History of the Kitchen Garden

While gardening has been a part of human culture for more than 10,000 years, the idea of kitchen gardening is something unique. These small family plots have been called by a variety of names over the years: kitchen gardens, victory gardens, potager gardens, cottage gardens, Roman peristyles and hortus gardens, and the Japanese tea garden. Though each of these grows vegetables, fruit, flowers, and herbs, they are all adapted to their environments and the culture of the people tending them.

The main purpose of a kitchen garden is to provide food for the family. In ancient times, kitchen gardens were the sole source of food in a mainly vegetarian diet. In the modern era, the kitchen garden supplements the food budget and provides balanced nutrition in a hurried, ready-made-meal world.

Over the centuries, creative people have transformed the utilitarian activity of growing food into gardens that nurture the gardener spiritually and psychologically as well. Exercise, fresh air, and a little hard work are good for the body and the spirit. Whether the kitchen garden grows in 5-gallon buckets on the deck or covers an acre, it is a satisfying activity with big rewards.

The Kitchen Garden: Straightforward and Practical

Pioneers of the American West perfected kitchen gardening, carrying treasured vegetable and herb seeds hundreds of miles by train or covered wagon to new homes. Immigrants brought favorite plants from Europe, Asia, and Africa, introducing new varieties to the rich selection of native plants already growing across the nation. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chiles, chocolate, and peanuts were already here to supplement more familiar imports.

Because they were practical people, the pioneers planted straightforward gardens in rows and grew useful flowers and herbs rather than ornamentals. After all, the kitchen garden was the only source of food and life was not easy. Children learned at a young age how to hoe properly and recognize the difference between weeds and real garden plants.

Canning and preserving were fine arts in the past as families lined their pantries and cellars with food for the winter. Modern gardeners prefer to freeze most garden produce, but there is something particularly wonderful about opening a jar of pickled green tomatoes or sparkling strawberry jam on a dark winter’s day.

Most modern vegetable gardeners create their spaces along the lines of the pioneer kitchen garden and grow the same types of produce. A great-great-grandmother could walk into a kitchen garden and feel right at home, though she may wonder why the lettuce is such a funny color.

Victory Gardens in the United States

The term “victory garden” was coined during World War I, and Eleanor Roosevelt popularized the term in 1943 by planting a kitchen garden at the White House to inspire Americans to be self-reliant during wartime. A 1944 article published in the Saturday Evening Post estimated that victory gardens provided American families with 10 million tons of produce—about 40 percent of their food—during the final years of World War II.

Most victory gardens were big, topping out at 30 feet by 50 feet, though many more were backyard efforts worked by hand and tended on a daily basis. These kitchen gardens were often community affairs, especially in large cities like Chicago and New York. Families planted many types of root and vine vegetables that keep well over the winter—potatoes, carrots, squash and pumpkins, and cucumbers. They also grew fruit plants such as strawberries and blueberries, and made millions of quarts filled with pickles and preserves.

Michelle Obama is currently carrying on Eleanor Roosevelt’s tradition with the help of Washington D.C. fifth graders. The First Lady has never grown a garden before and welcomes the expert help. Mrs. Obama’s reasoning behind a White House kitchen garden is to encourage the nation to eat better and lose weight, goals which are at the top of the national agenda to reduce obesity and modern diseases.

Potager Gardens in France

The French love beautiful things and their gardens are no exception. The beds are shaped geometrically—diamonds, circles, winding curves, and even complex knots that can be truly appreciated from a bird’s eye view. Pathways meander through delightful outdoor “rooms” or radiate from a central focal point such as a pond or statue.

Potager gardens require planning, starting with paper and pencil. Though their shapes are considered formal, the best potager gardens incorporate the property’s permanent features rather than altering the landscape to fit a formal plan. Shade and sunlight, fruits and flowers, herbs and vegetables live happily side by side in designated areas, and the look of the plants is almost more important than their culinary or herbal usefulness.

Potager gardens often use patches of color to please the eye. Red blooming geraniums might provide a border for tomato plants, and low growing dragon’s blood sedum compliments purple and dark leafy greens. Whether the plants are ornamental or delicious, they are chosen for how they look together to create a color palette.

Cottage Gardens: Informal and a Little Wild

The true cottage garden is a potager garden gone a little wild. There is still a deliberate shape to it, but the lines and plant choices are not completely controlled. These cottage gardens are usually smaller and contain plants the gardener thinks are necessary, and volunteer plants that spring up unexpectedly are welcomed to the family.

Cottage gardens tend to spill out from their borders and include berries and perennial herbs along with simple flowers. Few things are planted in straight rows—instead, the cottage garden uses raised beds, mounds and hills, and patches of plants to conserve space and increase yields. These gardens are almost like quilts created in the landscape, relaxed and comforting.

Herbs are a mainstay in cottage gardens, and they’re often planted in above ground containers dotted throughout the space. This tradition started with the ancient Greeks and Romans who had medicinal and culinary herbs growing in their courtyards, ready to snip in case of headaches or stomach ailments, or to induce a potential sweetheart to fall in love.

Ancient Greek and Roman Gardens

Wealthy Greeks and Romans created large formal gardens known as peristyles, often acres in size because they could afford gardeners to tend them. They also built dedicated entertaining spaces throughout the gardens, painting the walls with frescoes depicting life on the estate. Fountains and fish ponds were common, and landscaped areas for leisurely walks entertained the estate owners.

These, of course, were not kitchen gardens. The kitchen staff grew the family’s food in a hortus garden at the back of the house, producing enough to feed the owners and the servants. Animal barns were often included in these kitchen gardens, providing a powerful source of fertilizer for the food crops. Chickens and geese roaming the property kept bugs at bay, and everything was recycled or composted as efficiently as possible. Seeds were kept from year to year and traded with neighbors.

In large cities, ancient people experienced the same struggles modern people have in keeping a kitchen garden. Window boxes, containers on balconies, and community gardening were popular solutions just as they are today. Modern people don’t depend entirely on kitchen gardens to sustain them, but a lot can be learned from the innovative gardening techniques used 2000 years ago.

Tea Gardens, Japanese Style

The Japanese art of the tea ceremony requires a garden space filled with fruit trees and contemplative nooks to enjoy a slower pace of life. Over the years these gardens became more formal but they had their roots in the kitchen garden each family tended. A modern traveler can find similar gardens growing at monasteries all over the world.

Usually rustic, these cottage style gardens incorporated found materials and simple tools, and were a profusion of green all season. Plants were often close together with narrow paths because the ground was rocky or otherwise difficult, resulting in efficient use of space. Vining plants were used to define the borders of the kitchen garden and to provide shade, and orchards were usually kept separate from the vegetable growing spaces.

The Japanese elevated gardening to a spiritual activity, patiently tending the plants that provided food for the body and the soul. Once the day’s work was finished, the family could sit down and enjoy the fruits of their labors—literally and figuratively.

The Kitchen Garden: Steeped in History, Still Practical Today

From the very first moment a human planted food on purpose gardening has been a duty and a pleasure, evolving from practical and straightforward to formal and regimented and back again. Through the years, expert gardeners have guided the evolution of food crops, shared seeds and advice, and spent time in nature all in the name of feeding themselves.

Modern kitchen gardeners have access to fertilizers, bug controls, soil amendments, and gas-powered tools that ancestors could only dream about. Creating a lush kitchen garden in the desert or at the top of a mountain is entirely possible. Those great-great-grandmothers would be proud to see innovative descendants carving out space for growing food, carrying on the tradition that is thousands of years in the making.