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Garden Agriculture in Newfoundland

Garden agriculture is a system of agriculture where crops in a community or a society generally are grown in gardens rather than in fields. Hence, garden agriculture is common in areas where large arable fields don't exist.

John Guy engaged in garden agriculture in 1610 at his plantation in Cupids, but some of the best early information about garden agriculture in Newfoundland comes from Edward Wynne's experience at Ferryland. When Captain Edward Wynne and about a dozen settlers arrived in Ferryland in 1621, their intent was to establish a community in preparation for the arrival of their sponsor George Calvert (later Lord Baltimore) a few years later. In the spring of 1622, the colonists set out to create a large garden to feed themselves, and later Captain Wynne was able to report back to England, "We have a plentiful kitchin garden of Lettice, Raddish, Carrets, Coleworts, Turneps and many other things." Although potatoes were introduced to England in 1537, they didn't gain widespread acceptance until the 1700s after they had been improved by breeding, and thus they weren't among the first crops grown at Ferryland.

The 'kitchin garden' at Ferryland, with its raised beds, wattle (interlaced wood) fence to protect against animals, and close proximity to the main dwelling remained the true-type Newfoundland garden until the introduction of potatoes. Potatoes weren't planted in the kitchen garden, but rather they were planted some distance away. The kitchen garden was harvested as the plants matured and the need arose throughout the summer, while potatoes were harvested in the autumn.

By 1800, Newfoundland's population had reached about 10,000 people and garden agriculture produced much of the food that was consumed on the island. With fish and kelp for fertiliser, anchors (occasionally) for ploughs, and boats for the roofs of vegetable cellars in winter, little food needed to be imported except chiefly for flour, sugar, and tea.

Potatoes became the staple food in the 1800s. About 100 years later, in 1935, at a time when wages were low and it was financially worthwhile to grow them, the census shows us that more than 100,000,000 pounds of potatoes (on about 2500 acres) were produced in Newfoundland. Gardening was done between breaks in other work, and the planting and harvesting of potatoes was done by 'crowds' of people over a span of a day or two.

Garden agriculture declined in Newfoundland with the arrival of jobs that paid regular wages. The construction of the Newfoundland Railway in the late 1800s, the opening of the iron mines on Bell Island in 1898, and both World Wars provided opportunities for people to leave their gardens and to buy (rather than to grow) crops. The 1955 Royal Commission on Agriculture in Newfoundland concluded that garden agriculture was a sign of a depressed economy. In the 1950s and 1960s, many young Newfoundlanders (apprentice gardeners) left home for the rest of Canada. By 1980, only 1 in 5 homes in Newfoundland had a garden.

Today, garden agriculture in Newfoundland, with some exceptions, has largely become one and same with gardening itself, one of the most popular recreational pastimes in the world.

St. John's Farmer's Market

February 5, 2004


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