The landscape of colonial America has had a major influence on not only our country’s homes but on our gardens as well. Gardens were not just a pretty pastime for the colonists; they were a matter of survival. Colonial gardens provided essential foods and medicines. Although gardens of today serve a different purpose, there is much we can learn from studying early American landscape design.
The Plymouth Colony settlers came equipped with seeds from England, yet nearly starved in the winter of 1620-21. They quickly learned how to cultivate the corn, pumpkins and squash in their new world, however, and a generation later Governor William Bradford wrote of gardens that contained not only food but flowers. The woman of the house was responsible for the garden adjacent to the home. Here she would grow the plants she needed for medicine, brewing and baking, repelling insects and vermin, freshening the home and dyeing cloth. She would have grown herbs for flavoring food, greens for making salads, and possibly a few flowers purely to enjoy.
For the sake of economy and ease of use, the garden was often in a quadrant with walks in between the four sections. An edging plant like box, pinks or thrift bordered the beds to hold the soil in place. Just as many colonial home were symmetrical in style, so were the gardens. The formal pathways between the beds were sometimes made of brick or pea gravel. Crushed oyster shells were a popular path material in some of the fine manor homes.
Although we tend to think all colonial gardens were in the formal style of Williamsburg or Mt. Vernon, a more rustic and natural landscape style can be found at sites such as the National Colonial Farm in Accokeek or Claude Moore Colonial Farm in Virginia.
The plants in the colonial garden would have included both native American plants and plants grown from seed brought over from England. Colonial herb gardens would have contained dozens of plants, including anise, applemint, borage, calendula (pot marigold), chamomile, chives, dill, hyssop, johnny jump-ups, lavender, lemon balm, mint, rosemary, rue, scented geraniums, southernwood, sweet woodruff, tansy, wormwood and yarrow. Some ornamental favorites of the time were boxwood, dianthus, hollyhock, iris and roses.
Fences were an important element of the colonial garden landscape. By colonial law, fences of at least 4 1/2 feet were required around each property. They were intended to keep out stray horses and cattle. Brick fences were most common around public buildings. Private buildings were more likely to have a post and rail fence or a picket fence. More rustic wattle fences were made of twigs, branches or grapevines woven together in the springtime when the material was still pliable.
Even if you don’t have room for a large formal garden, there are elements of colonial landscape design you can bring into your own garden, such as an herb garden. Landscape designer Ruth Foster explains how to incorporate some of these colonial ideas in a video at BobVila.com. In recreating a colonial landscape for a modern colonial-style home, she uses two junipers to serve as sentries to the front garden. A third juniper, clipped topiary-style to form three separate globes, serves as the centerpiece of the garden. She also employs roses, hydrangea, holly, crabapples and lilac. Lilac was a special favorite in colonial times, and was imported from England very early on.