Colonial Garden Plants: Tips For Growing And Designing Colonial Period Gardens

Colonial Garden Plants: Tips For Growing And Designing Colonial Period Gardens

By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener

If you’re looking for a garden that’s practical as well as beautiful, consider growing a colonial kitchen garden. Everything within this type of old-style garden is deemed useful but is also pleasing to the eye. Designing colonial period gardens is both easy and rewarding. Keep reading to learn more about colonial gardens and how to create a colonial garden of your very own.

About Colonial Gardens

The colonial garden of yesteryear was a celebration of heritage as plants made their way from the “old world,” to the “new world.” Colonial gardens were made by very practical colonists and as a result were designed around needs rather than aesthetics, though these gardens were still truly beautiful.

Square or raised bed gardens were popular and often placed in close proximity to the home to allow for easy access. In fact, many were located right outside the home kitchen. Live fences from hedges and shrubs or quaint pickets were used to protect gardens from wind and animals.

Colonial kitchen gardens also included narrow rectangular beds full of medicinal and seasoning herbs. Herbs were frequently mixed in with fruits and vegetables. Fruit trees were used as focal points within the garden design too. All of these plants were commonly used for food preservation, healing and fabric dye.

How to Create a Colonial Garden

Designing colonial period gardens is popular amongst gardeners who want to preserve the heritage plants and the art of gardening. Learning how to create a colonial garden is simple.

Raised narrow planting beds offer easy access and make an attractive colonial garden template.

Fill beds with herbs, flowers and vegetables that can be used in the kitchen and around the house.

Larger colonial garden designs may include walkways, benches, fountains and even a sundial. Colonial gardens often contained topiary plants as well, which can make a lovely addition to any landscape.

Colonial Garden Plants

An 18th century garden contained many beautiful heirloom flowers. Some of the most common of these colonial garden plants included:

  • Hollyhocks
  • Foxgloves
  • Daylilies
  • Irises
  • Peonies

Many heirloom vegetables were also used in the colonial kitchen garden. These included some of our most frequently grown vegetables today. Though these hybrid cousins bear little resemblance to the heirloom varieties, your own colonial garden plants in the vegetable patch can include:

  • Squash
  • Cucumbers
  • Cabbage
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Melons
  • Lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Radish
  • Peppers

Medicinal herbs in a colonial garden included horehound, a popular remedy for asthma and coughs, and Angelica, which was also used for colds and bronchial problems. Winter savory was often grown and used as an antiseptic and to relieve the pain of bee stings. Oregano was popular for toothaches and headaches. Other medicinal and cooking herbs included:

  • Sage
  • Calendula
  • Hyssop
  • Lady’s Mantle
  • Nasturtium

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Ye Olde Kitchen Garden

I first encountered the label in the Fedco Seeds catalog, as a common name for a plant in the genus Chenopodium. It’s an edible perennial with shoots like asparagus and leaves like spinach. But before Good King Henry was a salad green, he was, ostensibly, something nobler: European royalty.

There is no shortage of English Henrys to choose from, though few are remembered as paragons of good government. And did any of them have an appetite for roughage? On this question, history is mostly quiet.

A 1545 French herbal, or primitive botanical guide, mentions a “bon-Henri” (perhaps Henry IV of France), said Kathleen Wall, who cooks and gardens at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass. But then Ms. Wall, 53, has also found a “bad Henry,” of German origin: der böse Heinrich.

What if Henry wasn’t a king at all, but an elf? That’s one of the hypotheses the botanical historian Judith Sumner put to me by e-mail.

“Henry (or Heinz or Heinrich) was a typical name for elves,” she wrote. “So the plant name may reflect some presumed magical qualities rather than commemorating an actual king. The ‘good’ part might mean it was safe to ingest.”

The exact namesake for Good King Henry may be lost to time. But then the plant itself, like so many others, has almost vanished as well. In the raised-bed gardens that flank the houses at Plimoth Plantation, Ms. Wall grew Good King Henry for years.

