Colonial gardens

I stepped back in time yesterday. Through the gates of Colonial Williamsburg, down the streets stacked with firewood and kindling, past row upon row of neat clapboard homes.

I remembered coming as a child, spending hours in the apothecary shop pining after leeches and vials. My sister and I paraded around in white lace bonnets and tri-cornered hats, longing to go back in time.

But I didn't remember the gardens. Tucked behind each house, they were neat, orderly, precise. They were full, too, even in December, laid out with collard greens, lettuces, and turnips. There were big, bushy hedges of rosemary, walkways laced with thyme, full rows of flat parsley for a garnishes or stocks. There were cabbages and spinach, and scallions, too.

Of course the climate is milder there, a far cry from the winters of Wellfleet or Maine. But it still required a little innovation. They had glass cloche, —bell jars—blown to cover plants in need of a shelter from the cold. Remembered from France, they did well on the New World's soil, warming vulnerable seedlings like these broccoli.

They had hoop houses, too, though I could not determine what the shelter was made from. Was it some sort of leather? Pigs' skin? Cloth oiled to translucence? "It looked like dirty plastic," laughed my mother, but we both knew that couldn't be true. I called the Williamsburg office, the directors of all things colonial, but so far they haven't come up with an answer. You'll be the first to know, of course, if they do.

For now, I'm content with planning my garden in zig-zags and orderly rows, filled with wonderful heirlooms like curly endive and Jefferson's beloved tennis ball lettuce. Just in case you're thinking along those lines, too, these pictures are for early inspiration.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.