How Americans Gardened 260 Years Ago

Colonial Williamsburg shows us that when it comes to technique, not much has changed.

garden at Colonial Williamsburg

The wooden yoke around my neck doesn't hurt at first. I winch up two brimming wooden buckets from the well and attach them to the yoke. Now carrying 40 extra pounds of water weight, my shoulders visit my knees as I lurch away from the well and stagger across the garden to pour the water into the cistern, where it must warm to air temperature before it is scooped out again to water the vegetables.

I'm in the Colonial Garden and Nursery at Colonial Williamsburg, the 84-year-old living history museum in Virginia. It's sunny and quite warm; T-shirt weather. Because rain's been scarce, I have volunteered to water the vegetable garden, in the way a housewife of the "middling class" would.

Never has a drop in the bucket seemed so futile: If it were 1750, it would take 49 more trips just to keep this garden alive another day. With men off doing the hard labor, this Sisyphean task fell to women or children. Or, for those who could afford them, slaves. In truth, most people gardened at the mercy of the weather.

In addition to "History" with a capital H, Colonial Williamsburg depicts the daily lives of the colonists: what they ate and wore, how they quarreled and courted, worshipped and worked. Hauling water is one way to understand how people in Williamsburg gardened back in the day, a day 260 years ago. What they grew and how they grew it reveals the differences between then and now (eaten any good scorzornera lately?) and emphasizes how difficult it was to coax food from the ground. It's humbling to realize how easy a garden hose makes my life, how comparatively little sweat equity actually goes into my tomatoes.

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