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Gardening in Kansas

Cabbage garden in Haskell County The spring season symbolizes a special time of renewal—a regeneration of life and vegetation that is the very essence of survival. For our ancestors who sustained themselves from crops and garden produce, it probably was the most significant of the four seasons. Our 19th century forebears were quite self-sufficient producers, for what they ate for a winter's dinner depended upon what they saved from a summer's crop.

In today's harried lives with fast food chains, instant breakfasts, TV dinners, ready-in-minutes, brown-and-serve, one does not have time to waste preparing meals let alone worrying about growing garden produce. How very different in 19th-century Kansas when vegetable, or kitchen gardens, dominated the landscape around the home or farmstead. Horticulture in its many manifestations dictated a goodly portion of the family's workday during the growing season. Of these culinary pursuits, vegetable gardens were the most essential to their survival.

Before miracle fertilizers, chemical pesticides, hybrid seeds, and pH soil tests, our ancestors depended upon simple techniques that provided good harvests. They grew a much greater variety of vegetables (and fruits) than we do now, and they developed methods to extend their home-grown bounty throughout the year.

The modern garden is designed for fresh eating in the summer, and if the time, space, and surplus vegetables are available, the gardener will put aside some things for winter. In the 19th century, the family garden was grown primarily for a year-round supply of vegetables; the fresh vegetables and greens of the summer months were a bonus to enjoy.

Much of the earlier gardens were given over to vegetables that stored well—carrots, beets, and turnips. Beans and peas were generously planted because they were traditional in the diet of the time. These too were primarily for winter use. In contrast, less space was given to lettuce, which was of the romaine type, or mustard greens. These were supplemented with wild edibles such as wild dandelions, curly dock, and such plants as pokeweed for fresh eating.

Cabbages also were grown with storage in mind. This universal crop was used as an article of food in various ways. These were stored by hanging them upside down in a root cellar, or buried in a pit or "grave." Irish potatoes likewise were grown with the intent of storing the excess crop for winter usage. This vegetable, known as a root crop, was popular in both city and country kitchen gardens. "Sweet" corn—although the early varieties were not so sweet—had a long history of usage dating back long before the arrival of Euro-Americans. It could be eaten fresh or dried and ground into meal, which also made a variety of dishes.

In addition to vegetable crops, a few culinary herbs were grown and were intermixed with or grown separately from vegetables. Some of the most frequently grown included horseradish, sage, basil, parsley, marjoram, chives, mint, dill, and summer savory. Some were eaten fresh and others were dried for future use. Unusual for today's garden are the hops grown to make a yeast culture.

This quick overview of 19th century gardening hardly gives justice to the many facets of gardening that could be shared. Gardening was popular from necessity in the 19th century, and much was written about gardening in newspapers and other publications of the period.

Entry: Gardening in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2009

Date Modified: June 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.