The Historian: New Hanover kitchen garden

A view of New Hanover Historical Society's kitchen garden with the summer kitchen.
A view of New Hanover Historical Society's kitchen garden with the summer kitchen.

Visitors to New Hanover Township’s Swamp Creek Park on Reifsnyder Road may notice the ongoing restoration of an 1850 “summer kitchen,” the only remaining structure of an earlier farmstead on that site. To complement the restored Germanic bake oven and cooking hearth of the kitchen, New Hanover Historical Society members recreated an authentic 1850’s era kitchen garden on the eastern side of the house. The garden helps to interpret and explain domestic life in 19th century New Hanover. Planted there are mainly those species and varieties that would have been in a typical 1850’s era garden in this area.

It’s safe to say that beginning with settlement around 1720 every house had a fenced kitchen garden. The house site itself would have been determined with an eye to the future garden. Near the eastern or southern side of the house the Dutchman wanted good, gently sloping ground. In addition to the kitchen garden there was usually an unfenced field “patch” where the necessarily large quantity of cabbages, turnips and later potatoes and sweet corn would be planted.

In the early 18th century, the garden site was usually fenced with four foot high boards, called pales, split from white oak, walnut, or ,usually, chestnut logs. The fence was an absolute necessity as livestock roamed free.

As fences evolved in the later 18th century, the rough pales gave way to pickets, which in the 19th century were usually whitewashed every spring along with everything else around the farmyard. The white oak picket fence enclosing the New Hanover garden was erected in 2011 as an Eagle Scout project by neighbor Nick Antonelli.


Within the New Hanover garden, vegetable plantings are done on square beds raised about six inches above the paths that surround them. An outside path runs around the whole garden interior about two feet from the fence. Between the fence and this path are no fewer than thirty-three different species of plants: culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, woody perennials, and, traditionally, flowers.

Flowers were a must for every Pennsylvania German housewife. In the older gardens, no doubt, the narrow beds held a section of “blumme land” or flower bed. Since these beds were not spaded in the spring they held the perennials as well as some annuals. At New Hanover we find the flowers Madonna lily, bee balm, crocus, blackberry lily and others.

Woody perennials such as gooseberry and hop vines are planted inside or just outside the fence which provides a trellis. Many of these perennials form canes that can lean against or be tied to the fence.

Of the medicinal herbs there is seemingly no end. It has been said that in the old days, if a family member became sick the first thing the housewife tried was medicinal herbs and teas. If that didn’t work she might try the local braucher or as we would say “pow-wow” healer. If that didn’t work they went for the doctor as a last resort. Christopher Sauer, a Germantown printer, wrote about herbs in his 1767 almanac: “Because among all cures…there are none more harmless, surer, and cheaper than the simple herbs. Thus the careful housewife will be well served and laudable when she creates a small herb garden or an herb bed in her kitchen garden, with which she can serve not only her own household and livestock; but also the poor neighbors in case of need….

Along with the medicinal and culinary herbs, the kitchen garden also has blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus), a holy herb whose presence was said to protect the garden. Sedum purpureum, because it was believed to shield buildings from lightning strikes, is planted on the right side of the garden gate—one farm was reported to have it planted to the right of every entrance in the yard, including the dog house.

In 1850 the calendar dictated the days for planting and harvesting. Hops were picked during the last days of August because a September wind blowing over them would weaken their strong flavor. The New Hanover hop vines ascend a fifteen foot high cedar post. The harvested hop catkins act in concert with natural yeasts to flavor and raise bread dough.

Most 19th century gardeners followed the phases of the moon, studied the almanac for the special days of the church year, and observed natural phenomena such as rainbows. Flower seeds, for example, were kept at hand to plant while a rainbow arched through the sky, in the belief that especially beautiful and colorful blooms would result.

Particular thanks to garden volunteers Jack Bell and Jacquelyn Daley for creating and maintaining this beautiful educational resource.