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Backwoods Gardening

December 12, 2023

The Langton's Blythe Farm was one of the few mid nineteenth century properties that were deliberately landscaped, Anne Langton watercolour (Archives of Ontario).

For the immigrant families migrating to the Kawarthas in the 1830s, gardening was a necessity of life. Salt pork was imported (generally with a high fat product, as was then desirable) and could help sustain people until farms had developed sufficiently to for the residents to subsist. But potatoes were the dietary staple, as were the root vegetables that kept well, like carrots. Until the advent of refrigeration and long-distance trucking, diets were monotonous, except in summer. For generations, farm families largely got by on meat, potatoes, carrots and onions. To the extent that families had a garden, it could make their lives much more enjoyable.

An apple tree was an early investment that many families made. But as immigrants were coming from Britain and the United States, many of the preferred varieties of plants and animals were not suited to the Canadian climate. Through many difficult years of trial and error, these new Canadians learned what would grow and what would not. Though wild crab apples were fairly common in the area, their fruit was sour, and people preferred Eurasian apples. But most of the varieties from England were not hardy enough to survive in New England, let alone in Canada.

In the early nineteenth century, the Ribston Pippin fared better than most British apple trees, but in the decades that followed, Russian apple trees were found to be better suited to Canada. By 1827, William Custead had a nursery at York, but many of the plants were of questionable hardiness. By 1848, there was an agent at Peterborough selling fruit trees, grapes, gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, asparagus, shrubs, roses, dahlias and many flowers. By 1861, John Gilmour had a nursery at Peterborough, with an agent at Lindsay. From the 1870s itinerant salesmen travelled the countryside selling nursery stock or grafting apple scions onto local trees. In 1882, Fenelon Falls’ William Robson was marketing apple trees for 15 cents each. By then, many varieties were available locally that would be common for years to come, including the Golden Russet, Snow (Fameuse), Northern Spy, Red Astrachan, Alexander and Tolman’s Sweet. In the years the followed, the Wealthy, Yellow Transparent, Gravenstein and McIntosh became popular.

For the generation that immigrated to make farms from the forest, vegetable seeds were precious indeed, and might be one of the few things that would be brought out. Families were of course careful to save seeds and cuttings so they could propagate plants for the next year. By the end of the nineteenth century, seeds were available for purchase at local stores.

The Kawartha Lakes were unusual in having many migrants in the 1830s who aspired to live as gentry. Often younger children who would not inherit the family fortune back home, they were typically not wealthy enough to live among the elite in Britain, but hoped that by emigrating they could become part of a colonial elite. These aspiring gentry, who were fortunate enough to be able to hire help, could actually find the time to concern themselves with the aesthetics of their properties.

Not only was it laborious to clear land and grub out the roots so they could plant a flower garden, local gentry would go to considerable trouble and expense importing flowers and shrubs to the region. The Langton family (author and artist Anne was known as A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada,her brother John was later Canada’s first Auditor General) planted tulips, hyacinths and lavender, and had vines and ‘rose-trees’ surrounding their porch. They also collected wild flowers to grow in flower boxes, and employed a gardener. They used the wood chips made by their choppers as a sort of mulch. The neighbouring Dunsford Family grew roses at the Beehive (now Eganridge Resort).

By the end of the nineteenth century, the comforts that had once been the status symbols of an aspiring elite—living in multi-room houses, having friends over for tea, or planting a flower garden—were coming within reach of many more families. Flower gardens were treasured, as horticultural societies sprung up. Many gardeners would proudly exhibit their blooms at the local fair or flower show. By the end of the nineteenth century, common flowers included: hyacinths, tulips, lilies, roses, tea roses, rugosa roses, prairie-rose, butter-and-eggs, chrysanthemum, blue chimney bellflower, gladiolus, peony, bouncing bet, zinnias, marigolds, Virginia creeper, scarlet runner, morning glory, wild honeysuckle, sweet pea and dahlias. Lilacs were the most common shrubs, and snowball bushes graced many homesteads. Towards the end of the century, hedges were also becoming popular, using cedar, spruce and hawthorn (which was a traditional British hedging plant, especially for hedges designed to hold livestock).

