Sharing a love of the garden

Wesley Green loves to share his knowledge of 18th-century plants with visitors of all ages in the colonial garden on Duke of Gloucester Street. May 29, 2006


Lloyd Dobyns: It’s May, and we’re celebrating our first full year of podcasting on We’re pleased that you listen, and we appreciate your email. We’re still doing what you seem to enjoy on Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present, letting you meet “Behind the Scenes” the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Wesley Green, and in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, he’s a gardener, which is the simplest title I’ve ever used on this show. Obviously you are an interpretive gardener.

Wesley Green: Yes, I am.

Lloyd: Tell me what that entails.

Wesley: Well, at the colonial garden, which is just across the street from Bruton Parish Church, costumed interpreters interpret 18th-century gardens, plants, gardening techniques. We’re also a very kid-friendly site. The kids help me haul the water from the well, they put the water out with the watering cans; they pick the caterpillars off the cabbages, so this is a site where you can get your hands dirty.

Lloyd: Much to mother’s distress, I would assume. I have to ask this because I don’t know. Do you deal with vegetables, obviously with cabbage, do you deal with flowers, how do you know what you should plant at the garden?

Wesley: Well, what we interpret is a wealthy man’s garden, so we have vegetables, we have herbs; we have flowers; we have fruits; we have roses – everything that a gentleman would require. But we are very proud to have – I think – the best collection of heirloom vegetables of any museum in the country. I have vegetables from all over the world, for example, this year we are growing out a lettuce we received from the germplasm lab in St. Petersburg, Russia, so I can show vegetables here that you cannot see anywhere else.

Lloyd: Now, would that have been likely in the 18th century?

Wesley: Well, the fun thing about this is a very active transatlantic plant exchange which was going on in the 18th century, and by acquiring these plants from Europe we are continuing in that tradition, so trading plants throughout the world has long been the business of a gardener.

Lloyd: See, now there’s another thing I didn’t know – in the 18th century you went all over the world looking for stuff.

Wesley: Oh the gentry are wild to have these New World plants back in their own gardens – the phlox, the rudbeckias, lobelias, and those native vegetables of this country – the corn, the beans, the squash, the sweet potato – which are all native of the western hemisphere, and at the same time, we want the cabbages, and the radishes, and the carrots we knew from home, the lilacs, the daffodils which are blooming in the garden now, the crocus which we get from the London merchants, so there is a two-way exchange of plants.

Lloyd: How do you know what was there in the 18th century? Were there records kept?

Wesley: Well, that’s often very difficult, in the way of plants… now we do have some very good plant explorers, the Tradescants, John Clayton in Gloucester County who puts together herbarium specimens. We know the native plants they find. Vegetables are a little more difficult, as far as to variety, because vegetables are annuals so they are very susceptible to varietal extinction. So we are often forced to use facsimiles – vegetables that look like the 18th-century original which has now gone extinct. Another difficulty is in reading local diaries, for establishing the proper varieties of vegetables, say, what I invariably run into, is they are penning “Mr. Burl’s beans” and “Mrs. Campbell’s melons,” which tells me absolutely nothing about varieties but does point out the prevalence of not only saving your own seeds but sharing them with your neighbor, hence seed-saving was a much more important part of gardening then than what it is perhaps today.

Lloyd: I guess you can’t write off to Burpee’s and get 18th-century seed.

Wesley: All of the seed in our stores is coming from England, and that is expensive. Mr. Washington, for example – a very frugal gentleman – takes his gardener to task on several occasions for buying his seeds from England rather than raising them himself, which is what a gardener should do.

Lloyd: Do you raise them or buy them?

Wesley: We preserve about 40 varieties of heirloom vegetables, and then we purchase other vegetables from heirloom seed companies.

Lloyd: Do you shift year to year, like this year you’ve got this, and this, and this, and then next year you do this, and this, and this? Or do you do pretty much the same thing every year?

Wesley: Well, yes and no, it’s different with different varieties…this lettuce I spoke of, for example, I can only raise one variety of lettuce for seed at a time, because if I raise two, they’ll cross pollinate and I won’t get the pure strain back.

