Creating a Life of Plenty

Gardening in Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg logo

Recently I was privileged to attend the 70th annual Colonial Williamsburg Garden Symposium sponsored in part by the American Horticultural Society. The theme was Trailblazers and Trendsetters. Our keynote speaker was Joe Lamp’l from the PBS Series “Growing A Greener World”.


While the conference, aside from Mr. Lamp’L’s keynote address, was kind of a disappointment, the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg were not. Once we decided to leave the symposium early, we discovered a lot of beautiful, productive gardens and learned the historic significance to gardening in the early days of Colonial America.

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Colonial Williamsburg is a living-history museum and private foundation presenting part of a historic district in the city of Williamsburg, Virginia, USA. Colonial Williamsburg’s 301-acre Historic Area includes buildings from the eighteenth century (during part of which the city was the capital of Colonial Virginia), as well as 17th-century, 19th-century, Colonial Revival structures and more recent reconstructions. The Historic Area is an interpretation of a colonial American city, with exhibits of dozens of restored or re-created buildings related to its colonial and American Revolutionary War history. Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area’s combination of restoration and re-creation of parts of the colonial town’s three main thoroughfares and their connecting side streets attempts to suggest the atmosphere and the circumstances of 18th-century Americans.

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Gardening for food, health and pleasure were the theme of Williamsburg, this was a planned city and the capital of the colony for many years. Gardening for food was very important, but one could also shop for much of their food and supplies at the various shops in town. Rather than many rural communities where gardening was critical to survival.

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Gardening was also distinguished by class in Colonial Williamsburg as the governor of the colony had an expansive food garden and more importantly a vast pleasure garden filled with the planting materials and planting schematics that were popular during that period. One of the governors actually had a stream created beside the gardens for pleasure and functionality (winter ice). While the professional class (doctor’s, politicians, etc.) had more modest, but still very functional gardens and fruiting orchards to supply their homes with produce. Missing from the city is where the poor gardened, there are very few reconstructed modest homes and gardens and much more from the middle class.

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We were treated to a garden tour by one of the docents later in the afternoon and reviewed some of the places we had already toured and some we hadn’t been to yet. I found a few things very interesting. Gardening has returned to its roots; there were no chemical fertilizers, weed killers, etc. at this time, people gardened, more or less organically as that was the knowledge of the time and it turns out, the right way. To work with nature, and not against it; to plant seasonally and harvest appropriately.

I also found the choice in plants not far from what we have today with some exceptions. One in particular is Salsify. This is also called the oyster plant as it has an oyster flavor. It is grown widely at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic gardens, but it doesn’t have much of a place in the modern vegetable garden. I took note to procure seeds and grow a couple of plants next year to try it out.

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Garden materials haven’t changed much either and are different from region to region. We use a lot of pea gravel as cover for walkways in the Midwest and much of the country, but in Williamsburg and other coastal communities, at least historically, they used broken sea shells to line paths. An interesting note is that during colonial times, oysters were typically two feet in diameter….you wouldn’t need a lot of them to cover your garden paths!


It was an educational experience and it was lovely to tour the grounds of this historic city.


Happy Gardening!

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