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History of Early American Landscape Design

Kitchen garden

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In New England’s Prospect (1634), William Wood described the Massachusetts Bay Colony geography “as it stands to our new-come English planters, and to the old native inhabitants.” Most important to the recent settlers was the suitability of the land for growing food in what was commonly called a kitchen garden. The kitchen garden provided vegetables, herbs, and often fruit for a family’s table. It was an essential part of a household’s subsistence base, particularly given the difficulty of transporting fresh produce long distances in the absence of refrigeration and a developed road system. Unlike agricultural fields, the kitchen garden was smaller in scale, contained a variety of crops, and was generally enclosed and located near the dwelling house.

As European settlement expanded, travelers throughout the colonies recorded well-organized kitchen gardens as a sign of the prosperity of a region. As markets grew and produce became more widely available, the importance of kitchen gardens diminished, at least for households in towns. Mary M. Ambler (1770) commented that in Baltimore “People depend on the Market for their Stuff for there is not more than Seven Gardens in the Whole Town.” [1] Living in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin noted that there existed such “well-furnished plentiful markets” that he converted his kitchen garden into grass plots and gravel walks with trees and flowering shrubs, rather than for the cultivation of peas and cauliflowers. [2] Kitchen gardens were essential, however, for those without access to markets. [3] They were not only in domestic but also institutional layouts, such as that mentioned in the description of the Friends Asylum for the Insane, near Frankford, Pa., and seen in the design for the Marine Asylum in Washington, D.C. [Fig. 1]. A kitchen garden primarily provided food and diversion for the asylum residents. In addition, as Thomas S. Kirkbride noted for the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in Philadelphia, the three-and-a-half-acre vegetable garden was to be “large enough to furnish all of that description of supplies that may be required for the institution, and may occasionally be made profitable from sales of the excess.” [4]

Garden treatises described in detail the layout and care of kitchen gardens and were remarkably consistent in their advice. The size of the kitchen garden depended upon the needs of the household, and several treatises mention a preference for regular shapes, such as a square or rectangle. All citations emphasized the need to enclose a kitchen garden with a wall or a fence. These barriers created sheltered environments and also deterred potential intruders. Within the confines of the garden, treatises also suggest laying out beds, squares, or quarters, dividing them by walks, and creating borders along the perimeters. Many texts suggest planting smaller varieties of fruit trees, either espaliered along the wall or fence or planted in borders (see Espalier). These trees not only bore fruit earlier than their less-protected counterparts, but also, as mentioned by Bernard M’Mahon (1806), their shelter created microclimates for the growth of smaller plants beneath them. While treatises often offered a variety of designs for the arrangement of plant material within the kitchen garden from the complex [Fig. 2] to the relatively simple [Fig. 3], American kitchen gardens appear to have been executed in fairly modest form, even at the most elaborate estates [Figs. 4 and 5].

The placement of a kitchen garden within the larger landscape of the farm or estate was a point of both practical and aesthetic debate in treatise citations, and, judging from the collected images [Figs. 6 and 7] and texts, a considerable variety of plans were adopted throughout the colonies. Some treatises suggested that the convenience of having the kitchen garden near the house for ease of tending and harvesting was balanced with the desire to remove the less attractive sights and smells of a manured garden, and crops such as cabbages and onions. Others extolled the convenience of placing the kitchen garden near the greenhouse (if one existed), or near the stables and barns for easy conveyance of dung. On a more aesthetic question, treatise writers disagreed about the relationship of the kitchen garden to more ornamental areas of an estate. Authors ranging from John Parkinson (1629) to J. C. Loudon (1826), George William Johnson (1847), and A. J. Downing (1849) in the nineteenth century advocated separating or at least screening the kitchen garden from other areas of the pleasure ground. Ephraim Chambers (1741) noted that kitchen and fruit gardens were for “service” while flower gardens were to be placed conspicuously “for pleasure, and ornament.” Downing’s plan of a suburban villa residence offered one solution of screening the kitchen garden from the lawn by “thick groups of evergreen and deciduous trees.” [5] In garden periodicals and treatises of the 1840s, the kitchen garden saw a resurgence as an element of newly marketed plans for suburban domestic landscapes.

