In a colonial-style garden, the broccoli is purple and "turkey" cucumbers grow to three feet long; oiled paper predates plastic for sheltering spring plants; and fermenting manure warms the seedlings. Finding inspiration and value in 18th-century plants, tools, and techniques, the gardeners at Colonial Williamsburg have discovered that these traditional vegetable-growing methods are perfectly at home in today's modern organic gardens. After all, in the 18th century, organic gardening was the only type of gardening and local produce the only produce available.
Author Wesley Greene founded the Colonial Garden in Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area in 1996. He and his colleagues have painstakingly researched the ways the colonists planted and tended their vegetable and herb beds, most of which are more relevant than ever. Along with historical commentary and complete growing instructions for 50 delicious vegetables, including colonial varieties still available today, gardeners and folklorists will find weather-watching guidelines, planting techniques, and seedsaving advice for legumes, brassicas, alliums, root crops, nightshades, melons, squash, greens, and other curious and tender produce.
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About the Author
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Of Beans and Peas
The vegetables we know as beans and peas, called legumes, are members of the large Fabaceae family and represent some of the most important vegetable staples known to humankind. They were also among the first vegetables to be domesticated and helped to lay the foundation for three of the world's great centers of civilization. Mesopotamia was blessed with a luxury of legumes that included the field pea, chickpea, lentil, and broad bean. Of this group, the pea and the broad bean migrated west and north to become staples in medieval Europe. English colonists brought them to Virginia in the first decade of settlement. The New World kidney bean was domesticated in Peru about 8000 BCE, and its culture spread north, reaching today's southeastern United States by 5000 BCE. It became the most common New World vegetable on European tables. The soybean was a relative latecomer, first domesticated in China a little more than 3,000 years ago. It made its first tentative appearance in North America in the 18th century but was not adopted as a field crop until early in the 20th century, so it was of no consequence in colonial American gardens.
Legumes are rich protein sources, which made them the perfect companion crop for the world's three major grains: wheat from Mesopotamia, corn from Mesoamerica, and rice from ancient China. It was this dietary combination of legumes and grains that allowed these cultures to flourish.
Garden legumes are notable for "fixing" nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with soil-borne bacteria, called rhizobia, which live in nodules formed on the plants' roots. This relationship enables peas and beans to thrive without extra nitrogen fertilizers and helps to enrich the soil for crops that follow, making legumes near-perfect nutritional and organic garden elements.
Pliny the Elder, Roman chronicler of the ancient world, recorded that the Greek mathematician Pythagoras forbade his students to eat broad beans. Pythagoras's reason for this ban on beans has been debated for more than a thousand years. One reason Pliny offered was the belief that departed souls resided within the beans. Thomas Hale, writing in 1756, had a different interpretation: "What he [Pythagoras] meant by this was, that they should abstain from meddling with the Affairs of the Republick; because the Antients used Beans in the electing of their Magistrates." In ancient times, apparently, a black bean was cast for a "no" vote and a white bean for a "yes." Whatever his reason for forbidding his students from eating beans, Pythagoras himself ate them quite frequently.
Old World History
The broad bean, better known today as the fava bean, originated in the area east of the Mediterranean basin and was initially gathered in the wild as a small-seeded bean. Also known today as the horse or field bean (Vicia faba var. equina), this bean produces a small hard seed used primarily for feeding livestock, although its strong and rich flavor is prized by Mediterranean chefs for making falafel, a bean paste often served fried in balls in a pita. The larger-seeded broad bean (V. faba var. major) was being grown in Egypt by 2400 BCE. From there, the broad bean spread throughout the European continent and became one of the most important staple crops of the medieval period. Monastery records document harvests in the hundreds of £ds. By the 17th century, broad beans came to be associated with the diet of the lower class and fell into disfavor with the gentry. John Parkinson, apothecary and botanist to King James I, referred in 1629 to "our ordinary Beanes, serving for foode for the poorer sort for the most part."
