John Askin’s Garden: Onions

  John Askin’s journal, as mentioned in a previous post, is full of all sorts of notes about 18th century life at Michilimackinac. The document is especially useful for understanding the ways in which people were gardening. Today, let’s look at another of the vegetables Askin grew in his garden: onions.

Onions first appear in the journal on April 29, 1774, when Askin “planted onions for seed.” This is one of the only places in the historic record that we see someone at Michilimackinac specifically growing plants for seed. Growing your own seed is an investment in the future, and this entry reveals that Askin had no intention of stopping his gardening activities any time soon.

The actual practice of growing your own seed was well-known to 18th century gardeners. Many garden writers of the time believed that seed grown in North America would deteriorate after a few years and preferred to get their seeds from European sources. By the 1770s, seed companies were selling paper packets that most gardeners would be familiar with today. Customers wrote a letter to request seeds and they were sent along accordingly. Onion seed could be a little tricky to source from so far away. The seed itself is less likely to sprout after a year and transportation from Europe could be slow.

The next day, April 30, Askin noted that he “sowed onion seed.” These seeds may very well have come from a previous years’ stock or could possibly have been purchased. In any case, gardening manuals recommended that the seeds be planted with plenty of space between the rows in open soil. If he were following the common practice, Askin would have also been very, very careful about keeping the tiny onions weeded once they came up. Newly sprouted plants are very fragile, and onions have shallow roots that can easily be damaged by disturbing the soil around them. Because of this, most garden manuals dramatically warned against allowing weeds to get into the onion patch and recommended regular and diligent weeding.

We do not know how Askin’s 1774 crop turned out, but in early May of 1775 he “sowed parsley, beets, Onions, lettice and Barley seeds.” Surprisingly, the very next day brought “Cold Weather frost and Snow more than Common at this Season.” That sort of weather was obviously not ideal for a newly-planted spring garden. Onions are generally cold hardy plants and can be set out relatively early in the season, but do need warmer soil temperatures to germinate. The cold weather likely set the garden back a little.

Aside from John Askin, we know other people in Canada were also growing onions and liked eating them fairly often. Travelers like Pehr Kalm mention them being grown and eaten in 1740s Canada, so much so that he could smell the scent of onion clinging to the clothing of people as they passed him on the street. The vegetable was also commonly found in gardens in the English colonies, and onions were one of the first garden vegetables cultivated regularly by the British in North America.

Onions are valued for being easy to grow and having a wide range of uses in the kitchen. Today at Michilimackinac we are lucky to have sources like John Askin’s journal to inform us about the tasty vegetables that the fur traders and merchants were gardening with in the 18th century. Stop by and see how they are growing at Colonial Michilimackinac next summer. Our onions (and the rest of the Michilimackinac gardens) are made possible in part through the generosity of Mackinac Associates– if you’ve ever admired our historic gardens, consider joining the Associates!

What’s Growing in the Garden? Carrots!

Carrots in the ground.

We have begun our spring cleanup of the gardens at Michilimackinac! It Is the best time. Every year we find a few unexpected things, and this week we came across a number of forgotten carrots. We are usually quite meticulous about digging our root vegetables and storing them for use later, but it seems that these escaped our shovel. Surprise!

What will these be used for? Well, 18th century sources abound with recipes and uses for carrots. Some books recommended them as a cure for everything from cancer to asthma. Cooks turned the root vegetable into puddings, added them to soups, and used them in salads. One of our favorite historic ways to use carrots is from a recipe by E. Smith that was published in the Compleat Housewife in 1736:

To make Carrot or Parsnip Puffs

Scrape and boil your carrots or parsnips tender; then scrape or mash them very fine, add to a pint of pulp the crumb of a penny-loaf grated, or some stale biscuit, if you have it, some eggs, but four whites, a nutmeg grated, some orange-flower water, sugar to your taste, a little sack, and mix it up with thick cream. They must be fry’d in rendered suet, the liquor very hot when you put them in; put in a good spoonful in a place.

They end up being sweet and deliciously greasy.

While it is not uncommon for root vegetables to winter over in the gardens at Michilimackinac, it still always seems like something that shouldn’t be possible. Check back later to see what other things are happening this spring at Michilimackinac. If you would like to help support our gardens and other activities at all of our historic sites, consider joining Mackinac Associates, and visit our website for tickets and more information.

Greening Michilimackinac

Greening Michilimackinac

If you have visited Colonial Michilimackinac in recent years, you have probably noticed some changes to the site. We have a whole new building, bigger than any that had previously been reconstructed, new tours, programs and updated exhibits. We excavate every day in the summer, learn as much as we can from the artifacts that we find, and apply that information to ultimately reconstructing the buildings and the life that was there 250-300 years ago. But that word “life” can be tricky. What makes a neighborhood, village or city alive? Our staff believes that in addition to presenting a collection of buildings and artifacts, we can also share the smells, tastes and sounds of historic Michilimackinac. We have taken the challenge of making Michilimackinac come alive very literally. Commanding Officer's Gardens

Plants and Trellis Right now there are 13 recreated gardens inside the fort’s palisade. Some are small or some, like the commanding officers’ garden, are actually quite large, containing 16 beds centered around a brass sundial and totaling around 785 square feet. All the gardens big and small in the 1770s were a source of food, medicine and household supplies. Due to the small space and diverse nature of food and household needs, many types of plants were tucked in together. One example of this is found in a small backyard garden that belonged to a French fur trader. In it there are planted chives, radishes and violets. (more…)