The Colonial Theme Garden

I have been to Colonial Williamsburg many times, and I have enjoyed wandering through the massive gardens, beautifully recreated. I have also visited many recreated colonial gardens in towns in upstate New York. They're beautiful, but a little bit too formal for me. I'm just not geometrically inclined or disciplined enough. Except for the raised beds ideas. Although you can easily create a more informal Cottage Garden using Colonial style basics and have more flowering plants. Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon and Monticello are by far my favorite garden places.
Colonial "Revival" gardens aren't intended to exactly replicate actual colonial gardens or colonial planting schemes. They are romanticized and visionary versions of true colonial gardens.

The Colonial Revival garden is typified by simple rectangular beds, straight pathways through the garden, and perennial plants from the fruit, ornamental flower, and vegetable groups.The garden is usually enclosed, often by low walls, fences, or hedges. The "colonial garden" generally refers to the most common type of garden found in the 13 British colonies.

The Colonial gardens, floral and herbal, were common in both the farmyard and the city home. 
Out of necessity, the first Colonial herb gardens were primarily kitchen gardens planted with herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables. As the Colonial folks became more affluent, separate gardens were added to grow only flowers or for serenity, like Thomas Jefferson’s flower walk at Monticello or the formal beds at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. Tansy, parsley, onion, beets, walnut and bayberry were a few of the many plants used to create fabric dyes. I used a dye from onions and another from walnuts. The walnut dye is pretty strong and dark. The onion was a nice light yellow. Word to the wise...... walnut and beet juice dyes are almost impossible to get off your skin for a few days.  Wear Gloves!

Colonial gardens tended to be small and close to the house. A straight walkway generally extended on a line equal with the entrance to the house through the center of the garden (This layout was often abandoned in the north, where it was more important to site the garden so the building protected it from northwest winds.). Perpendicular straight paths often extended from this central path.[6] Planting beds were usually square or rectangular, although circular beds were also seen. In almost all cases, beds were raised to provide good drainage. Beds could sometimes be bordered with low-growing, neat plants such as chive or pinks.[9] In areas with a Spanish influence, orchards generally were attached to the garden.

The paths in the Colonial American garden were generally of brick, gravel, or stone. Brick was more commonly used in the south, however. Enclosure of the garden was common, often with boxwood hedges or wooden fences. Picket fences were common, but boxwood was usually used only in the south and in the later colonial period.

Colonial Revival gardens also usually incorporate a "feature" like an arbor, bench, or fountain at the center of the garden where the paths intersect. Such features were elements of the late colonial period only.

Plantings in colonial gardens were generally not separated by type. Fruits, herbs, ornamental flowers, and vegetables were usually mixed together in the same planting bed. Ornamental flowers were often grown closer to the house

Fruit trees would sometimes line paths, to provide shade and produce, but fruit bushes were as common as fruit trees and always planted in the interior of the garden. Fruit trees would also be planted along the external border of the garden (while wealthier people with more land planted them in orchards). Ornamental shrubs were rare, but could include azalea, lilac, and mock orange.

A stand-alone herb garden was uncommon in the United States. However, Colonial American herb gardens were generally of the same design as other gardens. They were usually less than 5 feet across, and often consisted of four square plots separated by gravel paths. More commonly, herbs were mixed in with flowers and other plants. Commonly planted herbs included angelica, basil, burnet, calendula, caraway, chamomile, chervil, coriander, comfrey, dill, fennel, licorice, mint, nasturtium, parsley, sage, and tarragon. Herbs to a Colonial American did not have the same meaning as the words does in modern America. To colonists, "herb" meant not only savory plants added to dishes to enhance flavor but included medicinal plants as well as greens (such as nasturtiums and calendulas) meant to be eaten raw or cooked as part of a salad.

Wikipedia-based reference


Colonial Garden Plants

just like in the song....
- cooks seasoned food with parsley and prized the herb as a health tonic.

Sage -Enhances the flavor of game meats and stews. Sage was also used as a medicinal herb. Antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Rosemary- used as a culinary herb for lamb, game, and stew dishes. As the herb of "remembrance", rosemary was added to wedding cakes or puddings. 

Thyme - and lemon thyme flavored foods and was used in medicinal preparations.


Lavender - Dried lavender would be tucked among stored clothes to refresh them by infusing the garments with their scent. and was used in sachets or potpourri.

Bee balm - A tea substitute used after the Boston Tea Party, when black tea imported from England was difficult or impossible to acquire. 

Tansy - was grown for its pleasant scent and the yellow hue for dying.

Mint - Used in teas and cooking. It was also used to treat stomach upsets.

Violet - added a sweet scent to the water used for washing. 

Wormwood - It sports a mass of silvery-gray, aromatic foliage

yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to the list of Colonial favorites. Used in treating wounds.

