The Shaker Garden – A Practical Approach

In March, our hearts and hands begin to itch, and the only way to scratch that itch is bury our arms up to our elbows in garden soil. It’s still too wet and cold to do that here, so instead, I am going to start scratching with posts! First up we will talk about the practical approach – the Shaker Garden. From there, we will take a bit of a ‘whimsy’ break with fun things to create for your garden, and then shift back to creative but useful projects.

Are you ready to start digging?

a shaker garden

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…’

When you think about a Shaker garden, this verse seems to epitomize the entire concept of how this group viewed their lives and their approach to growing food for their families.

It is the first line from a song written in 1848 and attributed to Joseph Brackett, one of the Shaker elders who lived at the Alfred Shaker Village. Although the most popular and familiar Shaker saying is ‘Hands to work, Hearts to God’, and probably fits the gardening concept better, it is the idea of simplicity being a gift that resonates deep within my heart.

My own garden is a place of sanctuary for me. As I tend to my plants, I pray. When pulling weeds, I envision yanking all my troubles out of my mind. Gardening offers me a sense of freedom from the dependency of others to feed my family.

Who Were the Shakers?

The Shakers were a religious sect founded by Ann Lee. She and a group of other Quakers left England in 1780 to escape religious persecution. Instead of sticking completely with the Quaker beliefs, ‘Mother’ Ann Lee made several changes, including celibacy, as one of the requirements of joining the Shaker ‘family’.

Members were recruited from ‘outside’ and included children as well as adults. The children were either part of a family who chose to join, or had been orphaned and taken in to care for by ‘family’. Housing was designed to segregate the men and women to ‘encourage’ celibacy.

To become a member, the families or individuals were required to donate all of their land and possessions to the sect. This allowed them to either use the land acquired as part of their home, or sell land that wasn’t nearby to purchase additional land surrounding their location. In turn, the members were fed, and provided medical care and safe housing.

Every member was required to work at some capacity.  Children were also assigned duties according to age and ability. Although each member worked in different areas according to their skills, all members were required to work in the garden during harvest season – whether in the field or in the kitchen preparing the fruits, vegetables and herbs for preserving.

Although Shakers provided much of their own food and supplies, they did provide items to sell in order to have enough income to purchase those they were unable to make. Skilled craftsmen made furniture and other gardening and household supplies. Any item made was done so to near perfection, which earned them a strong reputation for their goods.

But these items didn’t produce enough income to support the large families (there were several ‘families’ in the Northeast, as well as Ohio and other states). They begin selling herb and vegetables seeds, and soon medicinal herb mixtures, including tinctures. It was this venture that provided the best income.

In 1920, only 20 Shaker communities were still functioning. Today, only two Shaker members remain. There are also two living museums that depict the Shaker lifestyle – The Shaker Village in Sabbathday Lake, Maine and Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsville, Massachusetts.

The Shaker Garden

When researching different garden styles, the Shaker garden resonated with me. Straight lines, neat rows, healthy soil and a heavy dose of faith for fertilizer were the basic requirements. From there, they tended their gardens daily with loving care. The results were healthy plants, an abundant harvest and plenty of fresh and preserved food to feed the large ‘families’.

a shaker garden

Layout & Design

The following is an excerpt* from the The Gardener’s Manual, a pamphlet originally offered in 1835 by the Shakers and sold for six cents. This excerpt* is from the updated publication from 1843:

Situation – In choosing a site for a garden, a spot of even land, slightly inkling to the south or east, and having the full benefit of the sun, is to be preferred. It should be situated near the dwelling, and neatly enclosed with a high wall, or a tight board fence.

Soil –Deep, dry, light, and rich, are the essential requisites of a good garden soil; and if not so naturally, it should be made so by art. If wet, draining should be resorted to; if too shallow, deep ploughing; if poor, manuring; if stony, they should be got off: – and thus should ever impediment and obstruction to a good sweet soil, be reversed or removed, by industry or art.

Size – The size of a garden depends upon the number to be supplied from it, and the kinds of vegetables intended to be raised in it. For a family of six persons, one quarter of a n acre is sufficient for most of the kinds raised from seeds commonly retailed at the country stores. But if desirable to have fruit trees, shrubs, strawberry beds, early potatoes, &c, enclosed within the same fence that encloses the garden, it must be made larger, in proportion to the quantity wanted.