Other writers and practitioners emphasized the integration of the kitchen garden with other parts of the landscape. This general concept, first described by Stephen Switzer (1718) in Ichnographia rustica, more often was referred to as an “ornamental farm” (see Ferme ornée). Thomas Jefferson advised landowners to “lay off lots for the minor articles of husbandry . . . disposing them into a ferme ornée by interspersing occasionally the attributes of a garden.” [6] This aesthetic was exemplified at two of the colonies’ most famous sites, Monticello and Mount Vernon. In each instance, the kitchen garden was visually screened from the views from the house, but was nonetheless incorporated into the overall landscape design. For example, Vaughan’s Mount Vernon plan of 1787 [Fig. 8] depicted the kitchen and flower gardens symmetrically balanced, but the placement of the kitchen on the southern or “lower” side meant that it was visually much less prominent than the northern flower garden and its corresponding elaborate greenhouse. At Monticello, Jefferson’s plans (most of which were never executed) called for interspersing pavilions, temples, a grotto, grove, flower beds, and other “ornamental” features throughout the grounds and linking them with walks and roundabouts. Jefferson (1804), however, admitted that “after all, the kitchen garden is not the place for ornaments of this kind, bowers and treillages suit that better.” The nineteenth-century legacy of this aesthetic of integration may be seen in plans such as that published by Downing in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849) for the ferme ornée [Fig. 9].

-- Elizabeth Kryder-Reid






  1. Mary Ambler, “The Diary of M. Ambler,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 45 (April 1937): 166, view on Zotero.
  2. Benjamin Franklin to Mrs. Mary Hewson, May 6, 1786, quoted in Agnes Addison Gilchrist, “Market Houses in High Street,” Historic Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1953), 304–12, view on Zotero.
  3. Gardens producing vegetables and fruit for sale were often called “market gardens” and were an important source of income for many living in the vicinity of markets. For example, in 1791 a slave named Sophia Browing sold produce from her market garden at the Alexandria market, eventually earning the four hundred dollars to buy her husband’s freedom. See Mary Beth Corrigan, “The Ties That Bind: The Pursuit of Community and Freedom among Slaves and Free Blacks in the District of Columbia, 1800–1860,” in Southern City, National Ambition: The Growth of Early Washington, D.C., 1800–1860, ed. Howard Gillette, Jr. (Washington, D.C.: George Washington University, Center for Washington Area Studies, 1995), 75, view on Zotero. Also see Gregory J. Brown, “Distributing Meat and Fish in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Research Report on file, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Department of Archaeological Research (1988), 5. For an in-depth discussion about the development of markets in nineteenth-century America, see Helen Tangires, “Meeting on Common Ground: Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America” (Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1999), view on Zotero.
  4. Thomas S. Kirkbride, “Description of the Pleasure Grounds and Farm of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane with Remarks,” Journal of Insanity 4 (April 1848): 352.
  5. A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1850), 118, fig. 26,[1].
  6. Jefferson to Mr. Bacon, February 1, 1808, in Thomas Jefferson, The Garden Book, ed. Edwin M. Betts (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1944), 360, [2]. Also see Peter Martin, Pleasure Gardens of Virginia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 148, view on Zotero. For a discussion of the broader aesthetic and political implications of the ferme orneé, also see Therese O’Malley, “Landscape Gardening in the Early National Period,” in Views and Visions, American Landscape Before 1830, ed. Edward J. Nygren with Bruce Robertson (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 135–37, view on Zotero; William A. Brogden, “The Ferme Ornée and Changing Attitudes to Agricultural Improvement,” Eighteenth Century Life 8 (January 1983): 39–40, view on Zotero.

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