'tis The Season To Celebrate Distant Triumph Of Survival In 1620

GREEN PIECE

A Poor Harvest Was A Death Sentence

November 18, 1990|By Mary Gold | Mary Gold,Contributing writer

Thanksgiving has special meaning for gardeners. A meal that includes something grown in your own garden adds another dimension to the definition of harvest.

And no other activity seems to bring home our ability both to master and to be overwhelmed by the forces of nature as much as growing our own food.

The holiday, to me, marks this simultaneous conflict and balance, and our precarious place in between. Our Thanksgiving is for many things, but the first event celebrated survival itself.

In this age of cellophane- wrapped produce, kept cool from California fields to our own kitchens, it's hard to imagine the difficulties facing early settlers in this country.

Having landed, by a navigational error, in December's cold, without food stores or time to prepare the soil for spring planting, the Pilgrims were lucky to have survived at all.

They stumbled by accident on a native cache of corn that enabled many of them to survive that first winter. Half of them died.

In subsequent months, the natives of the area not only shared food with the newcomers, but showed them how to hunt for it and grow it.

Records indicate that the Massachusetts Pilgrims, although happy to be alive, were dissatisfied with the food available to them. They had arrived poorly prepared for this new land.

The seeds they had brought -- primarily rye and wheat -- failed miserably. Only the kindness of the native people kept them from starvation.

Although they were indifferent farmers -- most had been tradesmen, shopkeepers or servants -- they reluctantly learned to grow and harvest corn, beans (a different species than they had known in Europe), squash and pumpkins.

In a land blessed by nature, they disdained most of these local foods -- corn, lobsters and clams. These were beneath them and often considered animal feed.

They learned to hunt and fish, but hastened to import more familiar domestic animals.

Wild foods, berries, tubers and herbs were slowly accepted, but the Pilgrims also started to import European plants. They established apple trees within 10 years of arriving.

American Indians readily adopted many of the European plants, especially fruits.

William Penn found peaches growing in the Susquehanna valley, trees descended from those introduced in Florida by the Spanish.

Howard County has its own agricultural and gardening history. Although the activity of food production -- the basis of human sustenance -- seldom attracts the historian's attention, there are contemporary accounts and historical references that reveal some of the everyday life in 17th- and 18th-century Howard County.

The first European settlers came to Maryland's bay area in 1634.

It wasn't until 1687 that the swell of settlers -- mostly from Virginia -- reached Howard County, at Elkridge. Agriculture, more specifically tobacco, became the economic center of life here.

"A house was not complete without a garden and a wood pile," says one observer.

Many had chickens, hogs and turkeys. Each family was fairly self-sufficient; some of the wealthier landowners even grew their own wheat and rye for personal use.

When the Ellicott brothers arrived from Pennsylvania in 1772, however, they found an agricultural community in decline.

A fascinating account of this period is found in a paper written for the Maryland Historical Society in 1865 by Martha Ellicott Tyson, a descendant of the Ellicott brothers.

Tyson relates a horticultural phenomenon that current farmers know well -- the tobacco plant is an extremely heavy user of soil nutrients.

By the 1770s most of the good agricultural land had been depleted to the point that many families were set on moving to new lands, in Kentucky or the Carolinas, to continue in the tobacco growing business.

When the Ellicotts arrived, espousing the merits of wheat growing, most local farmers scoffed, writes Tyson.

The Ellicotts cleared and learned to irrigate the less desirable areas near the Patapsco to grow their own wheat.

This feat, the completion of their mill, and the almost total loss of the tobacco market during the Revolutionary War created the transition to a wheat-based local economy.

Perhaps the pivotal point in this evolution was a horticultural discovery that gardeners now take for granted: liming of soil.

Tyson notes that Joseph Ellicott, while studying a German publication, learned of a German farmer's observations that the paths workers from a plaster factory trod through his fields were surrounded by particularly vigorous plants.

He deduced that the plaster dust from the workers' clothing was responsible for this effect; further experiments supported his theory.

Joseph Ellicott tried the same experiments on the depleted tobacco fields here and was amazed. The soil become much more productive.

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