But “I didn’t save the seed,” said Ms. Wall, who bought it every year from catalogs instead. “And then the seed was gone for a long time.”

The mystery of Good King Henry made me wonder about other Colonial-era vegetables that have all but disappeared from our gardens and dinner plates. Gardeners today will routinely raise a dozen varieties of tomato, a plant utterly foreign to early Americans. So why do we neglect common Colonial food plants like burnet, smallage, skirrets, scorzonera, gooseberry and purslane? And how would they taste to us now?


When it comes to Good King Henry, Ms. Wall said, the flavor is easy to describe: bland. “That’s probably why it fell out of favor,” she said. “It wasn’t special. It doesn’t get into the recipe books, so it’s just forgotten.”

In contrast, she said, spinach, a green that “springs up in the English garden scene in the 1580s,” grew stalwartly through the country’s mild summers. And by the 17th century, “suddenly all the recipes called for spinach: salads of spinach, spinach boiled, with added butter and cinnamon and sugar and raisins.”

The story of early American kitchen gardening hides in recipes like these. Another source is herbals — what one modern historian calls “botanical bibles.” Yet botany, as we know it, is just a shadow on these pages. The herbal presents a pre-scientific universe, a realm of astrology and magic.

A “vegetable” could be any plant. An “herb” was a useful one, for the table or the medicine chest.

The colonists relied on popular guides like “The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes” (1597), 1,400 pages of reminiscences, folk medicine and superstition written by John Gerard. Domestic handbooks like Thomas Hill’s “Profitable Arte of Gardening” (1568) were more artful than horticultural.

“A lot of the time when they write about gardening,” Ms. Wall said, referring to authors like Hill, “they’re writing about the ancient Greeks” or Romans — that is, beliefs and ideals that dated back to Pliny the Younger.

Actually growing “herbs” to feed a New England household was anything but a scholarly pursuit. The average kitchen garden was about an acre, the historian James E. McWilliams wrote in a monograph titled “ ‘To Forward Well-Flavored Productions’: The Kitchen Garden in Early New England,” from the March 2004 issue of The New England Quarterly. Hired help was practically nonexistent. Given the abundance of land, settlers had their own acres to harvest. And men were preoccupied with tending livestock and sowing grains.

That meant “this arduous task fell almost entirely to women,” Mr. McWilliams wrote. Then, as now, raised beds were standard. The soil needed to be improved, Mr. McWilliams noted: “stirred,” loosened and loaded with dung. A garden often would include an orchard of fruit trees, like apples, pears, quince and plums. And these required their own pruning and picking.

Ms. Wall has tried this kind of labor for herself in the recreated gardens outside each of the 12 historical dwellings at Plimoth Plantation. “I’m a housewife of perpetual visitation,” she said. “I travel between houses and help people.”

Featured Garden: Colonial Williamsburg

There’s much to delight the herb lover visiting the historic gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, located in Williamsburg, Virginia, just 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. A former capital of the English Colonies, Colonial Williamsburg was key in our nation’s early history. In the historic area, you’ll be intrigued by the authentic Colonial gardens and herbs planted alongside restored 18th-century homes and businesses. Herbs brought from England and other European countries were used in cooking, cleaning, medicines, dyes, cosmetics and insecticides. Step into the John Blair House garden (see an image on Page 46) and you’ll discover the colors and fragrances of thriving historic herbs and flowers of Colonial America. Indeed a great lover of gardening, John Blair, Sr. resided here in the 1700s. The John Blair House garden is one of 100 historic gardens covering 90 acres in Colonial Williamsburg. The largest living history museum in the United States, the area comes alive with costumed interpreters.

“The herbs in this garden were grown mostly for their fragrances—both cosmetic and insecticidal,” says Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of garden programs. Lavender-scented dusting powder was used for fashionable wigs, for example.

You’ll also discover Colonial herb treasures thriving in:

The Governor’s Palace: The sumptuous complex of gardens, which resembled an English country estate, included a kitchen garden. Herbs played an important culinary role at the 18th- century table. Viancour observes that horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) was cultivated as a digestive aid for consuming meat. Vibrant dried yellow calendula (Calendula officinalis) petals were used to color butter and cheese, and to thicken stews.