The shape of the garden should be either square or oblong, both for convenience and looks.

*from The Gardener’s Manual, published by The United Society, New Lebanon, Columbia Co., NY, 1843

This pamphlet has been reproduced and is still available (in pdf form), although the cost is more than the original six cents. Still, having a copy has been a great resource for my own quest in growing a Shaker garden in my own space.

To order your copy, consider purchasing it from the Hancock Shaker Village. Your purchase will help to support the museum and keep this valuable piece of history alive. Just note: I am NOT an affiliate for Hancock Shaker Village. However, I have been there, and greatly admire the work they do to preserve the Shaker way of life.

a shaker garden

Today’s Gardens

As you can see, neatness of the space and the health of the soil were predominant considerations for a Shaker garden. Although not practical for gardener’s today, many of the elements can still be applied.

A garden facing the south or southeast, does provide the most sun. As most vegetables require at least 6 to 8 hours of sun a day, situating a garden in this direction is best. A garden that slopes slightly helps with drainage, and prevents your garden from standing in water during heavy rain.

Maintaining a healthy compost pile goes hand-in-hand with a Shaker garden or one in your backyard. If you don’t have space for a large pile, there are other, smaller options. If your garden consists of a few containers, consider mini compost bins. If you have a sunny corner of a backyard, a compost pile can be created and contained in a plastic swimming pool.

Larger homesteads can create their compost in sectional bins or in a pile. Regardless of the size of your compost, it is something you may want to seriously consider if at all possible. Purchased compost can get expensive, and may contain more than the usual amount of weed seeds and other chemicals that can be hazardous to your plants.

a  shaker garden

Modifications for Today’s Shaker Garden

Today’s gardens are usually smaller, but can be modified to fit the design of a Shaker garden. My own kitchen garden is approximately 32’ x 32’, using the straight row plan. There is enough space to plant seven rows, with the first and seventh row on the very edges of the space. The straight rows also make it easier to incorporate an irrigation system in the garden.

There may also not be enough room to surround your garden with a wall or fence. But maintaining the grassy area around it is paramount to keeping the grass from encroaching into the growing area. If you do want to use something to separate the garden from the lawn, but don’t have the means to build a fence, consider something simple like bricks, stone, or decorative edging.

Companion Planting

The Shaker garden did incorporate companion planting, however, companions were planted in adjacent rows, rather than blended together.

As a space-saving measure, today’s gardeners may plant companions together, such as basil in between tomato plants. This not only helps to produce healthier plants, but allows for more harvest to be gained in smaller spaces.

a shaker garden

Other Gardening Styles

If straight lines aren’t your ‘thing’, you can use any design elements in your garden you choose – theme gardens, or designs from curved or circular to raised beds. This style of gardening is reflective of the Potager – or kitchen garden – and can be laid out according to your preference.

The description of the larger garden in the size section of The Gardener’s Manual is highly reflective of this style of garden. Although the Shakers’ version still requires straight rows, a kitchen garden may be made up into separate beds with pathways in between. Many kitchen gardens also include some type of water feature as well.

A kitchen garden is traditionally planted outside the back door, and as close to the home as possible. This allows for a quick trip to the garden to snip a few herbs or gather fresh vegetables for meals.

Grow a Shaker Garden

Now that we know the basics of how a Shaker garden is designed and laid out, it’s time to start thinking about what to put in our gardens. In the next few posts, we will talk about the vegetables and herbs they used, as well as a bit about the fruits and grain they grew.

Although you would not find ornamentation in a Shaker garden – get ready! I plan on modifying my garden to include a couple of practical, necessary items with a tweak of whimsy in mine. And, of course, I will show you how to make them for your own garden, as well!

Searching for the rest of the posts in the March Gardening series? Check these out!

Vegetables in a Shaker Garden

Herbs in the Shaker Garden

How to Build a Scarecrow

How to Make your own Seed Packets

Build a Seed Tray

Garden Trellises – Where Practical Meets Whimsy

Decorative Garden & Row Markers

Create a Container Herb Garden

Julie Murphree is a blogger, newspaper columnist, and speaker on all things ‘Living a Simple Life on the Farm’. She is the author of \\\'The Farm Wife – Living a Simple Life on the Farm. She and her husband have 60 acres in NW Louisiana where they actively work on living as sustainable as possible.

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