Gardens and Gardening among the Pennsylvania Germans (Part 1)

By Alan G. Keyser.

Title image: The Pennsylvania German garden at the Goschenhoppen Historians’ 1736 Henry Antes House, Perkiomenville, PA.

A Pennsylvania German garden is not the elaborate pleasure garden so often described in the histories of gardening, but a farm kitchen garden containing vegetables, culinary herbs, flowers, and medicinal plants. It was in some ways a pleasure garden for the woman who kept it and the children who helped. According to Roy Hendricks of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, they always looked forward to spring when the garden could again be cultivated, and theirs was not by any means the only family to feel this way. A common practice according to almost everyone interviewed about gardens was that of the Sunday afternoon tour of the garden. Whenever the housewife, who was the keeper of the garden, had women visitors they were almost forced into going out to see how the garden was progressing. Women took great pride in their garden almost to the extent of a declared competition.

Eli & Anna Wismer family and garden, Bucks County, circa 1890. Courtesy of Glenn Wismer.

Early Gardens

Two of the most important items of consideration when locating the house on an early settlement site were the availability of water and a well drained area with the proper exposure for a garden. In German and Swiss sources it is possible to find some descriptions of similar gardens in Europe. There the garden was always “close at hand so the housewife could keep watch over the beds from the window or door.” It was also “on the sunny side of the house.” Here too in Pennsylvania the old garden was located near the early farmhouse and usually either northeast, east, southeast, south or southwest of the dwelling. They were also located on mildly sloping terrain to provide good drainage and prevent the water from gathering in low places on the paths.

Pennsylvania German garden at the Antes House.


Surrounding most farm gardens was in the earlier days a wooden fence and more recently a wire mesh fence. Some, however, had a stone wall with a board coping. (John Gehman, in his manuscript diary now in the collection of the Mennonite Heritage Center, wrote: “March 1844, the carpenters are finished with the roof on the garden wall.”) The wooden fences were basically a rail fence with pickets nailed to the rails. It was similar to the rail fence which enclosed the fields of the farmstead in that the posts were of either chestnut or locust wood hewn with a broad axe on four sides above the ground. The posts were set eleven feet apart and thus the size of the garden was to some degree determined by the early methods of fence construction. Each fence post had two rectangular holes for twelve foot long chestnut rails. The size of a garden was measured in panels. They were usually either a five or six panel garden measuring 55 or 66 feet square. A four-panel garden was rather small for a family of any size, and a garden of more than six panels was considered a large garden and very unusual. Vertical pickets were nailed to the outside of the chestnut rails leaving a space of one inch to an inch and a quarter between them. Pickets were of chestnut, oak, pine, and even black walnut. (Information from interviews with Harry F. Stauffer and Samuel R. Heller, Farmersville, PA, 1970, and Frank Heinsy, Reinholds, PA, 1965.)

We have not been able to ascertain if the fences were whitewashed in the 18th century as they most certainly were in the 19th. Whitewashing the fence was a job which had to be performed every spring, and many children dreaded the thought of it. This duty was performed primarily by the children but occasionally die Dietsche (tramps) were persuaded to help whitewash.

There was generally but one opening through the fence into the garden – the gate, The gate was usually just a bit wider than the wheelbarrow used on the farm. This was the largest object which had to be brought into the garden, and thus determined the minimum width of the gate. The purpose of the pale fence or glabbordfens was to keep the barnyard animals out of the garden, especially the chickens. In the spring one of the first things to be done in the garden was to make sure the fence was “chick-proof”. This was done by putting a board along the ground attached to the inside of the fence to close any holes between the bottom of the fence and the ground. By thus keeping the chicks out of the garden the mother hen did her scratching elsewhere.

Garden bed layout in the Pennsylvania German garden at the Antes House.

The layout of the garden

From European sources we get a description of the layout of the counterpart of our Pennsylvania garden. E. L. Rochholz describes the old German garden as having a “foot wide path which bisects the garden lengthwise and is crossed at right angles in the middle by a second [path], thereby dividing every garden into four main fields which are called beds. In the center of the four beds on the cross path stands the rosemary plant on her own boxwood enclosed circular bed.” (Rochholz, Deutscher Glaube und Brauch im Spiegel der Heidnischen Vorzeit, Berlin, 1867, II, p. 126)

Herman Christ describes the Swiss garden as “approximately square, divided by a cross path, and similar side paths which continue around the edge. While the four inner areas divided into beds serve for the cultivation of vegetables, the area extending around the main middle paths and going between the fence and the border path is a narrow bed for aromatic and medicinal herbs and flowers. The main paths are often lined with boxwood which is carefully trimmed and kept to a height of eight inches.” (Christ, Zur Geschichte des Alten Bauern Gartens der Schweiz und Angrenzenden Gegenden, 1923, p. 13)

The round bed in the middle of the garden was probably the exception rather than the rule in Pennsylvania. It reportedly occurred rather frequently in Lancaster County, but I have not encountered it elsewhere. The gardens which did not contain this four foot round bed did have either herbs or flowers planted on at least one if not all four corners of the cross paths in the center of the garden. (Interview with Hattie K. Brunner of Reinholds, 1970; and interview of Roy Hendricks by William P. Stein, 1970.)

In later years the four-bed garden on some farms lost the path around four main beds. Doing this eliminated the narrow bed along the fence and put the herbs and woody shrubs into the four main beds. Still later in some gardens one or both sides of the secondary crosspath was eliminated thus producing a garden with one or two long beds and one path. Since the advent of the garden tractors even this main path has disappeared in all but a few gardens.

Another style of this garden in the earlier days developed six beds instead of the standard four. These gardens with six beds in some instances developed by adding two square beds to one side of the already existing four-bed garden. This was most probably done at the time the head of the household retired from farming and turned the farm over to a younger member of the family. When this was done the younger member and his family got the old four-bed garden and the retired head of the household and his wife took the newly added two beds as their garden. Christian Stettler of Frederick Township, Montgomery County, in his will of February 12, 1812, left his widow “one third part of the kitchen garden to be taken at the lower end which is to be manured as the other part of the garden by the possessor of my plantation….” Here Stettler is leaving his wife their two beds in the garden.

The paths in these gardens range in width from one and a half to two feet, and are kept completely free of weeds and grass by hoeing. In most cases nothing was put on the paths to control the weeds, but in some cases, however, sawdust was gotten at the sawmill and put into the paths. In still another instance tanbark was purchased at the tannery and put on the paths. The surface of the beds where the plants were grown was elevated usually from six to eight inches above the paths. The early and most widely used method of keeping the sides of the beds was to slope the ground on about a 60 degree angle. The angle of these beds was kept as nearly uniform as possible throughout the garden. Much time was spent by the house wife making sure that the edges of the beds were straight and the sloping sides neat. Some women even went to the extremes of running strings to keep the edges of the beds straight.

This article is excerpted from the original which appeared in Pennsylvania Folklife Vol. XX, No. 3 (Spring 1971), pp 2-15, and is reprinted here with permission of Ursinus College and the author.

Goschenhoppen historian Alan Keyser has researched and written extensively on Pennsylvania German folk life topics, with special concentration on food and textiles.

One thought on “Gardens and Gardening among the Pennsylvania Germans (Part 1)

  1. My grandmother always had you walk the garden, mostly flowers when you were there to visit, and my Dad enjoyed doing the same flower and veggie.


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