Lloyd: To a non-gardener, all this is a mystery. It never occurred to me they would cross pollinate, which obviously they would.

Wesley: There is a reason you get this varietal creep over time – because it is probably not as important for the 18th-century gardener to try to preserve that particular variety. They are selecting for the best specimen, and if a new type of lettuce with a better head or a better flavor arises, they’ll start saving seeds from that and abandon the old variety. That’s why heirloom varieties go extinct.

Lloyd: But that sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? If you are raising a garden to actually eat the fruit from it, then you would go for the best shape, the best taste, the best whatever came about…

Wesley: And I do that today – the tennis ball lettuce for example, which is ancestor to the modern Boston lettuce. When I save seeds from that, like my 18th-century predecessors, I only save it from the perfectly shaped heads…I try to save it from the very last ones to bolt the seeds, so I can get a slow boring strain, so after 15, 20 years, I am going to change this plant myself. So, these heirloom varieties we have, whether they are vegetables, or herbs, or flowers, are probably not exactly what Mr. Randolph knew – a very good gardener here in town in the 18th century – but the great-great granddaughters of the plant he knew.

Lloyd: Okay, you said earlier that when children came around it was a very kid-friendly place, and you let them haul the water, and so on…what do people want to know about an 18th-century garden?

Wesley: Well, the nice thing about a gardener…we estimate 40 to 50 percent of our visitors keep gardens at their home, whereas there are very few wheelwrights walking around the streets today…

Lloyd: (Laughs)

Wesley: …so this is something we can relate to, not only for the interest of the types of plants that I grow, the plants that I know they don’t know, the plants they know that I don’t know, but just helpful gardening hints in the garden – how I do it compared to how they do it – sometimes it’s a conversation about the 18th-century technique, but sometimes it’s a conversation about how they can make their own gardens better.

Lloyd: I don’t know this, so you’ll have to tell me – things that people do today – similar to, or not similar to gardening as done in the 18th century?

Wesley: The techniques are the same, the technology is different. For example, I have “hot beds” in my garden right now, which are pits 30 inches deep loaded with fresh horse manure which gives me a bottom heat and allows me to start my plants back in January within these frames. Now modern growers use electric heat tape under their seed flats to give a bottom heat and allow them to get their plants up and growing early on. I have row covers which are made from paper painted with linseed oil, which many people accuse me of using plastic – it looks very much like plastic. So, the techniques are often the same, the technology is different.

Lloyd: So paper with linseed oil looks the same as plastic?

Wesley: It looks very much the same.

Lloyd: Very much the same. That’s another thing I didn’t know. Kids – what do kids want to know?

Wesley: Kids, want to knowwell, first of all, we try to convince our kids the importance of eating vegetables, because vegetables were a sign of wealth in the 18th century – because of this water issue. We have a big tub in the middle of the garden that we start them off around, and I’ll ask them what this tub of water is for, and most of them will guess it’s for watering the garden. But then I will ask them, “How does that water get in there, do you think?” Most of them will say “rain.” And, I’ll say, “Well, I empty and fill this every day, I won’t get that much rain, where do you get your water from?” It’s surprising that there probably is not one in 20 kids under 16 years old who has any idea where water comes from. [They’ll say] “It comes from the tap; it comes from the hose…” It’s something we as a society have completely lost touch with, whereas in the 18th century, everybody knows where their water comes from because that is the limiting feature of gardening is your ability to move water…We turn on the hose today, and some people still have a hard time keeping their gardens alive. We will haul between four and five thousand pounds of water per day to keep our plants in a healthy condition in our garden, and I think this is an eye opener to a lot of kids – this very simple task…

Lloyd: …it’s an eye opener to me – that much per day?

Wesley: Per day. And of course, today I have kids haul the water. In the 18th century, this is done by slave labor, and slaves are expensive, so it’s only the wealthy who have the labor to haul the water that allows you to keep produce in the garden. And for that reason, as a general rule, the poorer you are, the more meat and grain you eat, and the richer you are the more vegetables you eat, so we are on a campaign to get the kids to eat their spinach.

