What Makes a Colonial Garden?

colonial garden

QUESTION: I hear so much about colonial gardens, but I don’t know exactly what the term means. What makes a colonial garden? — Stacy K.

ANSWER: There’s a lot to learn about the design of colonial gardens. They’re complex by nature, blending the plants and techniques of the gardener’s home region with the resources they found in the newly settled country of America. We’ve done some research and are ready to break all that information down into some simple guidelines you can use to either design your own colonial garden or just learn about what makes a colonial garden here.

Do Away With Cement in Favor of Natural Stone.

Cement or concrete has no place in the colonial garden. Gardeners of this era relied on natural stone for their hardscaping. Look into what you can do with brick, flagstone, slate, or stone pavers. If you have decided to use stamped concrete instead, you can choose an option that looks like natural stone to amp up the colonial style in your garden. 

Choose Native and British Plants for Your Colonial Garden.

Just like America’s history wouldn’t be the same without the U.K., our concept of a colonial garden wouldn’t be the same without both native and British plants. Consider plants like azaleas, boxwood, clematis, daylily, dianthus, English ivy, hollyhock, hydrangea, iris, lilies, and rose

growing lilacs

Every Good Colonial Garden Includes Herbs.

Setting aside a corner for an herb garden is a large part of what makes colonial gardens so special. Because they were designed for functionality, of course they included plantings of herbs, which were often placed right outside the kitchen door. When herbs weren’t given their own space, you’d commonly find them mixed in with the vegetables in the main garden. However, pungent herbs were kept in separate herb gardens even when other herbs grew mixed in with the veggies. Herbs that you’ll commonly find in a colonial garden include anise, borage, calendula, chamomile , chives, dill, lavender, mint, rosemary, and wormwood

In addition to culinary herbs, colonial gardeners also grew herbs to use in medicine or to put to use as homemade dye. Plants grown for use in dyes include blackberries, black walnut, chokecherries, elderberries, goldenrod, lilac, lily of the valley, marigold, mulberry trees, Queen Anne’s lace, snapdragon, sunflower.

growing chamomile

Include Vegetables to Up Your Colonial Garden’s Functionality.

Of course colonial gardens are beautiful, but what’s more, they are very practical. From the layout and design to the plants gardeners cultivated, everything had its purpose. Incorporate this philosophy in your colonial garden by adding vegetables. They often grew alongside flowers and herbs in the main garden beds. Large plants like beans and pumpkins are best grown in outlying fields or along the edges of your property. When a gardener’s property had hills, they could grow early crops like peas, lettuce, and radishes sooner in the season on southern-facing slopes than they otherwise could.

Keep Large Pieces of Outdoor Decor Era-Appropriate.

When it comes to decorating your garden, you have another chance to instill colonial garden style in your own garden. First, consider planting some large trees if your property is light on them. One or two big trees is the minimum number you’ll find in colonial gardens. At the beginning of the colonial era, you’d find fruit trees planted on the outskirts of the garden, along the outside edges of the property. Eventually, trees would be a focal point of the garden and would be situated inside the larger square or rectangular areas.

Aside from trees, you can also infuse your garden with colonial style if you choose arbors, benches, fountains, stone walls, or sundials to decorate. These large pieces of outdoor decor make an excellent focal point for your garden. Traditionally, that focal point was normally set at the center of the garden and distinguished by a large, centrally placed walkway leading up to it.

Set Your Colonial Garden Boundaries With Fencing.

If you spend much time looking at colonial gardens, you’ll find that they have one thing in common: using fences to mark out the space. Laws during the colonial era stipulated that all properties be surrounded by borders at least four and half feet high. 

In the commercial realm, these borders often take the shape of brick walls. But around private residences or colonial gardens, you’ll typically find picket, post, or rail fences. Bricks can be used as edging around the perimeter of garden beds.

Hedges are an alternative to fencing, although they weren’t quite as common during the colonial era. They were viewed as a cheaper option than fencing, but hedges still serve their function of shielding gardens from animal intruders or rough winds.

Design Your Garden Layout With Colonial Style in Mind.

Yes, there’s a “standard” layout that’s used in the majority of colonial gardens: four quarters divided by paths that separate them. Symmetrical garden layouts make up the majority, as they match the look of the house and are also easy to use and work in. The traditional colonial garden is made up of straight lines and right angles: square and rectangle garden beds separated by parallel and perpendicular paths. The shape colonial gardens follow is called a quincunx, consisting of four rectangular or square areas with a fifth center zone.

Although the standard in colonial style is a square or rectangular garden in front of the house, divided with straight paths, there was some historical deviation from this formula. Especially in rural areas, you’d find gardens surrounding structures and work areas such as buildings, fences, livestock pens, and walkways. Herb gardens, or those including small vegetables, were normally positioned right outside the kitchen door. And unlike in Victorian times, colonists did not normally plant flowers around the foundation of their homes.

Use Close-Packed Rows and Paved Walkways to Hone In On Colonial Style.

Don’t be afraid to really cram the rows in when you design your colonial garden. Colonists often kept gardens of close-packed rows to make the most of the space they had available. These days, most of us have more space than the colonists, who worked gardens that were only 40 or 50 feet wide. More often than not, paved walkways surrounded each bed or part of the garden. Colonists paved their walkways with crushed clamshells, bark, gravel, or soil. They were also known to line walkways with planks, especially when the weather was rainy or snowy.

Use Raised Beds for Historical Accuracy.

Many of us think of raised beds as a modern invention, but the colonists relied on them, too. A colonial garden often included raised beds that were either square or rectangular. They relied on raised beds in these shapes to make sure all the plants in their garden were easy to access for care and maintenance. Colonists also loved to surround the raised beds in their gardens with saplings or small trees.

America’s early colonizers came to this new country with the traditions of the gardens they had come from: elaborate, fancy European designs. Colonial garden style emerged as these gardeners paid homage to where they had come from while adjusting their gardening approach to suit their new environment. The result was just as elaborate as the European garden standard, but replicated on a much smaller scale. And just like the letters colonists sent home, the gardens on their property sent a clear message—one of resourcefulness, beauty, practicality, and abundance.

Learn more about colonial gardens





colonial garden with text overlay what makes a colonial garden

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