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.

Outside the Walls: The “Subarbs” of Michilimackinac

Outside the Walls: The “Subarbs” of Michilimackinac

In the 18th century, the summer population of Michilimackinac could swell into the thousands as voyageurs, clerks, merchants, and other French-Canadian, British, and Native American participants in the fur trade descended on the post for the annual trading season. Given the relatively small size of the town inside the fort’s walls, where did all of these people live? By the 1760s, a growing collection of homes sprang up east of the fort, creating the suburbs of Michilimackinac.  (more…)