Lloyd: Do you grow spinach?

Wesley: Oh, yes we do – several types.

Lloyd: If you do, then they did in the 18th century, I was always curious about that.

Wesley: Well, I grow both prickly seeded and smooth seeded spinach. Today, all spinach is smooth seeded.

Lloyd: Okay, flowers?

Wesley: Flowers are a mark of wealth and beauty and riches, as they have been since Egyptian times, but they are also a scientific pursuit, particularly among gentlemen of the 18th century. This is the Age of Enlightenment, and plants are coming into England from all over the world, and the gentry are wild to get these New World plants back into their own gardens. Linnaeus is putting together his taxonomic system in the 1730s and 1740s. He publishes the Species Plantarum in 1753, and this establishes the binomial system of genus and species – which we use to this very day – which to begin with, the English don’t accept, partially because who is this Swede – Mr. Linnaeus is Swedish – to tell us how to call our plants? We’ve used in the Raythean system for 100 years now; [the new system is] also thought to be somewhat obscene. The name taxonomy is based upon the reproductive parts of the flower. In the typical flower in the center is the pistil, or female structure, and arranged around her will be five, ten, 30, 50 anthers, or males. Well, the English are certain that the Creator in His wisdom would not pair up a single female with 10, 20 or 30 males – this is unseemly.

Lloyd: (Laughs)

Wesley: However, to discover that a New World maple shows the same reproductive parts in the flower as an Old World maple does, this system just makes too much sense to be ignored anywhere on the planet. So, in 1768 when Philip Miller – who writes the Gardeners Dictionary back in England, the most authoritative work of the time – after being a great critic of Mr. Linnaeus, that year he sees the light, and he moves over to Linnaean taxonomy. When he goes that way, we all have to go that way, because he is writing the reference works. So we are trying to understand this new taxonomic system, the relationships between the plants… So flowers grace the garden with beauty, they are a sign of riches, but they are also of scientific interest amongst gentlemen. And, four of our first five presidents were farmers – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe – so this is something they are very in tune with…

Lloyd: What’s the most popular flower? What makes people say “wow!”

Wesley: That’s like asking me what my favorite child is…it depends what time of the season. When the artichokes have their flower buds on them, they are a great marvel, when the Chase Tree is in bloom, it is a marvel. The Crape Myrtle is probably best known here in Williamsburg to our northern visitors in the fall time, because it does not grow much farther north of here, so it depends the time of season what is in bloom. The nice thing about a garden, it’s always a little bit different. This wheelwright makes a wheel pretty much the same way 12 months out of the year, but any time you come to a garden it’s a little bit different looking than the last time you were there.

Lloyd: Okay what does it look like in January, because I always thought there was no such thing as a garden in January?

Wesley: Oh in January, we have all the roots in the ground, the parsnips, the turnips, the salsify, the carrots, the radishes ready for the table, the collard greens, the kales, the spinach is still for plucking, as is the corn salad, and the cresses…so we can garden year round in this part of Virginia because our ground does not freeze. The beauty of a formal garden, which most of our gardens are, is that they are made of evergreen plants, the boxwood most notably, the green lawns, the light gray bark of the beech tree, for example, so there is a year-round appeal in a formal garden because of the greenery.

Lloyd: We still follow the modern system, the system I know for when tomatoes grow – oh, do you grow tomatoes?

Wesley: Well, Dr. de Sequeyra, the most eminent physician here in town, lately appointed as attending physician at the insane asylum, has brought us tomatoes from England, and they are a great curiosity here.

Lloyd: I always thought tomatoes were native, but they’re not?

Wesley: Tomatoes are native, your New World food crops, which we have never seen before we have come to this hemisphere are corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, potato, tomato, sweet potato, pepper, pineapple, and peanut. Now, when we arrive, the native people are growing the corn, the squash, the beans, and the sweet potato. Most of the rest of those crops go back to Europe first, and then come back to us, and that is the route the tomato takes. All of those crops are native to Central and South America. None of them are native to North America. The plants that are here have traveled up through the Indian trade.

Lloyd: Oh? Okay…

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

© 2015 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation