A Historical Look at Heirloom Gardening in America

Learn about heirloom gardens with these two useful garden books

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Herb gardeners often are invited to help plant and tend public and private historic community properties. Sometimes though, resources to direct such an effort with historical accuracy are sparse. Two newly published heirloom gardening books offer fresh guidance (Restoring American Gardens, 1640-1940, by Denise Wiles Adams, and Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South, by James R. Cothran) and they promise to be as useful to herb growers as they are to heirloom enthusiasts.

Adams’ book covers the whole country and all ornamental plants — not just herbs — grown from 1640 to 1940. But her content, from the initial chapter on “Reading the Historic Landscape,” to her outlines of historic U.S. garden design and plant lists, can help keep you on the correct historic path with your herbs.

In any such planting project, it’s important not to destroy history in the process of interpreting it; Adams gets right to the heart of that subject in Chapter One of her book. Later, she provides lists of historic commercial nurseries, which may provide clues to your own local historic resources that are yet to be discovered — one of the most exciting aspects of this relatively young field of historic American gardening. Adams also gives contemporary sources for purchasing true historic plants today.

Cothran takes the regional approach, mining the South’s rich garden history in fine style. Many of the influences he writes of were felt in the North, too, so don’t dismiss the book out of hand if you’re not exactly living in Dixie. The period incorporated is shorter, 1820 to 1860, which allows him to delve deeper than Adams into the cultural pressures that helped shape gardening trends. Those years were also very active on the frontier, and as Southerners moved westward, they took their gardening culture with them, if not always their more-tender plants.

Like Adams, Cothran incorporates historic information on herb growing as part of his general overview, and the information he includes gives accurate direction if you’re trying to figure out how to incorporate herbs in a historic planting today.

Both writers elaborate on the links between early American gardens and the English gardening world, out of which so much of today’s herbal traditions grew, and Cothran does a great job of giving stateside historical context, too, from the Eastern seaports to the Southern frontier. “Given a conductive climate, long growing season, fertile soil and traditional ties of its people to the land, it was inevitable that an abiding interest in and love of horticulture and gardening would develop throughout the region,” he writes.

Individually, these books make fine additions to the historic gardening literature of the United States; coming together as they have, they are a great bonanza. The enthusiasm they are bound to generate may trigger a new wave of interest in historic plantings and their preservation. Any gardener who understands that plants are more than just pretties in our plots — that they are links across time with gardeners of yesteryear, through which we can better understand our own places in history — will love both these books. Anyone involved with a historic planting project needs them; they’re simply the best and most current information on the market.


Nancy Smith, managing editor of Mother Earth News magazine, writes and gardens at her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.