In colonial days, the size of kitchen gardens varied in proportion to the size of the family. Most vegetables needed on a small scale were grown in a fenced-in area near the house, In the northern climates, such gardens were usually situated on a gentle eastern or southern slope. Often separate sites were chosen for certain plants rather than haying all planted in one large unit. Drainage, early sun and freedom from tree roots or shade were major considerations in the choice of location. Raised beds on both sides of a path were typical with walks of tamped earth, gravel, clam shells or similar material.
The vegetables planted in the early days were perennial types as well as both hardy and tender annuals. They could be grouped further into leafy or root types.
Perennials were valued for their permanence and availability in the early part of the growing season after the family had been without fresh produce during the long winter. Rhubarb, comfrey, leek and asparagus were common examples of the leafy types. .Certain perennial root crops such as parsnips, skirrets and horseradish could be dug as needed when weather permitted.
On the other hand, annuals required saving seed and sewing the seed each spring. Hardy types could withstand early frost and so could be sown early if the soil was not too wet and cold. Peas are the prime example, especially since they grow best in cool weather. Radishes, beets, chard, kale, leaf lettuce, cabbage, carrots, leeks and turnips also fall into this category. Onions from onion sets could be reliable for a quick start.
The tender plants could be sown after the danger of frost had passed. Beans are a prime example. Only pole beans like the Indians had planted were available. Today the Scarlet Runner bean is only slightly different from that of the early days, but many other vegetable varieties have undergone considerable change over the years of commercial production. Head lettuce and snap beans are typical latter day developments. On the other hand, herbs are the least altered.
Pumpkins, squash, field corn and grains were field crops unsuitable to the limited area of the kitchen garden.
As members of the nightshade family, tomatoes were considered poisonous until well into the 1800’s. Although potatoes came to Europe from South America, they did not gain popularity in the early times. The Jerusalem artichoke which is really a sunflower was planted for its starchy root following the example of the Indians. Sweet corn was not around in the early period either. In addition, these plants were too large or invasive for kitchen garden planting.