Wetherburn’s Tavern: The kitchen garden included tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), which was rubbed on furniture to keep it clean and repel insects.

More historic herb gardening: The Colonial Garden and Nursery, the Benjamin Powell House, the James Geddy House, the George Reid House and the George Wythe House. Also visit the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary to learn about 18th-century herbal medicine.

Geometric Gardens

“The four-square garden that was used in Early America was aesthetically pleasing but also functional,” Viancour says. “The biggest lesson from these historic gardens is how to take big spaces and break them up into smaller gardens. Herb cultivation doesn’t require a big space.”

To bring Colonial America into your own herb garden, consider these unusual herbs grown in Colonial Williamsburg.

Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita): “This is among my favorite herbs because the willow-shaped leaves are so fragrant,” Viancour says. In the 18th century, costmary flavored ale and was believed to repel insects.

Clary sage (Salvia sclarea): “This biennial has big fuzzy leaves the first year and pretty flower spike blooms in the second,” Viancour says. “They made clary fritters by dipping the leaves in batter and frying them.”

Bedstraw (Galium verum): “This makes an excellent ground cover,” she says. Colonists added bedstraw to mattress stuffing.

Colonial Herbal Scents

“The Colonists valued herbs for the aromatic properties and used them to scent perfumes, pomades, water, vinegar and ammonia,” Viancour says.

Colonial sweet bath. This 18th-century bathing ritual featured herbal extracts of lavender, rosemary, marjoram, jasmine, juniper and more. Also included were flowers and lemon essence.

Colonial sweet bags and potpourri. “Recipes included roses, sweet marjoram, lavender, rosemary, pinks, mint, myrtle, angelica root and orris root,” Viancour says.

Colonial perfume. “Orris root also was an ingredient in a 1758 recipe for burning perfume,” she says. “Steeped in rosewater, sliced orris root was beaten, mixed with several ingredients and then dried.”

Colonial “indoor air fresheners.” Lavender, southernwood and wormwood were strewn about on the floor, so when stepped on their scents and insect-repelling properties would be released.

African Herbal Tradition

Approximately half the population in 18th-century Colonial Williamsburg was comprised of African-descent slaves, who tended wealthier Virginians’ gardens, as well as their own kitchen gardens in the slave quarters. Herbs were part of African healing traditions to inspire health, wealth, luck and happiness. These wellness ablutions also included other plants, roots, trees, minerals and natural waters.

At the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, the 19th-Century Root and Herbal Spa Experience re-creates the African wellness traditions with a strengthening full-body massage using lemongrass and gingerroot massage oil. Also included is a unique body exfoliation with maize and various herbal powders such as carrot, honey, rose hip powder, rosemary, lavender and ginger. The same herbal blend is added to a comforting bath. The spa’s signature service incorporates another African healing tradition—shea butter, otherwise known as “African Gold.”

These African-inspired treatments were carefully researched by Sylvia Sepielli, a spa visionary, in coordination with documents found in Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and information provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s team of researchers and historians.

More Colonial Herbs

You can cultivate American history right in your own herb bed. For beginner gardeners, Laura Viancour, Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of garden programs, recommends nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

“In the 18th century, people ate the flowers and leaves in salads,” she says.

“Advanced gardeners should consider flax (Linum usitatissimum), which has pretty blue flowers and is not seen in many places,” Viancour says. “Colonists used flax for paper, clothing, oil and bookbinding.”

Letitia L. Star is a freelance journalist who writes about gardening, travel and healthy cooking.

Garden Spaces: Create a Colonial Garden

Many garden ideas can grow from a study of horticultural history and tradition, and sometimes old ideas can offer solutions to new problems. The herb gardens of Colonial America are a case in point. These tidy, geometric gardens make a wonderful drought-tolerant alternative to a water-sucking front lawn, if they’re appropriate to the style of the home and the neighborhood. And even if Colonial isn’t your style, you can still find inspiration here.

