Today’s gardeners can learn from 18th-century practices

  • Wed May 2nd, 2012 9:44am
  • Life

By Kathy Van Mullekom Newport News Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Wesley Greene has been a gardener with Colonial Williamsburg for more than 30 years. In 1996, he helped start the Colonial Garden where he and fellow gardener Don McKelvey dress in colonial attire and grow plants appropriate to that time, using 18th-century tools and techniques.

They spend cool spring mornings and hot summer days sharing folklore and 18th-century gardening tips with visitors and locals.

They water by hand, filling buckets from an above-ground cistern located in the center of the garden, and use hoes to cultivate the compost-enriched soil. Cold frames and hot beds give transplants a good head start on the growing season.

“Here, try this purple sprouting broccoli,” he says, breaking a tender stem and handing it to visitors to taste.

“Isn’t it good; not at all like the broccoli we grow and eat today.”

What Wesley has learned and put to practical use is now compiled into the new 240-page, hardback book, “Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way.” He hopes the book will enlighten readers on the fact that many of yesterday’s gardening applications — like floating row covers to protect cabbage from caterpillars and collecting, storing and using pure seed — are useful for today’s gardening needs.

“All 18th-century gardens were organic gardens and worked almost exclusively with hand tools,” he says.

“Devices and techniques were developed for producing plants out of season that work as well today as they did 200 years ago.”

Nine of the book’s 11 chapters cover beans, peas, cabbages, salad greens, root crops, onion family, cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins, gourds, tomatoes and peppers. Chapter 10 is devoted to gardening under cover with cold frames, hot beds and bell jars.

The final chapter emphasizes the importance of growing and using long, slender, supple sticks in the garden. Carlin peas can be seen growing on a row of young beech branches, slightly bent and lightly woven together, at the Colonial Garden; at the end of the season, the sticks can be rolled up and put into a brush pile.

“I can’t overestimate the importance of sticks in the garden,” Greene says.

“Clematis is beautiful on a stick trellis, and sticks are great for growing sugar peas and English peas.”

Some vegetables common in the 21st century are not seen in the Colonial Garden, and are therefore not included in the book. Most notable is sweet corn, which was not developed until the 19th century, according to Greene.

“Eggplant was known but very seldom grown, and rocket, or arugula, was popular in the 17th century, but fell entirely out of favor in the 18th century. Brussels sprouts, rutabaga and mustard greens are also vegetables not true to 18th-century gardening days.

“On the other hand, I grow some vegetables that the modern gardener seldom grows,” he says.

“The broad beans, or what Italians call fava beans, are just coming into flower. The corn salad is just going by as hot weather approaches and the cardoons are putting out their first spring leaves.

“Now is the time to plant salsify and divide the skirrets. All of these unusual vegetables are included in the book with their histories and growing instructions.”

The book, printed on paper made to look aged, also features more than 700 quotations from 18th-century authorities such as Benjamin Townsend of “The Complete Seedsman” in 1726, and Stephen Switzer of “The Practical Kitchen Gardiner” in 1727. The garden shop at the Colonial Garden sells $2.95 packs of 140 types of flower, herb and vegetable seeds, many of which are featured in the book.

Buy the book

“Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way” by Colonial Williamsburg gardener Wesley Greene is available by calling 800-446-9240, or at and The list price is $30.