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Example of a kitchen garden laid out in parallel rows with the same plants
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Lise Servant)  

How were kitchen gardens laid out?

Examples of gardens that have been restored, for instance at the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens and Fortress of Louisbourg gardens in Nova Scotia, show that they were laid out in parallel rows with the same or a few plants, or radiating from a central point; they were often fenced in.

The British frequently had flowers for cutting and aromatic plants in the centre or along the edges. Some plants intended for use in herbal remedies or beverages were also cultivated.

Since the staff of middle-class families always included a gardener, their homes often had elaborate gardens.

With their meagre resources, settlers living in rural areas had precious little time to work a garden, so they grew the strict minimum – carrots, cabbage, onions, salad vegetables and squash, as well as strawberries, apples, pears and other fruit, with any surplus sold at the nearest market.

But remember, they had big families in those days, so there rarely was a surplus!

The kitchen garden would soon become an extension of the family kitchen, and thus fall under the responsibility of the women of the household. In the manner of nearly all farming communities, the women helped sustain the family by providing added value with the fruit and vegetables they grew and the poultry and small farm animals they raised. In this way they helped overcome hardship due to poor harvests of major crops such as wheat, oats and peas and, to a lesser extent, hemp, flax and corn.

Not until the early 20th century did ornamental elements make a return, whether as part of the kitchen garden or planted in adjoining flowerbeds. While fruit and vegetables were seen as fuelling the body, flower bouquets become an inexpensive way of nourishing the senses.

In Quebec gardens at the time, fragrant peonies, irises, gladioli, phlox, lilacs and hollyhocks required little care and were easily exchanged among farmwives. A number of publications aimed at women living in rural communities highlighted this new form of gardening and the importance of good landscaping. Edwinne von Bayer, in her book Rhetoric and Roses, showed the layout of a 1916 English-Canadian farm, in which a huge vegetable garden was inserted into the patchwork of farmland.

It is clear, therefore, that growers kept the kitchen garden, which was for household use only, separate from their farmland, their main source of income.

When, then, did the transition from the rural garden to the urban or suburban garden, as we know it today, take place? Community gardens and urban plots proved their economic value during the crises in the early 20th century. The two World Wars reduced the availability of market garden produce, markedly in Europe but also to a lesser extent in North America, since many farm workers were suddenly pressed into military service. In addition, and this is especially true for major cosmopolitan cities like Montréal, large groups of newly arrived immigrants from predominantly rural countries (Italy, Portugal, etc.), where gardening was a part of everyday life, settled in the city and recreated their little pieces of paradise in the midst of bricks and concrete.

By 1935, the province of Quebec had some 140,000 farmers, nearly all of them with their own gardens. If we assume 1/5 arpent per family plot, their gardens covered a total of 28,000 arpents; add in the suburban community gardens, home gardens, religious community and educational institution gardens, and it is clear that the official estimate of 35,000 arpents committed to vegetable cultivation fell far short of the truth.

Starting in the mid-1950s, with the exodus of city-dwellers to the suburbs, the vegetable garden gradually came to be seen as an important symbol of the American dream, i.e. a family with 2 or 3 children, a house, a car and a garden.

Based on an article by Céline Arseneault and Daniel Fortin in Quatre-Temps magazine, 18(1): 20-23.

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