Your Ancestors Grew Their Own Food and So Can You

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In the early pioneering days of America, most people grew their own food, learning how to cultivate and grow it, not for fun but because a home garden was necessary for survival. In the 17th century, those settlers farmed their own fruits and vegetables, often using small, enclosed gardens that sat just outside their front door. Typically these gardens were focused on essential edibles, culinary and medicinal herbs. While food gardening has waxed and waned since then, it will never stop. 

In recent years it has become increasingly popular, with an estimated 35% of American households currently growing food at home or in a community garden — a number that’s increased by 17% in just five years. Younger households have seen significant increases in recent years, skyrocketing 63% to 13 million over the last decade, according to the National Gardening Association. 

Gardening in the early 19th century

As America entered the 1800s, settlers were continuing to move west, and most people focused on sustenance. They used kitchen gardens that grew close to their backdoors, which made them easy to protect, maintain, and harvest. The sites would either be totally flat, slightly raised, or pitched to encourage drain-off, and they were most often entirely enclosed by fencing. 

Instead of colorful flowers, gardens included what was needed for survival: food and medicinal plants, with fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs prevailing. In addition to food, gardens provided medicine, dyes, fragrances, and aromatic herbs for the home. 

Pioneers dried their fruits and herbs while preserving and pickling fruits and veggies to ensure nutrition all year round. They would hang their herbs to dry, with onions and peppers often hung in wreaths or braids. 

Arguably the best-known gardener from the early colonial days was Thomas Jefferson. Gardening was his passion. He collected varieties of vegetables from across the globe; he bred and tested them before selecting the very best for seed-saving. He also kept incredibly detailed reports of his gardening experiments.

Gardening in the mid 19th century

As the years went by, gardening became more of a leisure activity as towns grew, and public markets appeared. Ornamental gardens became all the rage, with plant breeders focusing on new garden varieties while researchers worked on addressing plant pests and diseases. 

Tools were designed for fighting pests, like pyrethrum (dried, crumbled chrysanthemum flower heads), which were imported for protection. Extracts from these flower heads are still used. In fact, they are the active ingredient in some of the most potent natural pesticides available today.

Gardening in the late 19th century

Just before the turn of the century, home gardens were moved to backyards, with the former front-door gardens replaced by manicured lawns and exotic flowers. Gardens that were once meant for public viewing now often included “hidden” gardens in private areas, protected and out of the public eye.

Gardening in the late 19th century

Gardens continued to be all about the “look” as interest in edible gardening waned, with more Americans moving to urban areas with the increase in manufacturing jobs. The “in” thing was for American garden designers to create more natural-looking gardens using native plants that were once considered too weed-like, rather than nursery cultivated varieties. Many home gardens adopted the new garden styles from England. These included elaborate beds of perennials and larger lawns framed by massive shrubs, with foundation plantings grown near the home. 

Victory Gardens originally called “liberty gardens” or “war gardens,” made their first appearance during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson called on Americans to plant vegetable gardens to ward off the possible threat of food shortages. Many took up the challenge as a civic and patriotic duty.

Front yards, backyards, vacant lots, and even schoolyards were turned into vegetable gardens. President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith decided to use sheep, who grazed and fertilized the lawns at the White House to save on fuel, chemicals, and human labor. America became the world’s leading seed supplier during this period as Europe faced mounting seed shortages. 

Gardening in the 1940s

In the 1940s, things ramped up even more with the advent of World War II, which is considered a game-changer in the history of vegetable gardens. People were urged to grow as much of their own food as they could to help the war effort, and the victory garden became an even greater symbol of patriotism and self-reliance. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor planted a victory garden on the grounds of the White House. 

By this time, there were some 20 million victory gardens throughout the United States, supplying over 40 percent of all American produce grown that year. But as the war ended, interest in orchards and vegetable gardens began to fade. After the war, the U.S. chemical factories that had been producing nitrogen for bombs needed to make money another way, so they began marketing nitrogen as a fertilizer for farms. This gave birth to chemical farming and vegetable gardening, and it was also the beginning of environmental degradation.

Gardening in the mid 20th century

Post-war technology helped to simplify gardening and improve success, with products like Sevin insecticide and Daconil fungicide used to fight pests and disease. As pesticides were used more and more extensively, people were beginning to see the consequences of environmental toxicity in dead birds and other animals that were obvious casualties of spraying.

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, warning of the consequences of these products. She was met with fierce opposition, including personal attacks and lawsuits from chemical companies, including Monsanto. Despite that, then-president John F. Kennedy requested an investigation into her claims, which lead to better regulation of pesticides. 

Gardening in the 1970s and 1980s

Things started to turn again in 1970, first with the creation of Earth Day, signaling a renewed interest in growing food at home. Garden designers began including fruits and vegetables in informal ornamental designs, and edible landscaping started to become popular. 

School-based community gardens increased, energized by concerns about the environment and urban revitalization. These gardens allowed students to absorb science while spending time outdoors and discovering the delights of fresh-grown vegetables. Urban community gardens and organic gardening became more widespread as well.

The following decade saw the term “xeriscape” come into use, coined for landscapes in dry climates that were filled with water-wise plants. Drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants were used more prominently, and gardens became an extension of the home rather than separate areas.

Gardening in the 1990s through today

The 1990s introduced a new trend of small space gardening, with urban populations growing at the fastest rate in U.S. history. Those with small urban spaces began to use containers, trellises, and permanent planters built into hardscapes. 

The Clintons hoped to bring vegetable gardening back to the White House but were denied due to the formal nature of the grounds. Eventually, it was allowed, but only on a hidden spot on the roof of the White House. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Obamas were able to change all that with the largest White House vegetable garden to date established right on the south lawn. 

The turn of the millennium saw edible gardens come into vogue once again with the desire for more safe, fresh, organic local foods. By 2013, a third of all American households reported growing their own food. 

I am happy to report that the desire to grow food seems to be alive and well in millions of American homes, big and small. Organic gardening is leading the way with more and more people committed to their health and the health of the environment. 

Now is a great time to learn more about growing food for your family and creating your very own Liberty Garden. If you want to learn more, pick up a copy of my bestselling book, The Secret Garden! This book is packed with information, tips, and tricks to help get you started on your way to growing a successful and bountiful home garden no matter where you live.

-Susan Patterson

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