Gardens and Gardening Among the Pennsylvania Germans (Part 2)

By Alan G. Keyser.

Title image: Fragrant blumme, an heirloom shrub rose. Photo by Sarah Heffner.

The Province of the Housewife

The care of the garden and all decisions concerning it belonged to the woman of the house. The men did very little work in the garden. On some farms the men dug the garden or at least helped to dig, but in the majority of cases the men did nothing more than keep the fence in repair, haul the manure to the garden on the manure sled and throw it over the fence (Source: Interview of Cora Hasson of Frederick, PA, February 19, 1970). Most farms had a larger vegetable patch which was known as die lott or s schtick in which the men were of more assistance. Here were planted and cultivated potatoes, pole beans, and larger quantities of other garden vegetables.

The tilling of the early garden was entirely by hand. No horse or plow was ever allowed in a garden once it was established. A horse may have been used to plow the ground when establishing a new garden, but not after it was plowed the first time, a fence erected and a shovel used to take the ground out of the paths. This was done to place the level of the paths below that of the beds, and from here all work was by man or woman power. A spade or shovel was used almost exclusively in digging the garden. In some areas the garden was dug in the ascent of the moon so that the ground would stay loose (Source: Interview of Samuel R. Heller, Farmersville, PA, March 15, 1970).

The digging was done by turning over a shovel full of ground at a time in rows, being careful not to put the ground just removed back into the same row from which it came. It was placed in the row just previously dug. Doing this produced a ditch into which the manure could be placed. Manure was put into every second or third row while digging, and was covered with earth by the digging of the next row. The amount of manure used was determined by how maager the garden was (Source: Interview of Clint Moyer, Huffs Church, PA, April 4, 1970).

Several types of manure were used. Probably the type used in the early days was pig manure, because many of the people interviewed stated that it was preferred by their mothers. On the other hand some stated that pig manure made the soil too hard, but if wood ashes were applied before digging, it helped to loosen the ground. Others used cow, horse, or in some cases in later years chicken manure. Harry Stauffer said that they put all the wood ashes produced during the Winter onto the garden as they were taken from the stove. There was also a practice of putting wood ashes on the garden on Ash Wednesday (Source: Interview with Garret G. Keyser, Lucon, PA, February 8, 1960). This was to keep the bugs out of the garden. People also greased their garden spade with fastnacht lard before starting to dig garden in the belief that this practice would protect the vegetables from harmful insects and bugs (Source: Alfred L. Shoemaker, Eastertide in Pennsylvania, p. 11).

After three or six rows had been dug it was the practice to take the wooden barn rake and rake the large clods out. This process was continued until an entire bed or section had been dug and readied for planting.

Sue K. Kerr (in white apron) taking her two sisters-in-law for a walking tour of her garden near Schwenksville on a Sunday afternoon. Courtesy of Harold K Nice.

Garden Crops

Vegetable crops grown in early settlement gardens were those brought as seeds, roots or slips from Europe – cabbage, onions, beans, lettuce, endive, and peas. The native American crops such as potatoes, corn, beans, pumpkins, and melons were soon adopted, but their cultivation necessitated the introduction of another garden location, the patch or schtick. These plants were never truly accepted into the traditional garden. By the 19th century, a richer diversity of vegetables was grown – newer varieties of potatoes, celery, lettuce, spinach, lettuce, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes were developed and sought after. Tomatoes were considered poisonous when they were first introduced and they were not widely grown in Pennsylvania German gardens until the mid to late 1800s. Even into the 20th century there were a number of people who thought tomatoes were unfit to eat. “Why even the pigs won’t eat them.”

