Prior to 1900, there was no refrigeration and food was rarely shipped long distances as it is today. As a result, far more people had their own vegetable gardens in order to supply themselves with fresh produce. The contents of these vegetable gardens varied according to personal taste and climate; residents of different ecosystems had to modify their gardens to accommodate what was willing to grow in their areas.
Open Pollinated Seeds
Open pollinated seeds are seeds gathered from plants that have gone to seed. These seeds are saved for planting the next year. Many hybrid varieties, which are created by crossing two varieties of vegetable, combine the strengths of the two varieties but do not produce seeds. In the 19th century, there were far more non-hybridized varieties of vegetables being grown, and more people saved their seeds for the following year's garden.
In the 19th century, there were no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers available, so all gardens were effectively organic. Gardeners maintained the health of their soil by rotating crops, applying both green and animal manure, and allowing areas to lie fallow in order to regenerate. Many techniques of cooperation with the soil were utilized in order to maximize yield and minimize problems with pest and disease. A very common technique was to intersperse varieties of vegetable in order to minimize the spread of any pests or diseases that did appear in the garden. Many 19th-century gardening techniques are still used.
Far more varieties of vegetable were commonly cultivated in the 19th century than are cultivated today. Economies of scale and wide distribution of centrally grown vegetables have reduced the variety of vegetable strains to a fraction of what existed 200 years ago. While massive cultivation of a few strains allows prices to drop, the resistance to disease and pestilence that is inherent in variety has decreased. Today's monocultures are more susceptible to disease because diseases can spread more easily through identical plants. These diseases are controlled by large doses of synthetic pesticides. The greater time requirements and difficulties involved in transportation in the 19th century also discouraged wide dissemination of single strains, and helped to maintain diversity of vegetable varieties, and maintenance of certain strains within local areas.
Although there were many individuals who carefully cultivated exotic plants such as orchids or rare vegetables in the 19th century, the bulk of vegetable gardeners were cultivating in order to feed themselves and their families, and as a result most vegetable gardens were limited to varieties that were high in protein and that would grow well in local conditions. Most gardens featured potatoes, corn, beans, tomatoes, broccoli and cucumbers, and seasonal leafy greens such as lettuce and kale.