It’s mid-June and the spring planting rush is over. Thank heavens for all of the resources we have at our fingertips—from nurseries, seed catalogs, the library, and the internet to our own Master Gardeners’ private cache and network.
Such a plethora begs the question of how people got their gardening information before the modern advantages we all enjoy.
Plants and information moved much more slowly but I think you might be surprised at the variety available to people living in a four-mile-an-hour world in which most people seldom left their counties. Here are three examples.
William Faris, a silversmith, clockmaker and avid gardener, lived in Annapolis, MD across from the state capitol from 1728-1804. Because of his prime location, he had contact with everyone from local slaves to the governor and he discussed gardening and traded seeds with anyone he could. He was, in fact, the hub of a very democratic gardening network. In addition, because Annapolis was an international port, Faris had early information of which ships arrived from where and what plants, seeds and people they carried. He had access to seeds and plants from around the world. Luckily for us, Faris kept a careful diary of his gardening, including sketches of his garden layout and the plants he and his slave cultivated. You can read more about Faris in Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake, 1700-1805 (Baltimore, 1998) by Barbara Wells Sarudy.
Also, read her excellent blog about all things gardening in early America at this link:
Charles Carroll, Barrister, lived in Annapolis at the same time as William Faris and surely knew him. As a young man, Carroll decided to build a country house on the Patapsco River, in what is now Baltimore, on land he owned and on which was an
iron mine. A wealthy bachelor, Carroll planned a showpiece plantation, Mount Clare, that included an extensive orchard, a kitchen garden and a greenhouse (in which he and his wife later grew pineapples.) If he got seeds from William Faris, he did not make note of it. Rather, many of the varieties of fruit trees and vegetables he grew at Mt. Clare came directly from England. It was a slow process but Carroll wanted to do everything according to the latest standards of the time. The process began when Carroll shipped iron from his mine to London. He sent with the captain a very long shopping list of all the fruit trees, vegetable seeds and latest gardening manual he wanted the captain to bring with him on his return to Maryland. Dozens of varieties were available to him. Three months later when the captain arrived in London, he handed the list over to Carroll’s agent in London who did the shopping and delivered the plants, seeds and book to the ship. That may have taken several months. It was at least a three-month journey back to Mt. Clare and the condition of the plants depended completely on the diligence of the captain in seeing that they were watered and protected from the sea weather. Many of the plants must have survived the trip because the grounds of Mount Clare were well-known once they were established. For pictures of Mount Clare, see http://www.mountclare.org/.
John Bartram (1699-1777), a Philadelphia Quaker and botanist, traveled up and down the eastern colonies collecting native American plant species in the early part of the eighteenth century. He took them back to Philadelphia and established a plant nursery. In addition, he began to collect seeds, plants and knowledge from correspondents, many of whom were in England. Bartram’s Garden became the first plant nursery in the colonies and had customers from the colonies as well as England. In 1765, King George III named Bartram his “Royal Botanist”. Bartram’s son, William, also a naturalist and plant explorer, ran the family nursery after his father’s passing. After 1810, John Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr and her husband, Robert, took over and expanded the gardens. At one point, they offered 1400 native species and over 1000
exotic plants to their customers. The gardens closed for business in 1850. Luckily for us, though, the gardens were preserved, first privately and now as a public historic site. You can learn more about Bartram’s Gardens at https://bartramsgarden.org/about/history/horticulture/.
To my knowledge, no one has made a comparison of the species and varieties available to early Americans and those available to us today. I suspect that they would find that while we enjoy a wide number of genera native to many parts of the globe we have
lost what people in the past had—a smaller number of genera and a larger number of species and varieties. It gives one pause.
Submitted by Trudy Eden