We filled this front-yard garden with a bevy of old-fashioned, traditional plants (all herbs that would have been grown in the Colonies), including some natives and others that might have been brought over from the Old World and passed around among neighbors. Globe thistle, cardoon, valerian, foxglove, feverfew, yarrow, pansies and larkspur—these are all plants that are as beloved today as they were a couple of hundred years ago.

We chose a simple, geometric design that is reminiscent of a patchwork quilt pattern the colonists would have been familiar with. We laid a center walkway to the front door with mirrored square beds on either side of it, each of which has a diamond within it for a selection of statuesque plants, with small triangular beds at the corners. Making the walkways a light or contrasting color adds emphasis to the orderly geometry, which is a satisfying framework for the overflowing bounty of a thriving garden.

Prepare for Planting

A simple internet search and online photos of Colonial Williamsburg will give you lots of other ideas for designs and plant choices for your own Colonial garden. Once you’ve settled on a design that fits your space, in a location that gets full sun or at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day, then you can prepare that site as you would any bed:

Turn over the soil, adding in compost and whatever other amendments you need to create a nutrient-rich, porous soil that drains adequately. Remove all those pesky rocks and weed it thoroughly. If you’ve got time, let it lie fallow for a few weeks and repeat the process, getting rid of all the new weeds you created by unearthing weed seeds.

Prepare a list of plant possibilities, and then hunt them down in your local garden centers or from online resources. There are far more options than we can include here. You can find more plant ideas in the article 12 Herbs for the Colonial Garden, and see all our plant suggestions from this Colonial herbs section in our online plant guide at Many of these can be grown from seed, but they are also often available as starts from area garden centers, especially those that carry a good herb selection.

You can get your new little plants off to a good start with a squirt of diluted liquid seaweed. Keep your eye on them through their first season of growth, keeping the soil uniformly moist and occasionally applying a good organic fertilizer. The tidy framework of this garden will make keeping it weeded easier because it’s a contained space, not a sprawling one.

Tradition Lives

When you grow an herb that dates back to Colonial days, you can have confidence that there’s a reason for its survival. Some of these plants have waxed and waned in popularity over time, but they have endured and become garden favorites for generations of gardeners. Many of today’s herb gardeners need to grow drought-tolerant plants to save on their water bills they often want not just bedding plants, but plants that will give back to them in terms of harvesting something for the table, the medicine chest or vases of fresh-cut flowers. The colonists had that same streak of practicality in the plants they chose. The beauty of the plants is a lovely bonus.

And so the old becomes new again, and the circle comes round. Add those touches that make the Colonial garden your own. Surround it with a white picket or wattle fence if you like. Nestle a cloche (an old-fashioned bell jar) in the bed, add a birdhouse or beehive. Bring it alive.

Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living and tending her herbs in beautiful Austin, Texas.

Don't forget to check out our visual plant guide: Grow These Herbs In Your Colonial Garden .

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Modern English or cottage gardens tend to favor the natural look. Somewhat untidy selections of flowers and vegetables, clustered together, following naturally curved lines are prominent features. However, English gardens of the past were quite the opposite. They favored neat and tidy, fenced rows of vegetables and flowers in rectangular or geometrically arranged plots. American colonists brought this affinity for order with them and this style of gardening persisted well into the 1800s.

In these gardens, colonists cultivated a mix of flowers and vegetables from the new world and old world favorites they brought with them. They used plants for food, medicine, brewing, and beauty. Staple crops that required larger fields like maize, beans, pumpkins, wheat, and barley were typically grown separately. Sometimes people also had a small “kitchen” garden located near there door with frequently used plants.

An introduction to growing diverse pest-free fruit trees like Quince, Persimmon, Paw Paw, Medlar, & Sea Buckthorn. For more information on proper tree care get in touch with the Tree Service Pros who can advise on the best solutions for both tree removal and maintenance.

Colonists brought with them seeds, bulbs, and roots of their favorite plants to start new gardens. Here are a few of the “old world” plants that you may have seen in a colonial garden.

