Vegetables in a Shaker garden were primarily grown to feed the families in each Village. They were strictly grown according to the plants’ needs, including the season in which the plant was designed to be grown. A secondary focus was for the seeds.
The seeds were used to start the next year’s garden, and to provide seeds for their Shaker Seed businesses. Although they frequently sold their seeds beginning in the late 1700s, the commercial business was started in 1800.
To produce quality seeds, both for their own gardens and sales, the vegetables in a Shaker garden had to be the best that could possibly be grown. In order to produce top quality, the gardens were meticulously maintained.
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Growing Seeds for Vegetables in a Shaker Garden
Although some seeds, such as squash and root vegetables were direct sowed, many of the vegetables in a Shaker garden was started in either a hot or cold frame. A hot frame is usually positioned over a ‘pit’ that is filled with fresh manure and covered heavily with straw. The fresh manure creates heat, and between it and the solar heating provided by the glass covering, the plants can survive all but the absolute coldest of winter.
A cold frame, on the other hand, is an enclosure that is covered in glass, but placed directly on the ground, rather than over a pit. I have a cold frame, but have lined the bottom with cinder block pavers. On top of that I placed a heat mat. I am able to open the windows I used as a covering to vent any heat buildup, and if necessary, can cover the whole thing with a tarp during extreme cold days.
One aspect the Shaker’s eschewed for their gardens was mulching. The vegetables in a Shaker garden were surrounded only by well-weeded soil – no straw, newspaper or other forms of mulch was used to keep the weed production down. Their answer to weds was constant hoeing.
In today’s gardens, many of us do use mulches as a weed-barrier. Although not necessarily as ‘neat’ in appearance to a Shaker, we also don’t have an army of gardeners armed with hoes to keep those weeds out.
The Vegetables in a Shaker Garden
Primarily, the vegetables in a Shaker garden were the ones that provided the food they liked to eat, as well as things that would preserve well for winter meals. Some were grown primarily for seeds, and may or may not have been enjoyed at meal time.
Many of the vegetables they grew and ate were things that would grow in the New England area. The crops were planted according to the season. Spring would find a multitude of lettuce and greens among some of the vegetables in a Shaker garden, where winter squash, Brussels sprouts and broccoli planted in the fall.
In our modified Shaker Garden, we may not grow things such as Double Pepper Grass or Vegetable Oyster (another name for Salsify), but we can still grow many of the things the Shakers grew.
Beans were a staple when it came to vegetables in a Shaker Garden. They are a spring/summer crop, usually planted after the last frost and the soil has warmed to at least 60 degrees. They need fertile well-drained soil to produce well. Beans come in two types – bush and pole. Pole beans require trellis support, and some varieties can grow as much as 8 feet or more. Beans are best planted straight in the garden. Plant your bean seeds at least 8” apart. Bush beans are ready to pick in approximately 48 to 60 days. Some pole bean varieties require 50 to 70 days.
Beans can be eaten fresh, blanched and frozen or canned, using the pressure canning method.
Our weather is too hot for Broccoli, which means here in the Gulf States it is usually planted in the fall. In cooler climates, it can be grown in the spring, and harvested before the summer gets too hot. If starting from seeds, sow them at least 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting into the garden (this works whether you are in a cold or warm climate). Broccoli prefers rich, fertile soil that is well-drained. Space the plants at least 12 to 24” apart. Closer spacing will result in smaller heads. Broccoli is usually ready to cut in approximately 100 to 150 days if started from seeds – 55 to 80 days if growing from transplants.
Broccoli can be eaten fresh, or blanched and frozen.
Cabbage has much the same requirements as broccoli as far as the soil and harvesting time goes. However, to produce those pristine white heads, some types of cabbage needs to be ‘blanched’. This is done when the cabbage head is firm and approximately the size of a softball, or slightly larger. To blanch cabbage, gently pull together the inner leaves and tuck them around the head. Pull the outer leaves together and loosely tie with panty hose or twine. Use a loose knot to enable you to check the plants progress. Cabbage can be harvested in 80 to 180 days if started from seed, 75 to 105 days if transplants.
Cabbage can be eaten fresh, or blanched and frozen. It can also be added to pickled recipes designed for canning, such as Chow Chow.
Carrots are direct sown in the garden, in rows at least 1 to 2 feet apart. Sow them no more than 1/2” deep. Once they are up and are at least 4” tall, they need to be thinned to 2” apart. To avoid thinning, consider using a seed tape. Carrots want loose, sandy, healthy soil, with constant, but not standing moisture. They can be harvested at finger-size, approximately 70 to 80 days. The smaller the carrot, the tastier and sweeter they are.
Carrots can be eaten fresh, blanched and frozen or canned, using the pressure canning method.
