The conveniences of our modern society are often something we take for granted. Supermarkets and other stores are generally within relatively reachable distances so it is sometimes hard to imagine what life would be without them. Refrigerators and freezers allow us to store perishable items for long periods of time as well as enjoy exotic fruits and produce that our ancestors probably never knew even existed. As the 4th of July approaches, I thought it might be interesting to write about what gardening really meant to our forefathers.
Farming and by its extension gardening was more than just a way to earn a living to our relatives it was a way of life and really about basic survival. A family farm not only provided sustenance it also was the means by which money could be earned to purchase other necessities that a farm could not supply. You couldn’t just purchase seeds from a store or a catalog you had to collect them yourself and store it for next year. This made seeds about as valuable as a pot, pan, rifle or any other tool for that matter. If you were going to move you had to make sure you carefully packed your seeds!
Native Americans, as well as knowledge passed along from the “old country”, were the major sources of information about gardening for our ancestors. What they grew would also vary from one area of the country to another. Root vegetables such as Turnips and Parsnips were popular choices in the North as they could be stored for long periods of time in root cellars. In the South food staples such as Rice and cash crops such as Cotton and Tobacco were common choices.
Plants were also far more than food or currency to our ancestors. Vegetables, herbs and native wild plants were medicinal sources and the witch hazel that we still use today was first used by Native Americans who passed the knowledge to our ancestors. Corn husks became the stuffing inside of mattresses, as well as a source of materials for toys such as dolls and other plants such as Indigo, were used to dye fabrics and linens. Some plants even became symbols of political protest. For example, most colonial homes cultivated the Bee Balm found in many of today’s perennial gardens as an alternative to British tea.
Unfortunately, recreating our ancestor’s gardens is a lot easier said than done. Locating these seeds can almost be like a treasure hunt and many of these plants have been lost to history but it is still possible to still find some of them. Heirloom seeds are becoming increasingly popular these days as people search for products that are not genetically modified and/or organic. Seed exchanges are also a great way to share seeds of plants that your family has grown for generations as well as an opportunity to maybe try something you haven’t grown before.
There is something to be said for keeping with tradition and growing the plants of our forefather’s is one way to teach future generations about how important gardening was in our past and is to our future.