• Carole Conn

Gardening: The Settlers' Key to Survival!


The settlers were gardeners by necessity. Nearly everything they ate and nearly all of their medicines came from their gardens.

The harsh New England winters required that they plan ahead, grow what they needed to survive, and store what they could for the winters.

Collecting American country antiques suggests that you consider the utensils, tools, storage containers and implements used in this extremely time consuming pastime. During the growing months most hours of the day were spent either tending gardens or managing what they produced. So most of what they touched or used were things related to gardening, harvesting and using their crops.

I've always been fascinated by the miracle of the colonists' survival during that first winter on the coast of Massachusetts. That necessity of growing everything for sustenance and medicine contributed to the "Yankee spirit" we share today.

My grandfather started raising chickens during World War II, and he had a "victory garden" at the same time. His thinking was similar to that of the colonists - we could be cut off from all supplies coming from elsewhere and would have to survive on our own.

My Great Aunt Mayme grew chamomile in the garden as a sleep aid. If you had a cut you went into the garden for mustard and made a paste for the wound. Mint was used for cooling baths, and also to prevent indigestion. She collected Southernwood in the fall to ward off moth infestations in the winter. She went to her garden, not the drug store most times. She died in the 1960s at age 108!

Storing Seeds

Settlers traded seeds with each other - or they traded meat for vegetables - bartering was the norm. The harvest meant not just picking fruits and vegetables to eat, it meant harvesting seeds for the following year. They always had to think ahead!

Seeds had to be dried out completely and then stored in a clean, dry bottle with a cork or tin cover.

Blown bottles of all sizes were perfect for seed storage. Look for hand blown bottles of various sizes to accommodate all sizes of seeds. If they still have the seeds in them, all the better.

Hand blown bottles are rarely under $100 in today's market. Good early molded bottles - the ones with a seam running down the side - can be had for much less. Look for pleasing shapes and good condition.

Preparing the Garden

It was back- breaking work! A small plot of land was hard as rock in New England before it was prepared. The settlers crafted many tools to accomplish this arduous task.

Tillers, diggers, shovels, wheelbarrows, wagons, hoes, scythes, and horse drawn plows were all used to till the rocky soil.

Collecting hand made items is interesting - good ones can still be found because when a wooden handle broke off a cast iron fork it was replaced. I just love all the make-dos!

Look for wear on the wood and metal. Make-do repairs always create more interest. Prices vary greatly. Buy what pleases you.

Planning and Designing

A lot of thought went into laying out the garden - what plants grow best as companions? Where is the coolest or hottest part of the garden? How much space should be devoted to each crop? Where should the paths be and how wide? How close to the house should the garden be? What is the habit of growth of various plants? Lots of questions to be answered.

Most houses had a "kitchen garden" - near the kitchen door - for vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants. These were often laid out in neat squares or straight beds.

Many other gardens were quite random - combining flowers with everything else, - they planted what would grow in a particular spot, rather than what went together.

Wealthier homes emulated the English planting style of formally laid out gardens with fountains, statues and obelisks. This is particularly true of the Southern colonies.

Planting and Growing

Once all threat of frost is gone ( that can be late in New England - June 1st in some parts) - it's time to plant.

Carefully stored seeds were sewn in the tilled beds. Roots and tubors stored in the buttery over the winter were re-planted. Rows were often laid out using a simple wrought iron winder attached to a string which was tied to a stick. Unwinding the winder created a straight row!

You can still find these in the marketplace today. The metal ones are usually English, American are wood. Wood ones are often under $100. 2-piece metal ones are usually just over $100.

I love looking for tillers and diggers - so many were made to fit the hand and individual preferences of a particular gardener. It's fun to imagine how they were used.

Look for hand made wooden tools or forged iron tools with wood handles. They make a great display on a garden shed wall!

Harvesting and Storing

The harvest was the most important time of year. Herbs were gathered, hung and dried for winter use. Root vegetables were dug and stored in a cool place. Vegetables were stewed, brined and bottled.

Baskets, one of my favorite things to collect, were made in all shapes and sizes for gathering everything from fruit to eggs. Look for hand made ones, without breaks - hard to find! A few breaks are easily tolerated in the more unusual shapes, or in baskets in old paint. Prices range widely.

I like putting gathering objects in the garden just to look at. Carts, wheelbarrows, wagons, diggers, anything that says harvest!

Pantry boxes were used to store grains, herbs, and seeds. Collect all sizes and colors - they make a great display! You can find nice, unpainted ones for $50-$75 sometimes. Good early paint increases the value. Look for round and oval pantry boxes crafted with wood pegs and metal tacks.

Firkins were used to store sugar, flour and grains. Look for firkins with their original lids and handles, staved construction. They start at about $100 and can go much higher, especially in paint.

Crocks contained liquids of all kinds. Try to find crocks without chips or cracks. A cobalt blue slip decoration makes a crock more interesting and valuable - these can run into the hundreds of $$.

Bean pots, red ware, brown ware, any kind of jug or pot was used to store food, both short and longer term. It's possible to find nice early examples for very little - well under $100. Look for examples without cracks or chips.

If you are a collector of country antiques then you MUST have garden related items! Gardening was the most essential activity of most families. If they didn't garden, they had to produce items to barter or sell for food - no supermarkets in those days.

So have fun looking for old garden gear, use it, display it, and decorate with it. It's part of our past!

Happy gardening!

Carole Conn


© 2015 by Connecticut Country Antiques. 

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