Polly Garnett and I were in the kitchen garden at Historic Waynesborough the other day, shoring up tomato plants in 90-degree heat, staking, tying, wiping away sweat, inhaling useless draughts of heavy, saturated air…and I got to thinking.
What if I weren’t in this t-shirt and these beat-up cotton work pants, with these soft, perforated clogs on my feet? What if instead I were buried under a long-sleeved shift, a heavy linen skirt and a laced up weskit, my toes pinched by ill-fitting shoes?
What if I were an 18th century farm wife? No, I thought as I took a long slug from the H2O in my stainless steel Starbucks mug. Definitely not cut out for that.
However, if I were said farm wife, I would be out in the garden in my copious garments, weeding, weeding, weeding, and weeding some more. Not just a little patch of earth, like my own ten-foot row at home. But a half-acre, an acre, maybe much more, depending on how big the farm was and how many people I had to feed. And after all that pulling, I’d pluck some squash from the vine and go in and stand over a steaming hot fire to make dinner.
Lucky for Polly, chief digger at Waynesborough, and me, her humble assistant, we tend only a modest plot about the size of one of the mansion’s larger rooms, maybe 15’ x 30’, and we don’t have to cook in a bubbling cauldron. We aren’t sure that this location, right outside the kitchen, was the site of the garden during General Anthony Wayne’s residence. More likely, the Wayne’s garden was on the other side of the house, within sight of the room then used as the kitchen, and larger than our present patch.
Colonial kitchen gardens were usually close to the place where food was prepared, where women could keep an eye on them and have easy access, according to scholarly research done by local historian Clarissa Dillon on early American kitchen gardens in Eastern Pennsylvania. They ranged in size, from less than an acre to six or seven acres. Since Waynesborough encompassed nearly 400 acres, we can assume Polly Wayne tended a larger garden than what presently exists. Then again, it fed only as many as five people during that time, so it didn’t need to be the size of an aircraft carrier.
To keep out marauding critters (rabbits, groundhogs, pigs, horses), fences came in handy, most commonly a paled, or palisade, fence, which consisted of closely fit boards mounted to a frame. This is the type of fence that protects our garden at Waynesborough, although occasionally Peter Rabbit manages to sneak in and hide out in the strawberry patch.
Which brings me to crops. Our modest selection at Waynesborough includes strawberries and many of the staples of the colonial garden: beets, peas, beans, carrots, peppers, lavender, leeks and four or five different kinds of herbs. But compared to the scads of fruits and vegetables cultivated way back when, it is but a smattering. Dillon describes scores of kitchen garden plants, from anise and artichokes to wood sorrel and yarrow, grown not only for food (ragoo, fricassee or hodge-podge anyone?), but for medicines and household products.
What about tomatoes, that standard of the vegetable garden, you might ask. We grow the luscious red orbs at Waynesborough, just as Thomas Jefferson did at Monticello and countless other wives and dabblers did in the colonies (southerners being the first to do so, perhaps, because of proximity to South America, where tomatoes originated). But there are disputes…
Didn’t the colonists shun tomatoes as poisonous? Didn’t they consider them strictly ornamental? Did they even know what they were and what to do with them? Did they argue the fine points of the humble love apple over tall glasses of lukewarm ale?
To this I say…I have no idea. Any of those claims may have been true at one time in the huge swath of land that stretched from Maine to Georgia. Dillon doesn’t include tomatoes in her list of common crops, although she does include nightshades (of which the tomato is one) as medicinal plants recommended for use externally, maybe “crushed and applied to felons,” in the words of one colonial source, which leads me to believe they slathering thieves with marinara.
But back to weeds. Once pulled, where did this mountainous pile of unwanted vegetation go? Dillon says a common practice was to throw them in the corner of the garden and burn them in the fall, and then spread the ashes over the garden beds to enrich the soil.
At least by fall the weather would be cool and the fire would be welcome.