Celery takes a long time to grow – approximately 130 to 140 days from seed to harvest. Many gardeners become impatient, so if they grow it at all, they usually start from transplants. If you do try your hand at starting seeds, know that it can take up to 8 to 10 weeks before you can transplant them. To start from seed, make sure the soil is loose. Poke a hole in the center of the soil approximately 2” deep. Lay two to three seeds in the hole, but DO NOT cover with soil! Celery seed needs sunlight to grow. Using a mister or spray bottle, keep the soil moist. Cover with plastic wrap, and mist as needed. Transplant celery when the ground is a minimum of 50 degrees. Space them 12” apart.
Celery can be eaten fresh, or sliced and frozen.
Corn is wind pollinated, so in order for stalks to produce ears, you need at least 3 to 5 rows that are a minimum of 5 feet in order to produce large enough ears. Some corn only produces 1 to 3 ears per stalk, so if you are looking for a larger corn harvest, the more you plant the more you will get. Corn is a warm weather vegetable, and highly susceptible to frost. Plant your corn when the soil is above 50 degrees and the ambient temperature is 60 degrees and above. Plant corn seed 4” apart, and then thin to 1’ apart in rows a minimum of 2’ apart. Corn feeds heavily on nitrogen, so be sure to add organic or natural fertilizer to the plants. Corn can be harvested approximately 3 weeks after the tassels have appeared.
Corn can be eaten on or off the cob, frozen, or canned using the pressure canning method.
Cucumbers require full sun with a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight per day. They love a good feast, so incorporate prepared compost in the row before planting. Plant your seeds 24” to 36” apart. If you use a climbing variety, be sure to provide your cucumbers with a sturdy trellis. Keep your soil consistently moist, but not wet. Cucumbers are susceptible to rot, so be sure your soil is well-drained. Planting in hills helps to prevent water from standing in heavy rains. You can begin to harvest your cucumbers when they are 4” to 6” long. Larger cucumbers can become bitter and tough, so harvest them before they get too long.
Cucumbers can be eaten fresh, or preserved by making pickles or pickle relish.
Lettuce (and other Greens)
Lettuce can easily be grown from seed in small spaces, containers or rows. Greens love a fertile, well-drained (but moist) soil. Plant seeds for head lettuce 12” to 18” apart – leaf lettuce seeds can be sprinkled along the row and thinned, if necessary – and lightly cover with soil. Keep the soil moist, without overwatering, which can cause root rot. Harvest your lettuce from 30 to 70 days after planting, depending on the size lettuce you plant.
Lettuce is primarily eaten fresh.
Peppers are a warm to hot weather plant. Plant them outside after the last frost, approximately 12” to 24” apart. Some varieties may require staking, due to the heavy fruit. Plant them in well-drained soil in a location that receives full sun. Bell Peppers take longer than most plants to mature – approximately 60 to 90 days. When harvesting, use a sturdy pair of gardening scissors or a knife to prevent damage to the stalk.
Peppers can be eaten fresh, in stir fries or cut in half and frozen.
Squash produces best in the warmth of the spring, but not as well in the hot summer. Plant squash seeds at least 36” apart in fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny location. Harvest squash when it is 3” to 6” in length.
Squash can be eaten fresh, steamed, and in casseroles. Squash is best when blanched and frozen, although it can be preserved using the pressure canning method.
Tomatoes can be grown in the ground, raised beds or containers, but most varieties require staking. Plant tomatoes 24” to 36” apart in fertile well-drained soil. Tomatoes required 6 to 8 hours of sun per day, but may need a bit of shade during the extreme heat of the summer. Depending on the variety, tomatoes can take between 60 to 100 days to harvest. For a better harvest, consider using Basil as a companion planted between each tomato plant.
Tomatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables. They can be eaten fresh, frozen, made into sauces or preserved in numerous ways such as salsa, whole or diced, and relishes, most of which use the water bath method of canning.
Turnips are staple vegetables in a Shaker Garden. They are a cool weather crop and can be planted form seed in well-drained, loose soil. Seeds can be planted 1/2” deep, 1” apart (thin thinned once they are approximately 4″ high) in rows spaced 12” to 18” – or – seeds can be scattered across a prepared bed and thinned to 4” to 6” apart. Harvest the green when they are still small by cutting them at least 1/2” inch from the base. The turnips can be harvested when small, as they taste better than the larger bulbs.
Turnips are usually used in soups and stews, and can be preserved using the pressure canning method.
Where to Find Seeds for your Garden
I have a list of favorite places where I shop for seeds. Here is the short list. If you would like more information on these companies, visit me at When You Need to Order Seeds, But Don’t Know the Best Companies.
Vegetables weren’t the only thing the Shakers grew. Herbs were a primary focus for many reasons. Find out more about Herbs in the Shaker Garden – coming up next!
Did you miss the first Shaker Gardens post? Not a problem – it’s right here!
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