As families were developing their vegetable gardens, many started to cultivate small fruits. Wild strawberries and raspberries were both common, which made these less appealing as cultivars. Blueberries were also common to the north on the fringe of the Canadian Shield. In summer many families would go berry picking, which was not just a pleasant outing. Having berries made for a wonderful treat, and preserves could be used to bake a pie come winter. The strawberries that had been grown in Europe did not transplant well to North America. Later on, many of the cultivars that became common were developed from Chilean berries (perhaps crossed with North American plants). Raspberries were a more common early cultivar, while blueberries were not.

Currants and gooseberries were among the first fruits introduced to the European colonies in North America. European currants were used to produce new varieties more suited to the continent, and almost all of the improved cultivars were derived from European plants. The native black currant produced similar fruit to the European, but not as large, and was found to have a “rank taste.” Native red currants were unusual, but received more favourably. Many families tried to raise English gooseberries, only to see them mildew “which often destroys the promise of a fine crop.” By mid-century, European gooseberries had been largely supplanted in the United States, though they persisted a while longer in the Kawarthas.

Grapes were another garden plant that did not transfer well to the Americas from Europe, except on the Pacific Coast—downy mildew, black rot and phylloxera louse proved lethal. In the nineteenth century, improved American grapes were brought to Lindsay, but they tended to die out over winter. Thus local families to get by on wild grapes. Pears were less common than apples, being derived from Belgian and French plants. The Bartlett (Bon Chretien in France) was the most common variety, but again of marginal hardiness. Sweet cherries were too tender to grow in the area, though some families grew sour cherries. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Morellos and Maydukes were the most common varieties. The Montmorency, originally from France, subsequently grew in popularity. The challenges of growing cherries were that birds often got to the crop first, while trees died of black knot. Families could be fined $10 or $20 for failing to prune and burn affected limbs—a considerable sum in those days. The varieties of plums that were commonly available in the nineteenth century tended not to be able to survive winter in the Kawarthas.

Because gardening was so important to the subsistence of local families, insect outbreaks were treated very seriously. Starting in 1874, the Colorado beetle attacked local potato and tomato crops, plagues that would last well into the twentieth century. Damage was spotty, as one farm might lose heavily while its neighbours escaped unscathed. The loss of a potato crop could be catastrophic for a family. In the days before insecticides, insects were often combatted manually, which was tedious work, and it was very difficult to truly free a garden of bugs. At the end of the century, Paris Green (arsenic) became common as an insecticide. This was one of the most common and potent nineteenth century poisons, also a blue-green pigment for painting—its name came from its use as a rat killer in Parisian sewers.

Historically, the reason that children had summer off from school was to help their parents get in the harvest—it was a necessary part of the cycle of life. From the time that the hay and the berries started to ripen in late June until fall, practically every family worked day after day to bring in and preserve everything for winter. After many long hours of work, a family would have the comfort of a cellar filled with many types of pickles, jars of fruit and vegetables. These preserves would be treats come winter, providing a little variety to accompany meat, potatoes, onions and carrots.

Though at first glance, it might seem like the many of the plants and animals that were common in Europe were brought over to North America and thrived, many of the plants and animals that would become common in the Kawarthas were not actually the same ones that were grown in Europe. It often took a generation or more for farmers to work through how to farm in their new environs.

As many farmers were working towards determining the combination of varieties that could thrive in the Kawarthas, many new species were brought to the region. Some of the plants were brought deliberately, others tagged along as contaminants in seeds, which were notoriously impure in the nineteenth century. Others like earthworms, few thought twice about. While families were busy trying to figure out how to get by, the environmental changes that were caused by the introduction of agriculture and horticulture often went unnoticed. Who would have thought that the sun would never again set on the empire of the dandelion? Many of the species that did conspicuously well were exotic weeds. Before long, roughly one third of all species were exotics. Today, the lilacs that grace old homesteads and buckthorns that line so many fencerows are both ornamental cultivars that have become naturalized.  

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