Gardening: An American Tradition


Gardening in America has, throughout our 245 year history as a nation, been a means for survival, cultural preservation, and community building. We celebrate at Thanksgiving each year the pilgrims efforts to survive in Plymouth, paired with the First Peoples efforts to help them learn to cultivate the land. As we look back on our Nation’s history on 4th of July, there is no denying we became a nation, in part, because people learned to garden here and cultivate the soil to grow life.


The Southwest: Puebloans among America’s First Farmers

Agriculture has always played an important role in the health, wealth and prosperity of Native People’s tribes. The Southwest region, expanding through present-day Arizona and New Mexico into Colorado, Texas, Utah and Mexico was home to a variety of indigenous groups and cultural practices, and were collectively called “Pueblo” people by the Spanish. Historians credit these four corners native peoples, in particular the Anasazis, Mongollons and Hohokams as the first farmers in America. In the Arid Southwest, Ancestral Pueblos developed complex irrigation systems to maintain crops in the hot sun. Native peoples started by planting corn, then expanded to beans and squash. Corn cultivation continues to permeate stories and artwork of Puebloan people, as they regarded the harvest of corn not only a nutritional necessity but a spiritual gift (Kahn Academy: “Native American Culture of the Southwest”). Eventually, most Puebloans fled the area, probably due to drought, a challenge we still face periodically today in the West.

A Gardening Mentorship: The Wampanoag’s and the Pilgrims

As it turned out, New England soil wasn’t quite as fertile as England’s soil where pilgrims would have grown rye, barley and wheat and a variety of English garden vegetables. In Modern Farmer’s Article “The Pilgrims had no Idea how to Farm Here. Luckily, They Had the Native Americans” (Nov 23, 2016), The Wampanoag grew corn, squash and beans known as the “Three Sisters” because they did really well in the poor sandy soil that didn’t retain nutrients well. The article states, “Beans are nitrogen fixers, pulling nitrogen from the air, and with the help of soil microbes, turn the nitrogen into plant food. The corn provides the beans a support on which to grow and the squash helps with water retention and weed control.” The Wampanoag also taught the pilgrims to use wood ash and fish as plant fertilizers. Tom Sauer, with the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service said, “Wood ash would have been a relatively concentrated nutrient source that contains calcium, which acts as a liming agent to raise the pH level. It also contains potassium and smaller amounts of phosphorous and other nutrients” which would have helped the pilgrims survive.

Once they learned to grow, the colonists at Plymouth called their town a “plantation” a word that derives from the word “plant”. They cleared rocky and forested Eastern land to create pastoral fertile landscapes, the discarded rocks turned in to border walls grown over but still visible today.

Celebrating Cultivating Land in Song

One of my favorite patriotic songs focuses on farming as part of our national heritage:


“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plains.”


Interestingly, it was Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, who wrote the poem in 1893 that became the song and called the poem “Pikes Peak”. She was inspired by a trip to Colorado to teach at Colorado College. Riding the train across America, the wheat fields of the Kansas heartland and the majestic view of the Great Plains from high atop Pikes Peak made it into her poem, which became the much loved American anthem we know today. Note: The initial poem stated “O great for halcyon skies”. In case you aren’t quite sure what that means, like myself, I looked it up.


Halcyon: Denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful.

The tune came to Samuel Ward, the organist and choir director at Grace Church, Newark, while he was on a ferryboat trip from Coney Island back to his home in New York City. Though there were several iterations of the poem and the song, “America the Beautiful” was published in 1910 and is what we teach our children today and sing to celebrate our nation’s heritage. Bates was initially surprised by the poem’s success and later reflected its enduring “hold as it has upon our people, is clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.” (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “America the Beautiful,” 1893).

Slave Gardens: A Slice of Freedom

When we think about gardening as a survival action, slaves brought from Africa and the Caribbean were sent to work in plantations, especially plantations of sugar cane, with daggers for sharp leaves shredding their hands. Owners initially provided mostly yams for food, but then realized the easiest and cheapest way to feed their slave force was to let slaves grow their own gardens. In some countries including America, some slaves were allowed to grow extra and take the produce to Sunday markets. Growing gardens not only allowed slaves a plot of land that was theirs to maintain and benefit from, gardening prepared many for a life of freedom if some of them later acquired it (Financial Times, Sept 21, 2018-“Reflections on Slave Gardens”). Slaves also cultivated flowers for healing oils. The Financial Times articles points out, “In the grim framework of slavery these gardens are a tiny patch of painful light”. And in truth, slaves would often work by candlelight in their garden plots, in the evening hours they were allowed. When we talk about freedom, we have to consider that was not always the case for ancestors of African Americans alive today.


