The Pilgrims were no farmers, but they managed

THE REAL DIRT

November 23, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Every year at Thanksgiving, I sit down to steaming bowls of food, bow my head and bless the home-grown goodies before me. I also give thanks that I wasn't a pilgrim. How those people managed to harvest anything at Plymouth, Mass., during the summer of 1621 is a mystery.

The pilgrims brought few tools with them from England. There were no rototillers aboard the Mayflower. There wasn't even a plow.

The pilgrims were woefully ignorant of the New England weather. Their early pea crop failed because the settlers planted on EST (English Spring Time). The seed probably rotted in the cold, damp soil.

The pilgrims certainly did not dress properly for farming. Women insisted on wearing numerous petticoats -- as many as six at once -- while tending the gardens. Men worked the fields wearing body armor, for protection, until they made peace with the natives. (Imagine doing garden chores while wearing heavy metal or, worse, listening to it.)

The pilgrims, most of whom were city folk, seemed to do many things backward. They fenced in their gardens and let their livestock run free. They dug up all earthworms, which they considered vermin, and fed them to their chickens. Worms ate the good soil, they surmised.

"The ground is terribly riddled with worms," wrote one gardener of the times.

Imagine that. Silly settlers.

"The pilgrims were slow learners. They brought their English ways here and were very belligerent in enforcing them," says John Forti, horticulturist at the Plimoth Plantation, a living historical museum in Plymouth. "They came here to farm, but some of them had no knowledge of gardening."

Nonetheless, the pilgrims made excellent progress, producing enough food to celebrate the first Thanksgiving 370 years ago. They grew cabbage, lettuce, spinach and carrots, which were white, not orange, in the 17th century. Beans, turnips and cowcumbers (cucumbers) also thrived in the rich soil, which reportedly had "a spade's depth of leaf mold on top of the ground."

The word "vegetable" was seldom used in the 1600s. Cabbage was a pot herb; lettuce, a "sallet" herb that was boiled more often than prepared raw.

Nothing was wasted that first year: even flowers were consumed, including the blossoms of calendulas, roses and several members of the cress family.

Generally, those first 50 Pilgrims practiced sound garden techniques, although they couldn't tell you why something worked. They sprinkled cinders around tender crops to foil cutworms, and threw old dishwater on plants to kill vermin.

Insects were hand-picked. There were no beneficial ladybugs here yet, but neither were there Japanese beetles. The pilgrims did struggle with aphids, which they called "garden fleas."

At first the settlers planted the fields communally, until several were accused of goofing off. The land inside the walled town was then parceled off to individual families, who planted crops in raised garden beds surrounded by stones, bones or wood. The raised beds, which were 12 feet long and 4 feet wide, made planting, harvesting and fertilizing easier for the multiskirted women.

A spade, or small shovel, was the only real implement they had with which to work the soil. Aside from their bare hands, of course.

"I can't think of a better garden tool than hands," says Mr. Forti.

The pilgrims quickly borrowed the Indians' no-till, no-weed method of gardening, an ancient yet efficient style some gardeners still use today. The Indians planted corn in a mound of soil and encircled it with pole beans, which clamored up the growing stalks and used them for support. Low-growing pumpkins and squash were then sown as a ground cover, to maintain ground moisture and prevent soil erosion.

Stubborn as they were, the pilgrims bowed to the natives and adopted their garden techniques. It probably saved them from starvation and gave the settlers a foothold in the new land.

America would never be the same.

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