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!

John Askin’s Garden: Potatoes

Potato Flower

Although most food was purchased and shipped to Michilimackinac, local gardens provided an important source of fresh produce for the community’s 18th century residents. We currently maintain over 5,000 square feet of gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac, guided by a variety of historic sources. One of the most interesting 18th century documents at our disposal is the journal of the Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, who recorded his garden activities in 1774 and 1775. In this semi-regular series, we’ll examine some of the plants Askin (or more likely the free and enslaved employees working for him) was cultivating at Michilimackinac in the 1770s.

Askin really liked growing potatoes. They are the most-mentioned vegetable in his journal. If he wrote about his farm or garden, it was highly likely that he was writing about potatoes.

They are first mentioned on April 27, 1774 when he “Sett potatoes at the farm” and once more the next day “sett potatoes at the farm.”  The next month he planted more potatoes on four different occasions. It appears they grew well over the summer, and he was able to dig most of them on the 8th of November just a couple of days after a 4-inch snowfall. We finally see the last mention of in 1774 on November 14 when he “dug the last of my potatoes.”

With one season of cultivation under his belt, Askin decided that he could perhaps get a better potato crop if he changed the ways in which he was planting them. In 1775 he decided to try some experiments. Experimenting in the garden or on the farm is something that growers love, no matter the time period. In the 18th century there was a huge interest in how things grew and the various ways of improving crops. Gardeners around the world were developing new methods for growing plants and it is no surprise that it was happening at Michilimackinac as well.

On August 29, 1775, Askin wrote that the potatoes were put into the ground “with a little dung in the holes.” This is different from his previous entries where he does not mention planting with any sort of manure at all. Gardeners like Philip Miller wrote pages and pages about the worth of various sorts of animal and vegetable manure in the 18th century. Even George Washington experimented with various types of muck to see which would grow the best beans, etc. While Askin does not tell us the sort that he used, he did have a small number of cows and horses. Both animals produce excellent dung with superb growing qualities.

Digging up potatoes at Colonial Michilimackinac.

He also “Set three hills of potatoes near the pease” on October 28. In each of these hills he employed a different method of planting. In the first hill he put “one potatoe cut in 3,” and in the second and third hills he put “3 whole potatoes” about “4 inches deep.” Modern gardeners still debate over the necessity and results of planting potatoes whole versus cutting them into pieces. It seems like cutting the potatoes can potentially leave the pieces more vulnerable to disease. However, if you have a small amount available to plant you will get more by dividing the tubers that you do have. Unfortunately, John himself did not tell us which side of the debate he stood on after his experiments.

No matter how you plant them, potatoes are a welcome addition to any garden. They are an easy and reliable vegetable to grow whether it is 1774, 1775 or 2020. The next time you come to Colonial Michilimackinac see if you can spot the potatoes growing in our gardens in the same way they were being grown nearly 250 years ago. Check back for future entries about other parts of John Askin’s garden, and consider contributing to Mackinac Associates, which makes our gardens and many other activities possible.

What’s Growing in the Garden? Lovage!

   While lovage is not seen much in gardens today, our ancestors would have likely been familiar with this useful plant. It appears in gardening books, cookbooks, and medicinal recipes dating as far back as the Roman Empire. Today, we grow it in the gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac.

Lovage sprout in April.

   Lovage tastes something like a cross between parsley and celery, with a very strong flavor. All parts of the plant can be used for a variety of recipes. The dried seeds are delicious when they are used like caraway in breads or cakes. The roots can be chopped up and added to soups, the stalks are delicious when candied, and the leaves are great in soups and salads or with cheese and eggs. In addition to being used as a food, medicinal recipes claimed that lovage could help with hysteria, reduce freckles, cure stomach aches, and even help with bladder issues.

   This perennial just started to make its way out of the earth in April. Those little sprouts are now 5-7 feet tall and tower over every other plant in the garden. The flowers draw pollinators, which are incredibly beneficial to the garden. We are using lovage in our foodways programs, so stop by and see this interesting and valuable plant. Visit our website for more information, and be sure to check out Mackinac Associates, a friends group which makes many of our activities, including the gardens, possible.

What’s Blooming at Historic Mill Creek?

What’s Blooming at Historic Mill Creek?

Yellow Lady Slipper

Yes, spring has arrived in the north woods, where an abundance of beautiful wildflowers are now covering the forest floor. At Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the Yellow Trout-lily are at their peak. The Marsh Marigold are in full bloom along the edge of the stream, while the Large-flowered Trillium and the smaller Nodding Trillium are starting to bloom. Even the beautiful Jack-in-the -Pulpit are making their appearance. (more…)

Special Events at Colonial Michilimackinac

Special Events at Colonial Michilimackinac

Although there aren’t any big anniversaries to celebrate this year, there will be a number of exciting special events throughout the summer at Colonial Michilimackinac. From June to September, two weekends each month will highlight a different aspect of the site’s history with special programs and activities.

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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…)