These beans enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in England in the 18th century, largely because of the great variety of broad beans that had been developed by curious and inventive gardeners, as well as the varieties brought from abroad. There were beans for the spring season and beans for winter, white-flowered beans, red-flowered beans, large beans, and small beans, and they were once again among the commonest components of the kitchen gardens for all classes of English.
To the New World
The broad bean never achieved the same degree of popularity in the American garden, but as late as 1865, Fearing Burr was able to list 19 varieties of broad, or "English," beans in The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. The broad bean remains a common vegetable in Europe, but few Americans grow or eat broad beans today. There are several reasons; chief among them is our climate. This useful vegetable prefers a mild, wet climate, such as is found along the central to northern coastal regions of the western United States, which is where you are most likely to encounter the broad bean. The climate over the rest of this country is often too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and too dry at all times to easily grow the broad bean.
The second reason for our uniquely American oversight is that the preparation of the broad bean for the table is somewhat more demanding than that of the common green bean. Broad beans must first be shelled from the pod, as you would a lima bean. Broad bean skins contain a bitter property that some people find unpleasant. This can be greatly lessened by lightly steaming and then gently pinching each bean, causing the skin to slip off. While it sounds tedious, it actually goes quite quickly, once you master the pinching technique.
Broad Bean Varieties
Of the early varieties of broad bean, the most prized in 18th-century England and Virginia was the 'Mazagan'. The Complete Farmer (1766) described this bean as "the first and best sort of early beans at present known." The 'Mazagan' was imported from a Portuguese settlement of the same name on the coast of Africa. Unfortunately, the 'Mazagan' bean seems to have disappeared as a distinct variety, but a number of other early varieties are available from English seed suppliers. 'The Sutton' is perhaps the smallest and finest of modern varieties and may be similar to the 'Mazagan'.
Broad bean in flower; 'Windsor' beans
Of the larger, later beans, the most popular 18th-century variety and the variety most commonly available today is the 'Windsor' bean. The Complete Farmer describes it as "the best of all the sorts for the table," explaining that, "when these are planted on a good soil, and are allowed sufficient room, their seeds will be very large, and in great plenty; and when they are gathered young, are the sweetest and best tasted of all the sorts."
The Williamsburg Gardener's Assistant
Sowing the bean seed. In mild climates (coastal Virginia and southward), the broad bean is sown in late fall. In colder climates, it should be sown as early in spring as you can possibly work the soil. In Williamsburg, we sow the seed in late November, and it is usually Christmas week before the plants appear aboveground. Germination can be hastened by soaking the seeds, as described by John Abercrombie in 1790: "It is proper, before planting, to soak them several hours in river or pond water, that, when planted, they may come up more freely and regular together." At the same time, you can check the viability of the seeds: Beans that float will not germinate and may be discarded.
Broad bean seeds are quite large and are best planted with a sharpened stick, known as a dibble, at about 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart, in rows that are 2 feet apart (asunder). After planting, lightly mulch the bed with well-rotted manure. The manure will serve several purposes, as Samuel Trowell advised in 1747: "Put some of the Manure along each Row, but not too thick, for a little will do, which will not only preserve the Bean at the first appearing from Slugs, Snails, or any other Vermin from eating it; and every Shower will feed the Roots." While we have not been troubled by slugs or snails in Williamsburg, a light dressing of composted manure will disguise the newly planted beans from the squirrels, who will take every seed if they discover them. After the seeds are planted, water the rows to set the seed and hasten germination.
Sowing broad beans with a dibble
What diligence is required in the care of beans. When beans are planted in fall, the aim of the gardener should be to have plants that are not larger than 2 or 3 inches tall before cold weather arrives. We have found that it is at this size they best stand the trials of winter. In the colder months, it is necessary to provide some cover from the frost. Philip Miller, the best known of the 18th-century English garden writers, advised a mulch of "Peas-haulm, Fern, or some other light Covering, which will secure them from the Injury of Frost." In the Colonial Garden in Williamsburg, we use a somewhat more elaborate device that was recommended in 1573 by the English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser for the raising of strawberries:
Mature beans and Tuner's trellis;
topping the bean plants and harvesting beans
If frost do contin[u]e we, take this for a lawe,
the strawberies looke, to be covered with straw.
layde overly trim, uppon crotchis and bowes
and after uncoverd, as weather alowes.