  • Yarrow
  • Daylily
  • Tulips
  • Cabbage
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Peas
  • Turnips
  • Radishes
  • Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Parsley

Colonists were also fairly quick to adopt plants from the New World, learning to cultivate corn, beans, and squash varieties that had been developed by Native Americans. They also quickly brought wildflowers like black-eyed Susans and asters into their gardens. They also adopted plants like tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peppers. Interestingly these South American plants passed from Native Americans to Spanish and Portuguese explorers who brought them to Europe and then to colonists who brought them to North America. Here are a few plants native to the Americas that you may have seen in a colonial garden.

  • Black-eyed Susans
  • Goldenrod
  • Asters
  • Echinacea
  • Maize
  • Beans
  • Squash
  • Pumpkins
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Peppers
  • Sweet Potatoes

Heritage Harvest Festival

If you want to know more about historical American gardens join Southern Exposure at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival. This event, located at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello celebrates his agricultural legacy as well as the contributions to American cuisine by enslaved workers. Come explore Jefferson’s 1,000 foot long vegetable garden and ornamental mountaintop landscape. Learn about organic gardening, seed-saving, southern recipes, and American history. We can’t wait to see you there!

  • A Williamsburg Perspective on Colonial Gardens from The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, written by M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell
  • Creating a Colonial Garden from PennState Extension
  • Colonial Garden Plants from Harvard
  • Planting and Herb Garden with Centuries-Old Favorites from Townsend

How to Design a Potager Garden

Today, modern potager gardens blend both the formal and the simple, and hearken more to the humble peasant gardens tucked behind thatched-roof cottages. You can learn how to design a potager garden in a few simple steps.

Measure the Area

Potager gardens rely upon balance, symmetry and proportion to offset the often jumbled nature of the plantings. Measure the area you plan to use for your potager garden. Traditional potager gardens are behind the home, tucked out of site, but in the suburbs, modern homesteaders often include potager gardens instead of a front lawn to use sunny spaces more efficiently.

Once you've measured the area, take a piece of graph paper and a pencil. Use a ruler and mark out the area you've measured, counting one square of graph paper as one inch of garden space. A simple potager garden design plan may include a four-square garden. Four square garden beds are included in the corners with pathways leading among them. Traditionally, either a round bed or a square center bed is the focal point of the center of the potager garden. A fruit tree may also be planted near the center.

Be sure to make your pathways wide enough so you can push your wheelbarrow through easily. Like any vegetable garden, potager gardens should be enhanced with liberal applications of compost and manure before and after the growing season to replenish the soil. Healthy soils encourage healthy plants, which in turn produce abundant vegetables for your table.

Plants to Include

Potager gardens are ideal for people who wish to grow heirloom vegetables. The entire design echoes times past what better way to enhance the design than to include a pleasant mixture of heirloom tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, beans, lettuces, chard, herbs and flowers?

Grow what you love, and don't be afraid to mix beautiful ornamental plants with edibles. Keep taller plants such as tomatoes near the back of the garden beds, and use beautiful edible plants such as kale, cabbage or radicchio to outline the pathways. You can also plant flowering herbs such as calendula and lavender along the pathways. They'll attract bees and other pollinators, provide spots of color, and offer their flowers for medicinal or aromatic preparations. Potager gardens often include vegetables with unusual colors, such as red leaf lettuce or multi-hued Swiss chard "Bright Lights" to add color and beauty. Experiment with your favorites and create color schemes in each bed.

Many potager gardens include fruit, and if you do use the four square with round center plan, a strawberry pyramid is ideal in the center space. You can purchase kits to build pyramid-shaped, multi-layered strawberry beds. Another idea instead of a round bed in the center of the potager garden layout is to include a dwarf fruit trees, such as a pear or apple tree. Since many fruit trees require another pollinator nearby, you may also want to plant fruit trees in each of the four corners of the garden or at least in one or two other locations to ensure pollination and a good fruit crop.

Watch the video: What is Companion Planting, Food Forest Examples.