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

The planting and care of the garden

Onions were usually the first thing to be planted after the first bed had been dug. Marking the rows for planting onions was usually done by taking the straight-back edge of the wooden hay rake and pushing it lightly into the ground to form an indentation the length of the rake and at an inch deep. To continue the row a mark was made about six to eight inches from the first and parallel to it, and another parallel to that until the entire row had been marked. Usually three to four or more of these rows were planted with onions leaving just enough room to put the board on which one stood while planting. This board was usually three to four inches wide and the length of the square main beds in the garden. The art was being able to remain balanced on the board and not to fall or step into the prepared ground of the garden. Once the garden had been dug it was against all rules to have any foot marks on the garden. Footprints in the soil promoted compaction and germination of weed seeds.

When planting peas, another early spring crop, it is necessary to space the rows so that hecke or branches from trimming the fruit trees on the farm can be stuck between every other row. This is to allow the peas from two rows to climb the sticks. Some people also stuck the branches in the row immediately after the peas had been planted so that each row had its own row of hecke. People who did not have a farm large enough to have an orchard went into the woods to collect the dead branches and used them as supports for the pea stalks (Source: Interview of Emma Knerr, Delphi, PA, March 14, 1970).

The flower and ornamental plants were probably, in the older gardens, included in a blumme land or flowerbed, which was a portion of the narrow bed just inside the fence. However, some annuals were probably also grown on the center bed, if there was one, or scattered throughout the four main beds. Flowers were and still are a must for the gardener. The members of the herb or gegreiter bett were usually planted near the gate and included both medicinal and culinary plants. The teas were usually at the lowest part of the garden on the newwe land where there was the greatest amount of moisture available.

Gardener in her garden. Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center Collection.

Weeding and Watering

Weeds were a problem then as now. A broad hoe – breed hock – with a blade from eight to ten inches wide was used to scrape the paths and keep them completely free of weeds. A zinke hock – a hoe with two heavy tines spaced three inches apart directly opposite a three inch wide blade – was used to weed between the plants on the bed. The garden was never worked when the soil was wet, and some people wisely preferred not to work the garden in the heat of the day or when the plants were wet.

Watering was done only in extremely dry weather, and usually with a sprinkling can. The sprinkling can was used at least as early as the late 18th century if not earlier. The Gerhard Clemens diary for 1795 records that he gave his daughter Sara a sprinkling can. This manuscript is in the Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

The Second Crop and Seed Saving

In order to fully utilize the limited area in the garden a second crop was planted where the early crops had been harvested. The most common second crop was late cabbage, and was at times planted where the peas or early potatoes had been taken out. In Anna Weber’s diary she records the planting of winder salad amen auf das gugummer land – winter lettuce in the cucumber bed. (Source: Anna Weber of Akron, PA, manuscript diary 1864-1873 in possession of Alan G. Keyser. The earliest she records sowing the winter lettuce is August 24, St. Bartholomew, and the latest was September 15.)

The raising of seed from these open pollinated old varieties (today’s modern hybrids will not breed true to type) for the next year’s planting was a very important part of gardening. The production of seed from beans and peas was done by simply allowing some of the pods to remain on the plant until completely mature. For crops such as spinach, lettuce, and endive, several stalks were allowed to shoot to seed and mature. Once the seed had ripened the tall stalk was cut and hung upside down either on the porch or in the attic until it had dried. The seed heads were rubbed by hand to loosen the seeds, and the seeds were removed and stored in a dry place until spring. Biennial crops such as onions and beets were saved from the previous year and replanted to produce seed.


Pennsylvania German settlers early on acquired a reputation for hard work and careful stewardship of the land and their gardens reflected these beliefs. The “dressing” of a garden was second nature to most and gardens were a reminder of the connection to the Creator. Could there be a symbolic tie between the four paths and the four rivers of the Garden of Eden, between our garden and the Garden of Eden? Not nearly all the aspects of gardens and gardening have been covered here, but it is hoped that we have presented enough of an outline that those interested in recreating or restoring a traditional Pennsylvania German garden are aided by this article.

Editor’s note: The full article with an extensive list of Pennsylvania German garden plants appeared in Pennsylvania Folklife, Vol. XX, No. 3 (Spring 1971), pp 2-15, and can be found at:

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

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