Information from Vicki Betts’ “Gardening” presentation given at the
Ladies Weekend in Fredericksburg, Texas, May 20-22, 2005
While Texas-centric, the information in this article and the associated links may apply to other areas of the South.
Used with permission
The lifestyle of individual households, their place of origin, education, access to information, and number of years on their land, would all impact their choice of vegetables and how they chose to cultivate their kitchen gardens. And more often than not, it was the woman of the house whose duty it was to supervise this part of the farm or plantation’s operation.
For most of the nineteenth century, gardeners continued to lay out their kitchen gardens in “English beds”, or small squares. According to Kitchen Gardening in America: A History, it wasn’t until the advent of barbed wire fencing in the 1880s, and fence laws that penned in the livestock instead of penning in the crops, that gardens could abandon their close confinement that limited turning space for horse and plow.
Garden size varied according to the size of the household, white and black, with a typical rural white family probably tending anywhere from a quarter of an acre up to one or two acres. However, many vegetables, such as corn, cowpeas, pumpkins, and turnips, could also be grown as field crops with relatively little extra care. The following suggestions appear in Affleck’s Southern Rural Almanac and Plantation and Garden Calendar, 1860 edition, published most years between 1845 and 1861, with a circulation of between 20,000 and 56,000. Thomas Affleck (1812-1868) operated one of the first commercial nurseries in the South in Adams County, Mississippi, near Natchez, until 1858 when he moved to Texas and established Glenblythe Plantation and Central Nurseries near Brenham, Washington County, Texas. His advice was also often printed in statewide newspapers, making it more available to literate Texans.
The Kitchen Garden in the South.
The Vegetable Garden is the most important appendage to a homestead. Select a tolerably level spot of land, naturally rich. The exposure is of less moment than is generally represented; though we should prefer a gentle slope to the East, with protection, at some little distance, from the cold north blasts. Water, from a running stream, pond, or even a well, is indispensable. The location should be one convenient to the dwelling that the ladies of the family may have easy access; the garden being usually under their exclusive care. It should also be accessible from the stable or farm-yard, that supplies of manure may readily be had.
The shape should be an oblong square, that the plow and cultivator may be used as much as possible. One broad main walk up the center, at least eight feet wide, with a gate at each end, wide enough for a card or wagon to pass; with borders five feet wide next the fence, all around; and a walk inside of these borders, also five feet wide. Dwarfed fruit trees may be planted alongside of all of the walks running lengthways of the garden, but not across the ends,–that the plow and cultivator may have free access to the end walks, for turning. The less complication in the arrangement and laying off of the vegetable garden the better. Shade and ornamental trees, flowers, &c., are out of place there.
The entire garden should be trenched if possible; or at least trench-plowed—that is, in breaking up, after a heavy dressing of manure has been applied, use strong teams and good deep-tilling plows, running the plow to the beam twice in every furrow; thus stirring up the soil to at least a foot in depth. It will be unquestionably pay to trench with the spade, and enrich the garden to the depth of three feet; under-draining when practicable. Neither labor in tending nor seed must be spared. Sow again and again, if necessary. The cost of seed is trifling to the advantages of a full supply of vegetables in their season.
Commence the work of the spring garden early—say even in December, when Irish potatoes should be planted and peas sown. And be prepared for the rains of August, when the fall garden is to be got under way.