In Williamsburg, we find that this loosely woven table, fashioned from tree branches and covered with straw, is equally serviceable for the protection of broad beans. In spring, we reuse it by cutting the lattice in half and standing the sections on end to support the cucumbers.
Once the danger of frost is over and the plants have begun their spring growth, the woven frame may be removed so that the gardener can work among the plants. By the middle of April in Williamsburg, the plants are "topped" and the suckers removed as explained by Batty Langley in 1728: "When your Beans are in full Blossom pinch off their Tops, and carefully cut away all Suckers that may break out, and grow from the bottom of their Roots." Topping and suckering your plants will produce an earlier crop of fewer but better-formed beans.
An ingenious method for prolonging the bean harvest. You can split the harvest between an early and a late crop of beans by following an ingenious method related by Richard Bradley in 1718: "I have been told by Mr. Furber of Kensington ... that if we set the Rows about a Foot assunder, suffering them to grow 'till they are almost ready to blossom, and then cut down every other Line within two or three Inches of the Ground, we shall then have a double Crop of Beans from the same Sowing."
By the middle of May in Williamsburg, the beans will be ready for harvest. They should be picked as young as possible, for they will be less bitter. Modern gardeners have also discovered that the broad bean makes an excellent "green manure" or compost.
"The Bean Varieties, it would be endless, and well as useless, to describe all its several Kinds."
—Batty Langley (1728)
Varieties listed in 18th-century Virginia
• 'Windsor': Large, late season bean, most common of the 18th-century varieties
• 'Long Podded' and 'White Blossom': Both are likely varieties of the 'Windsor' bean.
• 'Mazagan': Small, early season bean that is often described as the finest of all varieties; the 'Mazagan' or its ancestor apparently survives in southern Europe.
• 'Lisbon': Another of the Portuguese beans, such as the 'Mazagan'
• 'Sandwich' and 'Toker': These two varieties are described as mid-season beans, larger than the 'Mazagan', but smaller and earlier than the 'Windsor'. 'Toker' was advertised in England several years ago.
• 'Nonpareil', 'Battersea', and 'Hotspur': These three names are used for a number of vegetables. "Nonpareil" is a declaration of quality (without equal). "Battersea" refers to the Battersea area of London where large market gardens were operated in the 18th century. "Hotspur" was more commonly associated with the pea and denoted a smaller-statured early season variety.
Heirloom varieties for the modern gardener
• 'Windsor': Cold-hardy, with long pods
• 'The Sutton': Small early bean, perhaps similar to the 'Mazagan'
• 'Aquadulce': Very similar to 'Windsor', very hardy
BROAD BEAN ESSENTIALS
PLANTING In areas where the ground does not freeze, sow in late November, as the last leaves fall. In colder climes, sow as soon as the ground can be worked in spring, when the snowdrops bloom and crocus leaves begin to lengthen.
SPACING Broad beans can be grown in rows or in a rectangular bed. For row planting, plant the seeds with a dibble 1 to 2 inches deep, 6 inches apart, in rows 2 feet asunder. For beds, plant the seeds on 6-inch centers. Water well.
FOR BEST GROWTH Broad beans require a long cool season with ample moisture. Removing the top flowers hastens the harvest and provides better-formed beans.
HARVESTING Pick the beans while the pods are small and before the bean seeds develop a thick skin. Very young beans can be used without skinning the individual beans and are less bitter than older, tougher beans.
TO SAVE PURE SEED Separate varieties by 1 mile.
COLLECTING AND STORING SEED Allow beans to dry within the pod while on the plant. Seed saving is more difficult in the South, as the seeds do not develop reliably in hot weather. Shell seeds from pods and store in airtight containers. Refrigerate seeds to prolong viability.
SEED VIABILITY 6 years