Garden Spaces: Create a Colonial Garden

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Illustration by Gayle Ford
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• Design Plans: Grow These Colonial Garden Plants

Many garden ideas can grow from a study of horticultural history and tradition, and sometimes old ideas can offer solutions to new problems. The herb gardens of Colonial America are a case in point. These tidy, geometric gardens make a wonderful drought-tolerant alternative to a water-sucking front lawn, if they’re appropriate to the style of the home and the neighborhood. And even if Colonial isn’t your style, you can still find inspiration here.

We filled this front-yard garden with a bevy of old-fashioned, traditional plants (all herbs that would have been grown in the Colonies), including some natives and others that might have been brought over from the Old World and passed around among neighbors. Globe thistle, cardoon, valerian, foxglove, feverfew, yarrow, pansies and larkspur–these are all plants that are as beloved today as they were a couple of hundred years ago.

We chose a simple, geometric design that is reminiscent of a patchwork quilt pattern the colonists would have been familiar with. We laid a center walkway to the front door with mirrored square beds on either side of it, each of which has a diamond within it for a selection of statuesque plants, with small triangular beds at the corners. Making the walkways a light or contrasting color adds emphasis to the orderly geometry, which is a satisfying framework for the overflowing bounty of a thriving garden.

Prepare for Planting

A simple internet search and online photos of Colonial Williamsburg will give you lots of other ideas for designs and plant choices for your own Colonial garden. Once you’ve settled on a design that fits your space, in a location that gets full sun or at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day, then you can prepare that site as you would any bed:

Turn over the soil, adding in compost and whatever other amendments you need to create a nutrient-rich, porous soil that drains adequately. Remove all those pesky rocks and weed it thoroughly. If you’ve got time, let it lie fallow for a few weeks and repeat the process, getting rid of all the new weeds you created by unearthing weed seeds.

Prepare a list of plant possibilities, and then hunt them down in your local garden centers or from online resources. There are far more options than we can include here. You can find more plant ideas in the article 12 Herbs for the Colonial Garden, and see all our plant suggestions from this Colonial herbs section in our online plant guide at Many of these can be grown from seed, but they are also often available as starts from area garden centers, especially those that carry a good herb selection.

You can get your new little plants off to a good start with a squirt of diluted liquid seaweed. Keep your eye on them through their first season of growth, keeping the soil uniformly moist and occasionally applying a good organic fertilizer. The tidy framework of this garden will make keeping it weeded easier because it’s a contained space, not a sprawling one.

Tradition Lives

When you grow an herb that dates back to Colonial days, you can have confidence that there’s a reason for its survival. Some of these plants have waxed and waned in popularity over time, but they have endured and become garden favorites for generations of gardeners. Many of today’s herb gardeners need to grow drought-tolerant plants to save on their water bills; they often want not just bedding plants, but plants that will give back to them in terms of harvesting something for the table, the medicine chest or vases of fresh-cut flowers. The colonists had that same streak of practicality in the plants they chose. The beauty of the plants is a lovely bonus.

And so the old becomes new again, and the circle comes round. Add those touches that make the Colonial garden your own. Surround it with a white picket or wattle fence if you like. Nestle a cloche (an old-fashioned bell jar) in the bed, add a birdhouse or beehive. Bring it alive.

Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living and tending her herbs in beautiful Austin, Texas.

Don’t forget to check out our visual plant guide: Grow These Herbs In Your Colonial Garden

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