Angelica - used by the many Native American Tribes for its medicinal value.  The root was used to help with stomach ailments as well as other illnesses.  It has strong antibacterial well.  This plant is very tall (6 feet tall), and was planted in the beds next to the edible gardens.

Chamomile - most often used as a sleep aid, the plant was used to create a green dye.

Clary Sage - The Romans discovered that this plant when mixed with water was an effective eye wash.  It has also been shown to stimulate female hormones and was given to older women who suffer from hormone decrease.  It is often used today in creating perfumes.

Feverfew -This plant was given to reduce fevers. A bit invasive if not kept in bounds. This plant would have been included in the typical "door garden", planted by the by the front door and bordered by a fence. 

Lady's Bedstraw - It was dried and used to stuff mattresses. The flowers made the bed soft, and it also killed fleas in the mattress. They were a plague to the colonists and were quite rampant. On both animals and humans.

Lamb's Ear - Nature's Band-Aid. Colonists didn't want to waste cloth on a small cut. So they attached lamb's ear.  It was also used in place of a washcloth. It was considered a weed in the middle east, but this fuzzy plant has been popularized in gardens for children.  Take care not to let it get out of control and revert back to being an invasive weed.

Making A Colonial Garden Topiary

Another pretty thing, but not practical for me time- or patience-wise. Maybe someday i'll garner the discipline.
I am fine with filling trellises and fencing with climbing vines, leaving any decorations on the trellis to be seen through the vines.

I'm a vine design person. When it comes to adding decorative looks in the garden, and filling in areas horizontally or vertically. There are topiary forms available, but i usually use the frame of something upcycled to create a living sculpture when i need one. Shrub topiaries were quite popular, formal, and maintenance intensive. You just trim your shrub into the shape you want. But that is total commitment to pruning and shaping it constantly and forever.

My reason for topiary and trellises is usually to hide something awful in the garden. Topiaries were in many colonial revival gardens and in fronts of homes, at the front door. They look spectacular. As does a row of topiary trees down the center of a geometrically correct colonial garden. I'm perfectly happy twisting vines around a shape that comes naturally to a plant.

I do have a kernel of an idea on creating a topiary with succulents. Big project i'll keep you posted about.

Topiary with vines

Topiary forms – I use trellises and vintage metal cages that went with something different a long time ago. Wines will need to be trained into or around a form. Clematis, honeysuckle and ivy are my favorite vines to train. Thick vines won't do as well and will blur the lines of your shape, unless trimmed close to the shape of the form.

If creating a shrub topiary, the most popular plant to use is any of the short-leaved boxwoods. Cedars are very pretty and smell great. There are a few dwarfs out there that will cut the labor time down a bit.

Ivy is the most popular vine to use, but i'll use anything that grows quickly and is perennial. I have several different types of ivy. All are variegated and add dimension and interest. A plain green ivy topiary is just not me. These ideas are for shaping vines.

Plant the vine around the form – I like to use at least 2 to fill in quickly and thickly. You can make a potted topiary or an outdoor topiary in the ground. Just plant the vine around the form so that it can grow up the form. I usually "plant" a trellis, a teepee-shaped batch of plain green metal plant stakes, or any wire shape in a pot when i design a topiary, and plant 2 or 3 plants around the form. As the plants grow, train them to your form by helping them train around it. 

I do this version of "flat" or one-dimensional topiary on my fences, as well. Great idea that was.... getting a tall fence with a trellis panel at the top. The vines will grow where i tie or wind them to grow. I prefer to do this in pots, so that none of the vines escape into the main garden or grow out of bounds through runners or shoots. Once the plant begins to climb, it's much easier, and takes less maintenance time to control. The vine can be twisted up the stake and trimmed as you go along. Offshoots of the vine can be tied to the fence to resemble branches. And pruned to stay that way. That's what i call my Tree of Life. Errant branching with nowhere to attach them to stick to your design outlines will always happen. Be sure to cut these nowhere stems off, and root them for other purposes. Once they feel at home, they will insist on growing the wrong way. Do the same with any shoots at the bottom of the plant, to control the width and spread.

After you've gotten the shape you wanted the vines to grow in, you will have to constantly prune it to stay that shape. No plant grows evenly or in the direction you want it to. To fill in a shape, just push some of the vines into the center of your form. I don't use topiary forms, so it's an easy matter to cover a trellis.  Or something that can serve as a garden sculpture. There are some very pretty pyramid and obelisk-shaped wire frame plant stakes and small trellises that look great covered totally, or partially, with vines. You can also use iron plant stakes that have openwork, and train a topiary that way. Or place a plant into the center of something appropriate, and allow it to fill the inner part and then  train the vines to grow around the outer part. There are lots of open wire-framed garden elements, but i have found a lot of interesting vintage farm and architectural items that work well, too.

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