Harvest of Freedom: The History of Kitchen Gardens in America

The American nation had its beginnings as a colony of settlers arriving to a new world in search of arable land. The kitchen garden plot—a field of cultivated land yielding a reliable supply of food for the family—figured prominently in the early American psyche as a means to achieve the household security and economic independence that were elusive dreams for many in the Old World. Horticultural specialists like Bernard M’Mahon, author of The American Gardener’s Calendar (1804), came from Europe inspired by a mission to seize upon the opportunities offered by the vast new country and promote the kind of good gardening “which might naturally be expected from an intelligent, happy, independent people, possessed so universally of landed property, unoppressed by taxation or tithes, and blest with consequent comfort and affluence.”

Kitchen gardens lost their centrality to the household economy as the United States developed from an agrarian republic to an industrialized society in the 19th century. Yet they have remained an important element of American culture, re-emerging as the center of a grass-roots movement for “victory gardens” during the First and Second World Wars, as manifestations of the good life for American suburbanites and symbols of a productive work ethic for American school children, as havens for the protection of heirloom vegetables against the loss of biodiversity. Drawing from the special collections of Mann Library and the Ethel Zoe Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection of the Bailey Hortorium, this exhibit highlights the changing yet enduring history of kitchen gardening in America.

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IntroductionGuides for GardenersHeirloom Vegetables, Guides, and CatalogsGardening for Hard TimesFurther Historical Sourcesacknowledgements

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