Preserving Cultural Histories: Our American Fabric

In the HuffPost article, “How Asian Americans Use Kitchen Gardens to Reclaim Their Heritage” (Aug 23, 2019), Roy Vu, history professor, states, “In U.S. history, gardening and gardens have served as a political act and place.” Vu says that one of the many reasons kitchen gardening is common in Vietnamese and Vietnamese American communities is that “for Vietnamese refugees, before their exodus, many of them had their own kitchen gardens in Vietnam and were taught by their parents and grandparents how to garden. while resettling in the United States, they resumed this practice of gardening their own produce, in part to preserve and maintain their (traditional) foodways.” Gardening for immigrants has, for centuries, helped people preserve their culture while creating new tightly woven communities based on shared appreciation of familiar produce, herbs and recipes as well as passed down cultural traditions that have become part of our American fabric.

Colorado has a tradition of agriculture and ranching. Rose Roots Garden has the pleasure of having a relatively new CSA Neighbor, “Forever West Farms” who also farms the Brighton based “Bromley Hishinuma Farm” named after the Japanese Families who cultivated the land for over 4 generations and the Bromley family who built one of Colorado’s largest ranches there. Today there is a museum on site celebrating the Asian and American farmers who cultivated Colorado’s land.


Victory Gardens: Americans come Together

According to History’s article “America’s Patriotic History Gardens” (Aug 31, 2018), throughout both world wars, the Victory Garden campaign served as a successful means of boosting morale, expressing patriotism, safeguarding against food shortages on the home front, and easing the burden on the commercial farmers working hard to feed troops and civilians overseas. In 1942, roughly 15 million families planted victory gardens; by 1944, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced roughly 8 million tons of food—which was the equivalent of more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States.


Similarly, during WWI, a severe food crisis in Europe emerged with all the agricultural workers. the US Government encouraged people to plant all idle land with food, including schools, company grounds, parks, backyards, and available lots. Women’s groups, civic associations and chambers of commerce distributed pamphlets to train people on how and where to sow, the best crops to plant, and tips on preventing disease and insect infestation. The effort was so successful, the government focused on encouraging people to jar, can, and dry surplus crops. The federal Bureau of Education initiated a U.S. School Garden Army to mobilize children to enlist as “soldiers of the soil.” These nationwide efforts resulted in 3 million new garden plots planted in 1917 and more than 5.2 million plots were cultivated in 1918, generating an estimated 1.45 million quarts of canned fruits and vegetables. These patriotic efforts kept many Americans and those overseas alive.

New York City 1940's victory gardens

Latinos Grow Much of our Nation's Food

Growing up in California's fertile San Juaquin Valley, it was clear who harvested nearly all the food we ate: mostly Latino families. As my dad taught migrant children, I learned about Cesar Chavez who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. As a child of a farm working migrant family, he attended 37 schools. Most of his schools and US Navy service time was segregated. later, as an activist, Cesar made people aware of the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions, including educating people on the effects of pesticides on migrant worker families. Migrant workers who harvest much of the nation's food continue to struggle, but Cesar Chavez became a leader for their continuing cause.

Today, Latino immigrant men make up the majority of suburban home garden maintenance teams. There’s a hierarchy among jardineros, as the gardeners are called. These jardineros who own the truck and interact with customers will frequently pay assistants, or ayudantes. According to the World's article, "California's gardens tell an Immigrant Story" (March 25, 2015), in the 60's and 70's in California, Mexican men were trained by Japanese gardeners, who dominated the profession at that time. Today, Latino men dominate the industry. Traditional Mexican vegetables and herbs can be seen throughout American gardens including tomatillos, peppers, cilantro, tomatoes, squash, corn and spearmint.


Let Freedom Ring: The Privileges we Enjoy