland (European style!) It’s so interesting to see how the native Americans used to grow their food!

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      Wow! How do you grow yours? Are there more similarities or differences? Karen Atkins

      Reply
  24. Polly Goodwin

    I love all of this. So much to learn. h

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      I agree. That is the best gift of gardening and life – bottomless discovery. Thanks for reading! Karen Atkins

      Reply
  25. Polly Goodwin

    This is beautiful and very helpful. These days it is wise to learn what we can about feeding ourselves.

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      Thank you for seeing the value in self sustaining gardening, a timeless and achievable goal!

      Karen Atkins

      Reply
  26. Christina

    It’s so much fun to think about how Ma Ingalls grew the garden. I want to model our preschool garden after theirs. 🙂

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      Oh Christina, I hope you’ll share pictures of that pre-school garden. It is wonderful that you will be getting the little ones gardening so early.

      Reply
    • Little House on the Prairie

      We would LOVE to see what you create for your family and the kids you work with. Please feel free to share photos with us on our Facebook Page!

      Reply
  27. Jennifer A

    I’m still learning about gardening, and trying my hand at it, but it is amazing the stories my grandparents and elders in my church tell about growing up with gardens and farms. I love this article, and this blog. I can’t wait to show it to my daughter, she’s going to be so excited!

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      Thank you Jennifer for sharing my post with your daughter in honor of your grandparents and church elders. I cannot fully express how fulfilling it is to know you are doing this. Karen

      Reply
  28. Lindsay@Homespun Sprout

    This is an AMAZING post! I grew up in Western Massachusetts near Old Sturbridge Village…a living history museum. The images in these pictures look so similar to the ones I recall seeing as a child. I can’t imagine being RELIANT on growing all of my own food…but it sure is fun to try!

    Reply
    • Karen Atkins

      Lindsay, I am thrilled you enjoyed the post! I am moving to Massachusetts this June and will be sure to visit Old Sturbridge Village on your recommendation. Thank you for the tip and yes – I agree – it is inspiring to think of how the pioneers had to garden well and garden big!

      Reply
      • Sarah

        I grew up in Western MA too, and I’d suggest Plymouth Plantation and Hancock Shaker Village in addition to Old Sturbridge Village.

        Reply

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